31 July 2020

Nato embodies the finest of Western ideals – we must defend it from isolationists on all sides

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Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has embraced autocrats and insulted allies. His decision to withdraw almost 12,000 US troops from Germany makes a perverse sort of sense only in that light, for it doesn’t have even a passing strategic rationale. President Trump’s purported justification is Germany’s failure to meet Nato targets for defence spending. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” he said this week. “We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying the bills: it’s very simple.”

The redeployment will have precious little effect but it shows an administration that doesn’t know how Nato works, let alone sympathises with its goals. For most of its existence, Nato’s principal opponents have been on the left. Trump’s actions, while mercurial and ignorant, draw on an equally stubborn tradition of isolationist hostility to Nato on the right. And it’s worth exposing these historical fantasies and nativist prejudices for what they are. The transatlantic alliance, of which Nato is the formal expression, is the bedrock of British national security and the guarantor of liberty in our continent. 

It will seem extraordinary to historians in future generations, but the 2019 election was the closest Britain has come to electing a prime minister who does not believe in the Western alliance. In truth, it wasn’t close at all, as the votes for Jeremy Corbyn weren’t ever there, but Labour really was led by a man who sees Nato not as a defensive alliance but as an aggressor. A year before he became the party’s most disastrous ever leader, Corbyn told a protest rally in Wales that Nato was “set up to promote a Cold War with the Soviet Union”. 

It’s pitiful nonsense. Nato was set up to contain Soviet expansionism. It was driven by the direct evidence, and that alone, of Stalin’s determination to impose a new totalitarianism on Europe in succession to Nazi tyranny. The Communist putsch in Czechoslovakia in 1948 prompted Britain, France and the Benelux countries to form the Western Union. President Truman gave US support to this venture, which was the brainchild of Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary. It was the foundation for the creation of Nato the following year. 

Periodically, left-wing movements in Europe have resurrected the entirely fallacious notion that Nato is a vehicle for American domination of Europe. The mass protests against Nato’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces (Cruise and Pershing missiles) in the 1980s voiced the monumental fallacy that these weapons were intended to fight a nuclear war limited to Europe. Exactly the reverse was true: the missiles were intended as a deterrent, and they ensured that if conflict did break out it would not be limited to Europe. The missiles were deployed to dissuade the Soviet Union from imagining that its own intermediate-range deployment, the SS-20 missiles, could secure it strategic advantage. Nato’s existence guaranteed that the US would come to Europe’s aid in the event of Soviet aggression, and thus helped maintain deterrence. 

The oddity of left-wing opposition to Nato is that it is shared by some elements of the right in American politics. Neoconservatism has long been an easy target for anti-American commentators but few can identify any coherent meaning to it. That isn’t their fault: the label doesn’t really have one. It was originally a polemical term, coined by the American journalist Peter Steinfels as the title of his 1979 book The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics, but it was applied by him – and has been done by others since – to so wide a spectrum of opinion as to be strictly meaningless. 

My point in recounting this history is that the original neoconservatives included many who were hostile to Nato. Irving Kristol, who made his break with the left as early as the 1972 presidential election, when the Democratic nominee was George McGovern, frankly believed that the US should withdraw from Nato. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who in the Reagan administration served as US ambassador to the UN, certainly didn’t believe in standing by Nato allies. She came down on Argentina’s side in the Falklands war largely because she saw its regime as a bastion against communism. 

If the Trump administration’s brusque treatment of Nato has any philosophical lineage, it’s this tradition: a brash and assertive view of American power that ignores the views of the country’s allies. American leadership is for American purposes. And this is quite alien to the ethos of Nato. There is a consensual goal that Nato members will contribute 2% of GDP to defence spending but no formal requirement that they should. Germany has been increasing its level, now at 1.5%. And the countries to which some of the departing US troops will be redeployed spend significantly less than this on defence.

Trump’s decision is a means of slighting German leadership, which won’t really care anyway, and a demonstration that he doesn’t understand for a moment the nature of a defence alliance. Nato is not a transactional arrangement, like a club where you pay your dues and receive the benefits. It is an alliance of mutual defence, bound by treaty obligations. Its importance is beyond partisan politics and exemplifies the finest ideals of Western civilisation: a voluntary commitment by democratic nations to defend what they have and what they are. That truth needs constant repetition against the isolationists on both wings of politics and on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for the Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.