One of the common chattering-class wisdoms of this campaign is that, at least when it comes to foreign policy, Hillary Clinton is a sagacious and widely admired old hand and Donald Trump a dangerous loon. The chief exponent of this school of thought is, not surprisingly, Clinton herself.
“Trump’s ideas aren’t just different — they are dangerously incoherent,” she said last week in a much ballyhooed speech. “They’re not even really ideas — just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies . . . This is someone who has threatened to abandon our allies in NATO — the countries that work with us to root out terrorists abroad before they strike us at home.”
Certainly Trump has some dotty notions about Mexico paying for walls and so forth. But Clinton is dead wrong about the wisdom of U.S. withdrawal from NATO. It’s a great idea, one whose time has come.
NATO was founded in 1949, just four years after the end of World War II. Most of Europe was a wasteland, ravaged first by Nazi occupation and then by Allied bombing. As the Soviet Union swallowed country after country — Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and half a dozen others — Western Europe and the United States forged a military alliance to halt extension of the Iron Curtain.
At the time, it made sense for the United States, practically the only industrialized country in the world to emerge from the war with its economy intact, to bankroll NATO in the face of an expansionist Soviet Union.
But that was nearly 70 years ago. Europe is no longer a bedraggled sitting duck, and Russia no longer a ferocious wolf at the door. The European Union’s population and economy are larger than that of the United States, and much larger than those of Russia.
The Europeans ought to be able to defend themselves — but instead, they’re only too happy, to put it in Trumpian lingo, to play us for suckers.
NATO guidelines say each member should spend about 2 percent of its GDP on its military. Hardly any of them do, and several — including Italy, Spain and Canada, none of them exactly economic basket cases — manage 1 percent or less. The overall average for the European NATO members is 1.43 percent.
The United States, on the other hand, spends 3.37 percent. That means military defense is costing us more than two and a half times what it does other NATO members.
To put it another way, Americans pay $1,865 per person for the military; in nearly half of NATO’s European members, the tab is less than $300 per person.
So when Trump says that “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” he, and not Clinton, is the one with the good idea.
Or half a good idea, anyway. The real danger of NATO is not that it will bankrupt us but that it will embroil us in a war that’s none of our concern.
The organization’s treaty pledges that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Like NATO’s original financial arrangements, that made some sense in a Cold War world when the members were mostly major countries with only one conceivable military enemy, the Soviet Union.
But the Soviets and their ambitions of an empire stretching from Asia to the Caribbean are gone, while NATO keeps expanding. (It’s now got 28 members compared to the original 12.) Russia’s bullying of former appendages of the Soviet Union like Georgia and the Ukraine is ugly, and perhaps a threat to regional stability.
But is it anything American soldiers ought to give their lives over?
Even at the most hawkish moments of the Cold War, American leaders sensibly refrained from getting in a shootout over Soviet annexation of the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Would we now? They’ve all joined NATO.
Or how about Montenegro, the minuscule fragment of the former Yugoslavia that joined NATO, with the full support support of the Obama administration, earlier this year?
Shouldn’t we have a rule that at least one American in a thousand be able to find a country on a map before we agree to fight its wars? (Not that Montenegro’s soldiers won’t help out — all 2,000 of them.) Just an idea.