Eight months ago, mere weeks before the first case of COVID-19, I was in London meeting with my fellow NATO parliamentarians at one of our regularly scheduled gatherings. While we did not know it at the time, it would be our last meeting for the foreseeable future, and perhaps ever.
The mood was ostensibly festive, but nervous not far beneath the surface. We, the elected members of Congress and parliaments of the 29 NATO countries, gathered to discuss the most pressing issues facing the NATO alliance. But we were also there to celebrate a special anniversary, for NATO was turning 70. And yet, gallows humor could be overheard in many of the conversations.
“Let’s enjoy our 70th birthday, since we don’t know if we’ll make it to 75,” was the commonly made quip. I heard it several times. I was struck by how many of my British, German, and French colleagues openly expressed this view. It did not matter if the individuals were of the left or right parties in their respective countries. The pessimism about NATO’s future ran across the ideological spectrum. As a German friend, who has served in the Bundestag for many years and is proudly pro-American said to me, “Brendan, I love American politics and follow it closely. We both know that if Trump wins again then NATO is finished.”
To me, the dire outlook for NATO was striking, and dangerous. Our traditional allies are planning for a near future in which the United States no longer leads the Western alliance. It is time for Americans to wake up to this reality and that this is not in our interest.
The NATO alliance has come to the defense of the United States many times over the years. In fact, the only country to ever invoke Article 5, NATO’s collective defense clause, was the United States after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. NATO forces deployed thousands of troops to military operations, such as Afghanistan, where more than 1,100 non-U.S. NATO forces have been killed. NATO also supports and contributes to the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition. Most recently, NATO’s cybersecurity cooperation across the alliance will be key as cyberattacks pummel across sovereign lines.
Generally, on the bulk of issues, we tend to be more alarmist than is usually warranted. But on this issue, it is quite the opposite. Tectonic, permanent shifts are happening in our post-World War II alliances while we are sleepwalking.
President Trump continues to attack our allies and cozy up to dictators, which impacts all of us. He has attacked Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Denmark, and Sweden. Yet, he has praised dictators such as Putin, Duterte, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and Erdogan. Due to these actions, our allies are losing faith. The backlash is evident in situations like our European allies resisting American request to reject technology from the Chinese company Huawei in 5G networks. In an interview, the retiring French Ambassador to the United States said, “The current president doesn’t care about the West. He is a nationalist. He is America alone.” This is not what we want for our country. It is our allies and alliances like NATO that deter mutual security threats ranging from Russian expansion to global terrorism. We can’t and shouldn’t “go it alone” as Trump urges.
It is long past time for NATO to become a political issue in our domestic politics. In the Trump era, the former bipartisan consensus for leading the West has entirely broken apart. In the Trumpist Republican Party, there is no defense of the Western alliance. Reaganism has no home in today’s GOP.
Those who believe, as I do, the world is best at peace and secure with the United States firmly in the lead of the western democracies, find only one party embracing this view. Therefore, unlike in any previous election, we must proclaim this view explicitly, for it is under mortal to an empty and dangerous populism. The world we have known and led since the end of World War II hangs in the balance.