The media has generally presented Trump as being ignorant and nonsensical in his discussion of American policies, and one example is his negative references to NATO as obsolete. The mainstream media is aghast that any political leader of the U.S. could possibly take a negative view of such an allegedly iconic alliance as NATO. A few days before Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times Editorial Board, for example, in an article entitled “Russian Gains When Trump Trashes NATO,” found it “puzzling indeed for a president-elect to publicly denigrate leaders of his country’s closest allies as well as an alliance that for 70 years has stood firm against Russian expansion.” The Editorial Board of the Washington Post, in its praise for NATO, on the same date as the aforementioned New York Times editorial came out, maintained that “[i]t has greatly magnified U.S. power and global influence, even when its members were underspending on their military forces. Without it, the West would have no effective way to contain Russian neo-imperialism.”
The only question seems to be whether Trump is a total ignoramus or is he, for some malevolent reason, a traitor who puts the interests of Putinist Russia above those of the United States. But if we take a brief walk down memory lane, we will discover that Trump is actually in very good company in his criticism of NATO, and those NATO critics include luminaries of the foreign policy establishment whom the Washington Post and the New York Times once readily embraced.
When NATO was coming into existence in 1949, it was not only being opposed by those who retained their World War II sympathy for the Soviet Union, such as former Vice President Henry Wallace, and conservative non-interventionists lead by Senator Robert Taft, but also by the most influential columnist and political intellectual of the era, Walter Lippmann. In 1947, Lippmann had written a series of articles called The Cold War that criticized the policy of containment—which called for efforts to prevent the expansion of Communism. The containment policy underpins NATO. And it is the intellectual architect of containment, George F. Kennan, who will be discussed shortly. Interestingly, while Kennan first applied the term “containment” to a foreign policy strategy, Lippmann, although he did not originate the term “Cold War,” made it an integral part of the political lexicon.
Regarding Lippmann’s thinking on NATO, Lippmann biographer Ronald Steel writes: “Unlike the State Department and Pentagon planners, Lippmann saw no need for a military alliance with Western Europe. ‘I am convinced that the question of war or peace hangs upon the Soviet willingness to engage in a general war, and not on the strength of the local defenses in any particular part of the world,’ he [Lippmann] wrote.”
Lippmann made a considerable effort to stop the development of NATO. Steel writes: “Lippmann put forth a six-page single spaced document on the German problem for John Foster Dulles to take to the Paris foreign ministers meeting in May 1949. In the memo Lippmann urged the demilitarization and neutralization of Germany, along with the withdrawal of all foreign troops. This plan, he argued, would keep German nationalists in check and remove the need for NATO.” In short, the Red Army’s occupation of central Europe, in Lippmann’s view, only existed because of the existence of Western troops in the vicinity. And if the Western troops were removed, Russia would reciprocate and, in Lippmann’s view, “there would be no more Russian problem today than there had been for a century.”
Lippmann’s opposition went for naught and the NATO treaty passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin. Lippmann would express his opposition to NATO once again in 1952 when the alliance proposed to add two new members, Greece and Turkey. Lippmann maintained: “A great power like the United States gains no advantage and it loses prestige by offering, indeed peddling, its alliances to all and sundry. An alliance should be hard diplomatic currency, valuable and hard to get, and not inflationary paper from the mimeograph machine in the State Department.” Once again, Lippmann lost the battle.
In 1958, Lippmann, like many American thinkers at that time, interpreted the launching of the Sputnik satellites as an indication that the Soviet Union was a power equal to that of the Western alliance. Lippmann contended: “The defenders of the existing policy consider themselves great realists who have put aside all wishful thinking. On what calculation, then, in the power relationships of great states, do they lease their expectation that Russia will withdraw from Europe while the United States and Great Britain remain, and are allowed to advance their military frontiers at least to the borders of Poland?” He maintained that “a settlement [with Russia] must be designed not only to protect our own vital interests. It must respect the vital interests of Russia.”
George F. Kennan, who is widely considered to be the intellectual architect of America’s Cold War “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union in 1946 and 1947, expressed skepticism about the need to create NATO. His biographer John Lewis Gaddis writes that Kennan believed that “[I]f there had to be a military alliance, its members should include only the North Atlantic countries, where there was ‘a community of defense interest firmly rooted in geography and tradition.’ To go further would invite still further demands for protection: there would then be ‘no stopping point in the development of a system of anti-Russian alliances until that system has circled the globe and has embraced all the non-communist countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa.’ By then one of two things would have happened: the alliance would become meaningless like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, or the United States would have become hopelessly extended, in which case it would have ignored warnings about the increased discrepancy between its resources and its commitments.” Such a situation did, in fact, materialize during the Cold War period as the United States established one alliance after the other in various areas of the globe—CENTO (Central Asia], SEATO (Southeast Asia).
Kennan maintained that the containment strategy he proposed had been excessively militarized by the U.S. government. In a 1996 interview with CNN he had said “[m]y thoughts about containment were of course distorted by the people who understood it and pursued it exclusively as a military concept; and I think that that, as much as any other cause, led to [the] 40 years of unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process of the Cold War.”
