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Trump’s NATO question is a fair one
President Donald Trump has entered our lives like an asteroid entering the stratosphere. When a giant rock hit the earth millions of years ago, the explosions from its impacts led to dense fog and filthy air. Imagine it: tons and tons of debris sent into the atmosphere, circling the planet for years. All the fuss about NATO is part of that cloud that’s tossed up into the air. Why has the leader of the free world started to speak a language unknown to his allies? Why is he doing this?
Donald Trump has noted his dislike for NATO since his early campaigning days, even arguing that the alliance is obsolete. Yet we, as the ones living on this side of the water, do not share his views. Why? Well, we feel rather strongly about the increased Russian activity around us lately, for one. There are also radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that are probably going to be around for some time yet.
So let’s think back as to why we have NATO in the first place. The alliance was established in April 1949.
Europe had just come out of its second great war. After two generations of living through war, the continent was looking at 80 million dead, cities destroyed and human resources annihilated. And just as those wars had ended, a new empire was rising in Russia. If that Soviet empire was not contained, the United States thought that it would be a matter of time until it would have to intervene in yet another war to save Europe and secure its own position in the world. So it established bases in Europe first, founded NATO as a framework in that effort and set about containing Soviet Russia.
It turned out that the West had the superior economic and political system and won the ensuing Cold War in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. Think about how they achieved that victory. On March 25, 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, creating the European Economic Community (EEC), which later turned into the European Union.
The transformation of Europe from the EEC into the EU remains an uncontested success story. In 1950, Europe’s per capita GDP was around 42 percent of that of the United States. Then in late 1980s, the ratio increased to around 80 percent. Let me note a few individual countries. In 1950, the per capita GDPs of Italy, France and Germany were around 35, 53 and 44 percent of U.S. per capita GDP, respectively. By 2012, these ratios had turned to 66, 80 and 88 percent. What Europe has achieved is a remarkable transformation. Not only have Europeans stopped killing each other in absurd numbers, they have managed to create the most vibrant, healthy and integrated middle class in the world.
The problem is that the environment changed, but NATO as an organism did not. Paleontologists say that in world history, climate changes very slowly, over hundreds or even thousands of years. As climates change, living organisms must adapt, relocate or go extinct. That is how I think of the Trump administration’s position on NATO funding. Trump is expressing himself in a nasty way, but he has a point. NATO allies aren’t pulling their weight, and the world is no longer a pleasant enough place for the U.S. to protect them on its own. This week at the Munich Security Conference, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis were saying the same thing in a more amenable way. So it is up to NATO to decide: Adapt, relocate or risk extinction. Since relocating countries is out of the question, and we would presumably prefer to continue living, adaptation remains the only option.
Do you know why the dinosaurs went extinct? When you’re told as a child about it, you kind of assume that the asteroid that hit the earth killed them instantly, but that of course, doesn’t make any sense. What likely happened was that the asteroid sent a huge cloud of debris into the atmosphere, blotting out the sun, and making earth darker and colder. Dinosaurs simply could not survive in a cool, dark climate. They failed to adapt. NATO needs to adapt to this changing world. Someone was saying the other day that the U.S., United Kingdom and Turkey make up roughly 80 percent of NATO’s security umbrella. Turkey is especially vital for Europe’s political stability – think of the waves of refugees who might enter the continent without the filter of an 80 million-strong middle-income economy. But why should Turkey shoulder that entire responsibility while Spain, Italy and Germany refuse to do their bit?
Since the arrival of Trump, it’s been getting colder and darker out here. But it is a rhetorical change; mind you, not a legal one. No more mincing words. It’s all direct communication, transmitted over the huge clouds of mainstream and social media news hanging over us today. And no matter how vulgar you find it, the change he is asking for seems fair, and long overdue. It’s adapt or die.