In the middle of the Peloponnesian war, Athens faced a simple but existential dilemma. Melos, an island in the middle of the Aegean, was a Spartan ally, and the existence of an independent, unconquered, and even neutral island allied with a rival land power was an unacceptable scenario for a maritime hegemon like Athens.
The Athenians dispatched a group of emissaries to discuss Melian surrender. What took place is perhaps one of the most memorable chapters of an ethical debate still relevant to modern times. The Melians pleaded ideals, and even threatened that the gods would punish Athenian hubris if they took over a noncombatant people.
The Athenians, proponents of realism, reminded the Melians that at the end of the day, Melos is an island, and the Athenians are in control of the sea. Politics, especially great power politics, isn’t about what “ought to be,” but rather what “is.” The simple reality was that Athens was a mighty maritime power, and if the Melians wanted protection, they must have it from Athens, or Athens would take them over.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Melians refused, and the Athenians wiped Melos off the map. The Spartans decided against aiding Melos. As the ancient historian Thucydides wrote of the Athenian stance: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” In a great power world, institutions and values depend on the whims and fancies of great powers.
As President Trump heads to a fractious North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit then a meeting with Russia, it’s important to evaluate two myths that are constantly circulating in media. In the last three weeks, there hasn’t been a single day without an article lamenting that Trump is bringing about the breakup of the “liberal order” simply because he has told European countries that freeriding is over.
For example, I came across this Twitter gem, which is more or less representative of American leftist thinking about Trump’s NATO and Russia meets. One glance at the editorial boards of the Washington Post, New York Times, Economist, and Financial Times shows conformity only paralleled in sociology departments at universities.
The foreign policy establishment’s arguments are simple and are based on two pervasive myths: First, that Trump is responsible for the chaos within NATO, and second, Trump is determined to break up the liberal order. Both arguments are needless to say, flawed.
Myth 1: Trump Is Responsible for NATO’s Chaos
NATO enlargement post-Cold War was essentially a push from the liberal internationalist lobby within the Clinton administration, led by Madeleine Albright and backed by the German leaders like Volker Rühe. Evidence suggests there was significant academic opposition to NATO expansion during that time, including from the father of the strategy of Cold War containment, George F Kennan. He said NATO expansion would end up being the greatest blunder of our times.
There still remains a significant academic as well as strategic opposition to further NATO expansion, as almost everyone in the strategic community foresaw that an inexorable push of frontiers towards a former superpower like Russia would not only invite an understandable military backlash but install a hardline regime with a siege mentality within a former adversary.
Also, the cost-benefit analysis of providing an American taxpayer-funded security umbrella to corrupt, violent smaller countries not only is a heavy and needless burden based on a flawed strategy but encourages those smaller countries to risk conflict assuming that American cavalry is just around the hills.
However, the current ongoing debate on NATO funding is not that. It is not new, either. One of the strongest speeches against NATO was from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2011. He highlighted, almost prophetically, that if NATO leaders failed to immediately increase their funding and improve hardware, retention, and deployment capabilities, future American presidents would find it hard to justify to the electorate why they should pay for rich countries like Germany to have bloated social security programs, and not invest more in their submarine fleet or air force. Incidentally, Germany has only four serviceable Typhoons in the Luftwaffe and has refused to increase its NATO budget.
Sen. Chuck Hagel and Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter repeated the same warning. Some recent academic argument has suggested NATO should split its chain of command, and move American forces east in Poland and Hungary, from Germany and Belgium.
In sum, Trump’s grievances about NATO are not his, not new, and definitely not influenced by the 2016 election or Russia. European military capability atrophied due to complacency about American cavalry, when their own cash funds finer aspects of life and ever-increasing social welfare. These are valid long-term concerns of the American strategic community and are legitimate grievances about European freeriding on American blood and treasure.
It took a Trumpian slap to shake the smug complacency of European polity. Trump is instinctively mercantile and, regardless of his personal boorish behavior, tapped onto valid resentment against this ongoing alliance buck-passing and freeriding. Most importantly, Trump is reminding Europe of what Thucydides wrote a 2,500 years back. If European powers want American protection, then they should follow American rules and share the burden. Else, they are free to find their own ways.
Myth Number 2: Trump Is Breaking Up the Liberal Order
This myth is so pervasive that a near-cottage industry to purvey it grew after 2016. From books by academics and former diplomats to op-eds by pundits, journalists, and former lobbyists, all tapped on to the same hackneyed and cliched explanation of foreign policy that a mythical and organic “liberal order” has existed since 1945. Ironically, on one hand, it is an organic order, but on the other hand, it somehow is fragile enough to be destroyed by a single leader.
This is wrong, both logically and empirically. If it is indeed simply a liberal order based on norms and shared values, it would survive the absence of the superpower. If it doesn’t survive the absence of the superpower, then it is not an “order” but a sort of a hegemonic peace—a Pax Americana.
There’s nothing wrong in that, except it is imperial and unsustainable, as history suggests that no form of hegemonic peace lasts forever. The chief reason is that the relative power difference between different great powers equilibrates over time, as the population of the hegemon gets tired of providing the security of the globe. Sound familiar?
There is no evidence that there ever was a “rule-based order” for Trump to now arguably destroy. Research suggests the liberal order was a myth and a nostalgia about a world that never was. Hard military power is what always mattered on this planet as a guarantee of freedom. Trump is just blunt, genuinely conservative, and mercantile enough to remind us of that.
The European Union and some European countries claim that Russia is a gigantic threat and they need more commitment from the United States. The reality is that Trump’s administration armed the Ukrainians with lethal weapons, re-established the Second Fleet, smoked out 200 Russians in Syria in one day, and told Germans (yes, Germans) to stop the Nord Stream pipeline. Europeans, on the other hand, refuse flatly to pay their fair share for their defense and even refuse to lead America in cutting off the Russian gas supply. It’s quite natural, therefore, that EU technocrats’ protests sound hypocritical to an average American taxpayer.
In January 2017, I wrote the following about Trump, EU and NATO.
Here’s a simple word of advice to the European leaders and policy elites. An easy way to maintain an alliance is to demonstrate commitment through investment. Cut down on social spending, cut down on idiotic and redundant research like gender gaps in NATO forces, and formulate a wartime plan to channel resources towards defence. Spend less on bureaucratic and bloated command structures and more on manufacturing tanks and hardware, less on open door migrant aid, and more on Mediterranean surveillance.
If one is serious about defending liberal order, then one should be prepared to spend. After all, freedom isn’t free, and Uncle Sucker won’t be there forever. It’s everyone for themselves, and if this lesson of 2016 is forgotten, then next time, someone worse than Trump will come along, with full cabinet backing, who won’t just be indifferent, but actively hostile.
As the EU remains occupied with internal dissent, it seems that the rulers of some EU states refuse to learn those lessons. Reality might bring about more nasty surprises for them.