In a 1998 interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Kennan described the U.S. Senate’s decision to ratify NATO’s expansion–which in 1999 would add Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to the alliance—as the “the beginning of a new cold war.” He held that “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else . . . . We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”
Kennan said that he “was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.” It seemed to him that Americans failed to realize that “[o]ur differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.” Kennan warned that this expansion showed “little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”
Friedman did not disagree with Kennan and saw this development as having a negative effect on peace in Europe. If everything went well, future historians, he surmised, would say that in spite of this NATO expansion, Russia would continue to move along the path of “democratization and Westernization” because of the powerful impact of “globalization and arms control agreements.” However, “[i]f we are unlucky they will say, as Mr. Kennan predicts, that NATO expansion set up a situation in which NATO now has to either expand all the way to Russia’s border, triggering a new cold war, or stop expanding after these three new countries and create a new dividing line through Europe.”
In his concluding remarks in this article, Friedman wrote that “there is one thing future historians will surely remark upon, and that is the utter poverty of imagination that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the late 1990′s. They will note that one of the seminal events of this century took place between 1989 and 1992 — the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which had the capability, imperial intentions and ideology to truly threaten the entire free world . . . And what was America’s response? It was to expand the NATO cold-war alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia’s borders.”
As Putin began to exercise more and more power, Friedman’s views of NATO begin to change. In a 2014 column Friedman wrote that he had “opposed expanding NATO toward Russia after the Cold War . . . . It remains one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done and, of course, laid the groundwork for Putin’s rise.” Later that year Friedman, although still acknowledging the negative impact of NATO expansion, began to put greater blame on Putin. Friedman stated that “[b]y expanding NATO at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was weak, we helped to cultivate a politics there that would one day be very receptive to Putin’s message that the West is ganging up on Russia. But, that said, the message is a lie. The West has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. And please raise your hand if you think the European Union plans to invade Russia.”
In placing blame on Putin, Friedman ignored the fact while his American readers would not expect the European Union to invade Russia—and let us grant that Friedman is engaging in hyperbole here, and would mean the U.S. along with the European Union–it is not clear that Russians could be so sanguine. The United States did not feel secure with Soviet missiles being stationed in Cuba in 1962 and quite likely would not feel so today. And, of course, if Friedman were correct here, there never should have been any concern by Russia about having NATO near its borders, and Friedman never should have identified at all with Kennan’s position in 1998. Both Lippmann and Kennan recognized that the U.S. needed to consider the Russian view—and Russia had historical reasons for being worried about strong enemies on its borders since it had been invaded in the past.
Friedman even denied that Putin sought to protect Russia. “By seizing Crimea and stoking up nationalism, Putin was not protecting Russia from NATO,” Friedman asserted. “He was protecting himself from the viruses of E.U. accountability and transparency, which, if they took hold in Ukraine, could spread to Moscow, undermining his kleptocracy.”
Note that by making a distinction between Putin’s government and Russia, Friedman implied that the interests of Putin’s “kleptocracy” ran counter to those of Russia. Now Kennan and Lippmann, in line with the thinking of most Americans, did not believe that the Communist government was good for Russia; nonetheless, Kennan and Lippmann realized that it was in the interest of the United States to respect the interests of the Soviet government of Russia in order to avoid a dangerous conflict.
Finally, all of Friedman’s negative views of NATO disappear when he deals with Trump, as would be expected by a mainstream liberal. “How in the world do we put a man in the Oval Office,” Friedman maintained, “who thinks NATO is a shopping mall where the tenants aren’t paying enough rent to the U.S. landlord”?
“NATO is not a shopping mall,” Friedman averred; “it is a strategic alliance that won the Cold War, keeps Europe a stable trading partner for U.S. companies and prevents every European country — particularly Germany — from getting their own nukes to counterbalance Russia, by sheltering them all under America’s nuclear umbrella.”
Friedman’s change of opinion is indicative of the current view of mainstream liberalism. First, there is a definite proclivity to resist anything that Trump proposes—one result of what critics have labeled as Trump Derangement Syndrome. Moreover, there is now a tendency on the part of American liberals to be far more critical of Putin than they were of Soviet Communism. Liberals during the Cold War saw the Soviet planned economic system as being beneficial in some ways. In contrast, liberals find nothing positive in Putin’s system. In short, Putin’s Russia is widely attacked as a “kleptocracy,” as Friedman put it, and for its institutionalization of traditional values–Christianity, anti-abortion measures, natalism, discrimination against the homosexual life-style, and nationalism—which liberals now lambaste as retrograde and harmful to minorities and women.
Liberals’ views of the Russian internal system have impacted on how they judge Russia’s international threat. Mainstream liberals were far less willing to staunchly oppose the Soviet Union despite the fact that its military power was about on par with that of the United States and it promoted a popular global ideology with supporters throughout the world. Today Russia is much weaker militarily, especially in its conventional forces, and has an ideology with little global appeal. Moreover, the expansion of NATO has made it far more threatening to Russia as it now encroaches on Russia’s borders.
This focus on liberals does not mean that they are now the foremost supporters of NATO, which is also being backed by a number of other factions, including: neoconservatives, unchanged Cold Warriors, conservative hawks, and militarists. But the addition of staunch support from liberals for NATO has made that alliance politically invulnerable because of their dominance of the mainstream media.
The upshot of the reference to notable critics of NATO clearly illustrates that one does not have to be a Russian dupe or an ignoramus to question the existence of NATO. And, for various reasons to which this essay has alluded, the value of NATO deserves to be questioned more now than it was when mainstream luminaries Lippmann and Kennan were doing so. This is one thing for which Trump deserves credit, although he does not make a good case for his position. It is unfortunate that he has been moving away from this position as his appointees for national security positions in his administration have voiced their whole-hearted support for the alliance.