John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, predicted in 1990 that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would soon dissolve. Among academics, Mearsheimer has the reputation of a contrarian, perhaps even of a crank. But, back in 1994, he also predicted (to much derision) that Ukraine would regret surrendering its nukes when it wound up the victim of Russian aggression. Both predictions were born from a realist worldview, a worldview Donald Trump has returned to the White House.
It’s doubtful that Trump and Mearsheimer would see eye-to-eye on much. Yet both have wondered for 30 years what purpose NATO serves. Scholars and policymakers used to laugh at that question. Now, for the first time, they have to take it seriously—and are realizing it might not have an answer. The realists have come back with a vengeance.
Until Now, the Internationalist View Has Dominated
There have long been two justifications for NATO: one internationalist, one realist. The internationalists argue that NATO is part of a quasi-constitutional project, a kind of soft world government that the United States created after World War II. In this view, because it’s more about international society than power, NATO would survive the fall of the Soviet bloc.
The realists, like Trump, disagree. They argue that NATO was all about balancing the threat of communism. Once that threat was removed, the alliance would lose its purpose and eventually disintegrate—unless it found a new enemy to oppose.
During the Cold War, it was impossible to tell which view was correct: both sides wanted a strong NATO to defend against the Soviet Union, and both sides accepted the United States would have to pay for it, even if the allies weren’t ponying up. As conservatives have emphasized, every president since Ike Eisenhower has tried to get the allies to pay more; Trump is unique only in that he succeeded.
After the Cold War, at first it looked like the internationalists had been right all along: far from collapsing, NATO expanded into Eastern Europe and undertook missions in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. Between presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, some variety of internationalism has guided our foreign policy for 25 years.
Now, the Irrationality Is Starting To Hurt Us
But America has a lot of wiggle room in international affairs. What other country could simultaneously fight two wars on the other side of the earth, without a draft, without increased taxes, and without any significant loss to gross domestic product? Our military power exceeds that of the next eight countries combined; we are the only people capable of projecting force rapidly onto any continent at will; and, contrary to the European Union’s petulant president, we lead the largest network of friends and allies of any nation in history.
For three decades, we’ve been coasting by on that wiggle room, not needing to face hard realities or reform old structures to fit new circumstances. An old adage warns, “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” Up until now, NATO has had the luxury of remaining irrational. The alliance didn’t make sense, but there were no pressures forcing it to evolve.
That is changing. On both the Right and the Left, American observers are realizing that something has to give. The Right is tired of paying for ungrateful Europeans’ welfare states, much less shoring up an incipient (and antagonistic) despotism in Turkey. The Left sees a reduced commitment to Europe as a way to avoid conflict and as a windfall to fund a new New Deal.
The old willingness to “pay any price, bear any burden” is waning. And rightly so: Americans fought the Cold War because we were all that stood between freedom and tyranny. There is no reason we should subsidize others’ luxuries, let alone when we have so many problems at home.
A New Theory Ascends the Throne
The internationalists are in retreat. At least with regards to China, even The Economist has embraced a more realist approach. Trump has filled his administration with realists: Defense Secretary James Mattis, along with former advisors Steve Bannon and H.R. McMaster, are hardnosed pragmatists and devotees of Thucydides, the Greek father of realism.
After joining the National Security Council, Michael Anton, of Flight 93 fame, argued for an essentially realist overhaul of the liberal order. And last April, Trump replaced Anton with John Bolton, who is sometimes erroneously described as a neocon but actually embraces a calculating and forceful approach to foreign policy. Together, whether in power or out, these figures are challenging the old internationalist platitudes. They have already been assaulting free trade; now, they are taking on NATO.
Fundamentally, realists stress that a country should act in its self-interest, narrowly defined: it should pursue security, and privilege considerations of power when engaging others. They set little stock in rules, diplomatic niceties, international society, or assuming it’s possible to promote human rights through intervention. Most of all, realists stress that, when a country neglects the realities of power politics, reality eventually bites back.
With their dreams of a global society and neglect of hard power, internationalists saw no pressing need to revitalize NATO. They enjoyed their holiday from history. By contrast, the Trump administration has chosen to act before reality has a chance to bite.
Two Options for NATO
In his Warsaw Speech, Trump centered his foreign policy on one theme: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” The president made plain that question included whether our delinquent cousins will pay for their security—and by the sounds of it, Trump is willing to force the issue. Either Europe steps up, or America steps down. It is a coarse choice, but a necessary one.
NATO can take two roads now. Down one, the alliance is reformed. Europeans step up, America takes a less prominent role in securing the Continent, and together they confront a revanchist Russia and a volatile Middle East. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, suggested one such avenue last fall with a Europe-wide defense force. That might be a pipe dream, but a robust alliance centered on Franco-German wealth and power is not.
Some on the Left think Trump has an infantile worldview that hates alliances, but that is false: Trump likes a team; he just dislikes getting “ripped off.” We have every indication that a Trump administration (and subsequent presidents) would embrace a strong, European alliance. Such a friendship would be a bulwark for liberty throughout the world.
Down the other road, the alliance dwindles, ending either defunct or dissolved. Not tomorrow or next year, but five or ten or twenty years hence, a crisis will arise that the Europeans can’t solve on their own. They will call in the Americans, whose patience they have exhausted. Europeans see us as cowboys, but Americans are naturally much more isolationist. Our gut reaction is not to come out guns blazing, but to ask why we should care. (Where is Iraq, anyway?)
Ask yourself: will a future president stake reelection to help a decadent Europe whose citizens could not even be roused to defend themselves? Or will America, whether wisely or foolishly, shrug its shoulders and retreat once more behind the Atlantic Ocean, to let the Old World sort out its problems on its own?
The world no longer needs the Cold War’s NATO, and America will have neither the patience nor the cash to provide it much longer. The question is not whether NATO will change, but whether it will reform while it still can. To date, the Trump administration is our best hope that it will.