In a contentious election year, it can be difficult to remember that US foreign policy in the post-World War II era has been defined far more by continuity than by disruption. The right to exercise US power abroad is taken as a given and often presented as a moral imperative necessary to maintain world order. Since its founding in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been one of the primary tools with which the US has projected military influence worldwide. That’s why Republican nominee Donald Trump created such an uproar when he questioned whether he would fulfill NATO’s defense obligations, and if it is in America’s best interests to continue its participation in the alliance.
When asked by The New York Times if he, as president, would defend recent entries into NATO — primarily Baltic countries that border Russia — against Russian aggression, the GOP candidate hedged. “If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he told the Times, “the answer is yes.” Days later, at a rally, he was even more explicit with his threats. “I want them to pay,” he said, according to Talking Points Memo. He added that “we have to walk,” and that “within two days they’re calling back! Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.”
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Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton responded by saying if Trump wins, “it will be Christmas for the Kremlin.” Trump’s fellow Republicans also lambasted his remarks. Media outlets reacted similarly, including some who asked whether Trump was a Putin plant — intentionally or not.
As is often the case with Trump, his comments were simultaneously uninformed, destabilizing and proudly mean-spirited. Put simply, there is no possible good faith defense of Trump’s proposal. It is a mobster policy put forward by a man very comfortable with the mafia.
Experts in the United States who are critical of NATO see no secret upside to Trump’s faux isolationism. “For the countries that are already in NATO, regardless of how we feel about the previous NATO expansion — I was not a fan of it — defending them is now a treaty obligation,” Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, told me in an email. “In general, progressives believe that the U.S. should take treaty obligations seriously. This is not something that we should be flip about.”
Just because Trump is wrong, however, it doesn’t mean that the Washington consensus view on NATO — which includes Hillary Clinton’s philosophy — is correct. For Naiman, who is also Truthout’s board president, there is much to criticize in the alliance’s recent history. “US policy [has] been unnecessarily provocative towards Russia in Eastern Europe,” he said. “US support for the coup against the democratically elected government of Ukraine was an unnecessary provocation of Russia. Talk of bringing Ukraine into NATO is unnecessarily provocative. Talk of arming Ukraine is unnecessarily provocative. Ukraine is an issue that needs to be addressed with multilateral diplomacy and accommodation.”
None of that should be taken as a sign that Naiman is letting Russia off the hook, and he adds that it’s important to recognize the worry that some former Soviet countries have towards Russia. “Of course, they have legitimate fears. Look what happened in Ukraine,” he said. “If you were a former Soviet republic near Russia and had a big Russian-speaking population, you’d be nervous too.”
Unfortunately, the general response to Trump’s comments was almost entirely absent of any reasonable questioning of NATO or the outsized role the United States plays in the treaty. It is true that only five NATO members, including the United States, meet their requirement of committing 2 percent of annual GDP to the alliance, and that the US contributes a disproportionately large amount to indirect NATO spending.
What the United States gets in return, and has gotten in return from the beginning of NATO, is influence in Europe that would have been impossible otherwise. Arnold Offner, a historian at Lafayette College, writes that when the United States signed on to NATO it was “with intent to establish ‘a preponderance of power’ over the Soviet Union and to increase US influence over allies who might incline toward ‘neutrality and appeasement,’ as diplomatist Averell Harriman said.”
From the treaty’s inception, though, the high-minded stated purpose of the alliance has often been at odds with its actual operations. “NATO was created in 1949, as the accompaniment of an American and British decision to establish a West German state,” Carolyn Eisenberg, a history professor at Hofstra University, wrote to me in an email. “It was not a response to the division of Europe, it was one of its causes. At the point at which the United States moved in this direction, the line across Europe was not nearly so rigid as it later became. In post-war Germany and other East European countries, Soviet control was tightening but was by no means complete. Though often forgotten, there was no Russian-led Warsaw Pact, when NATO was born.” The Warsaw Pact was a treaty between the Soviets and seven other countries that was created in 1955 in response to West Germany joining NATO, according to NATO’s official history.
Progressive eastward NATO expansions in 1999, 2004 and 2009 were seen by Russia as a violation of a 1990 agreement that NATO would not expand east. There was no legally binding promise between the US and Russia against NATO enlargement, but in 2014 former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev said NATO’s eastward creep certainly violated the spirit of the 1990 agreement.
