Unlike many libertarians, I love presidential election season, because that’s when generally ignored foreign policy issues are discussed beyond the small circle of Washington wonks. And that’s why I’m having such fun with Donald Trump – much to the annoyance of some of my readers, both libertarians and liberals alike: because he’s provoking a much-needed discussion about who benefits (and loses) from “American leadership” on the world stage. Most useful is his recent assertion that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is “obsolete.”
So it is. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union dissolved, the rationale for NATO disintegrated along with it. However, as libertarians know all too well, government programs (especially those that benefit the corporate sector) never die, nor do they fade away: they just keep growing to the degree that their constituency wields political clout. In NATO’s case, this clout is considerable.
When the citizens of Berlin did what Ronald Reagan urged Gorbachev to do – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” – the Soviet leader tried to negotiate with the West. And, to his mind, he succeeded: an understanding was reached with Washington that the Russians would allow German reunification on the condition that the NATO alliance would not expand eastward.
That promise was not kept. Instead, the lobbyists, both foreign and domestic, went into overdrive in a campaign to extend NATO to the very gates of Moscow. It was a lucrative business for the Washington set, as the Wall Street Journal documented: cushy fees for lobbyists, influence-buying by US corporations, as well as political tradeoffs for the administration of George W. Bush, which garnered support for the Iraq war from Eastern Europe’s former Warsaw Pact states in exchange for favorable treatment of their NATO applications.
The Committee to Expand NATO, later re-dubbed the US Committee on NATO, had at its core many of the founding members of Bill Kristol’s Project for a New American Century (PNAC) which played such an instrumental role in agitating for the invasion of Iraq. Yet it was too lucrative to exclude “progressives” of the Clintonian variety, bringing together neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan, Stephen Hadley, and Richard Perle, with liberal internationalists such as Will Marshall, of the Progressive Policy Institute, and Sally Painter, a former Commerce Department official under Bill Clinton –turned-lobbyist, who raked in hundreds of thousands in contracts from aspiring NATO countries and their corporate clients in the US.
Founder and president of the NATO Committee was Bruce Jackson, at the time finance director of Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, and vice-president in charge of planning and strategy for Lockheed – today Lockheed-Martin – the biggest military contractor in the country.
The NATO expansion project fit neatly in with Jackson’s day job: all NATO applicants must upgrade their military forces in order to meet uniform standards, and this meant a windfall for the military-industrial complex – with Lockheed first in line. The Lockheed connection was reinforced by Randy Scheunemann, a member of the Committee’s board, and president of Orion Strategies, a public relations firm whose clients include Lockheed.
The Clinton administration fully supported NATO expansion, and the Committee’s activities brought together the White House, members of Congress from both parties, and the Washington lobbyists and their foreign clients for a spate of conferences, dinners, and private meetings. Reams of propaganda were aimed at the mass media, and the political class, including a very visible presence at the national conventions of both political parties.
In short, NATO expansion was – and is – a crony capitalist’s dream, albeit not the sort that gets the same amount of attention from “libertarian” critics of such boondoggles as the Ex-Im Bank, who regularly remind us that Boeing is the Bank’s biggest customer. Forgotten (or evaded) is the fact that Boeing (or Lockheed-Martin, General Dynamics, etc.) gets billions whenever a new applicant is added to NATO’s ranks and has to modernizes its forces.
The NATO expansionists won their battle: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were added in 2004. Albania and Croatia came on board in 2006. The latest applicants are tiny Montenegro, a splinter shaved off of the former Yugoslavia, which will probably be admitted this summer, and Georgia, which is not even in Europe, and is still fighting to join the club: its inclusion is controversial in part because it would be seen as throwing down the gauntlet to Russia, with whom it fought a brief war in 2008 over the breakaway Republic of Ossetia.
Therein lies the real danger posed by NATO expansion – and, indeed, the existence of the alliance thirty years after the Soviet implosion. As Sen. Robert A. Taft put it in a 1949 nationally broadcast speech opposing US entry into NATO, he said:
“It obligates us to go to war if at any time during the next 20 years anyone makes an armed attack on any of the 12 nations. Under the Monroe Doctrine we could change our policy at any time. We could judge whether perhaps one of the countries had given cause for the attack. Only Congress could declare a war in pursuance of the doctrine. Under the new pact the President can take us into war without Congress. But, above all the treaty is a part of a much larger program by which we arm all these nations against Russia… A joint military program has already been made… It thus becomes an offensive and defensive military alliance against Russia. I believe our foreign policy should be aimed primarily at security and peace, and I believe such an alliance is more likely to produce war than peace. A third world war would be the greatest tragedy the world has ever suffered. Even if we won the war, we this time would probably suffer tremendous destruction, our economic system would be crippled, and we would lose our liberties and free system just as the Second World War destroyed the free systems of Europe. It might easily destroy civilization on this earth…
“There is another consideration. If we undertake to arm all the nations around Russia from Norway on the north to Turkey on the south, and Russia sees itself ringed about gradually by so-called defensive arms from Norway and. Denmark to Turkey and Greece, it may form a different opinion. It may decide that the arming of western Europe, regardless of its present purpose, looks to an attack upon Russia. Its view may be unreasonable, and I think it is. But from the Russian standpoint it may not seem unreasonable. They may well decide that if war is the certain result, that war might better occur now rather than after the arming of Europe is completed…
“How would we feel if Russia undertook to arm a country on our border; Mexico, for instance?
“Furthermore, can we afford this new project of foreign assistance?”
Which brings us to Trump’s critique: that NATO is a “bad deal” because we bear a disproportionate share of the costs. He is quite correct on this score. As of today, the US and Estonia are the only two NATO members keeping to the “requirement” that their military spending equals two percent of GDP. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed this out in a 2011 speech in which he predicted that NATO’s future was sure to be “dim if not dismal.” Our shiftless allies are all too “willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets,” he said.
Added to the direct costs of NATO is the expense of stationing over 60,000 troops in Europe, maintenance of our many bases, and the opportunity costs of money that could have been diverted to productive domestic uses. Taft, it seems, was right that the costs of NATO would turn out to be “incalculable.”
And then there is yet another cost – the price of risking World War III.
NATO expansion has led to Russian rearmament and the nullification of arms treaties negotiated as the cold war neared its endpoint. The Western powers have launched provocative military “exercises” that cannot be seen by the Russians as anything other than a dress rehearsal for war – and the Kremlin has reacted accordingly.
With his plan – or, rather, inclination – to abandon the old NATO and replace it with some sort of multilateral counterterrorist operation, and his insistence that our “allies” pay up, Trump is forcing an issue onto the stage that hasn’t been seen since the days of Bob Taft. And with the bogeyman of Communism absent, he is free to say he could get along with Vladimir Putin and only catch flak from committed neocons.
NATO isn’t just an expensive luxury of the sort we can no longer afford – it is a tripwire that could be set off by a minor border conflict involving Moldova, the status of Kaliningrad, or – more likely – another round of hostilities in Ukraine.
Would we start World War III in defense of the oligarchs of Kiev?
I wouldn’t put it past them.
That’s why, no matter what the fate of Trump’s presidential bid, we all owe him for raising this vital issue – and within the GOP, no less, a party which has been, up until now, a bastion of support for the NATO-crats and the new cold war against Russia.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.