Although much of NATO’s posture has focused on the USSR and now Russia, the alliance has engaged in other military campaigns as well — notably, in Afghanistan after 9/11 and the 2011 bombing of Libya.
Two earlier NATO wars are often cited but rarely discussed in detail. The 1999 Kosovo campaign and to a lesser extent, the 1995 Bosnia campaign are often referenced positively by US politicians and pundits as examples of humanitarian intervention, though the real story is far more complicated.
In 1999, NATO intervened on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians (Kosovars) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), against Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal crackdown against the KLA’s armed struggle for independence. NATO casualties in the Kosovo war were minimal and the military campaign did force Milosevic to remove his forces from Kosovo.
What’s absent from the US consensus shorthand is how chaotic the campaign was over the 78 days it was carried out. Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, saw a campaign that was supposed to end in days, stretch out. Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and military historian offers a blistering critique of NATO’s bombing of Kosovo in his newly released book America’s War for the Greater Middle East. “Strategy had collapsed, its place taken by a haphazard, at times almost desperate effort to find some way of ending what NATO, egged on by the likes of [Secretary of State Madeline] Albright and Clark, had fecklessly begun,” writes Bacevich.
There have also been notable — though now almost entirely forgotten — instances of what Amnesty International and other critics said constituted NATO war crimes. On April 29, 1999, NATO forces bombed Radio Television of Serbia in Belgrade killing 16 civilians, including technicians and make-up artists. A month later, NATO bombed a bridge in Varvarin, Serbia, killing at least 11 civilians, a targeting decision Amnesty criticized. In another instance, NATO forces destroyed a wing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, thanks to bad targeting information provided by the CIA.
Perhaps just as significantly, the NATO bombing campaign itself precipitated an increase in violence against Albanians in Kosovo, the very group the military intervention was intended to help. After the bombing began, Milosevic ramped up his campaign of murder and forced displacement. Deaths in Kosovo prior to the NATO campaign are generally estimated at 2,000, committed both by Serbs and the Kosovo Liberation Army. “The character and intensity of the campaign appeared to change, however, after the commencement of NATO bombing,” a Human Rights Watch report found. “Using the pretext of the NATO bombing, the government was free to unleash a full-scale offensive on the KLA as well as to order the expulsion of more than 850,000 Kosovar Albanians.”
This timeline is often forgotten, as is the fact that some Albanians who returned to Kosovo following the NATO campaign’s victory against the Serbian military then proceeded to wage a campaign of terror against Serbian civilians. Bacevich cites the US Army’s official history of the return: “Ethnic Albanians, consumed with hatred and resolve to avenge past grievances, initiated a wave of destruction that equaled in method if not in volume what they had experienced earlier during the Serbian ethnic cleansing of the province.”
It is indisputably true that Milosevic carried out war crimes, as did associated Serb militias, most notably at Srebrenica. But to simply categorize NATO’s Kosovo campaign as an unmitigated success and a template for the proper use of American-led force dominated by air campaigns is a misrepresentation of the real history.
The NATO campaign against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is the most obvious contemporary echo of the Kosovo War, but in some ways, NATO is coming back to its roots as primarily focused on Russia. Trump’s quixotic admiration for Putin notwithstanding, anti-Russian sentiment among US political and media elites is at its highest levels since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, combined with Russia’s paramilitary activities in eastern Ukraine, are all correctly cited in the West as examples of Putin’s expansionist ambitions.
Russia for its part points to NATO’s eastern expansion — including the possibility of including Georgia and Ukraine in the treaty — as unnecessarily provocative actions by the West. Recent events in Syria, including the US-coalition bombing of Syrian military forces and the near-certain Syrian regime-Russian bombing of a UN humanitarian convoy, have only exacerbated tensions between the US and Russia.
Russia’s support of the Assad regime is wholly unjustifiable, though not surprising given the long military alliance that dates back to the Soviet era. Russia’s crimes and Putin’s expansionism must be criticized — but to do so without acknowledging NATO’s own history of expansion gives an incomplete picture.
So what should be done?
“The United States should facilitate NATO’s transition to a European alliance that exists to ensure the security of Europe,” Bacevich told me in an email. “So while the United States should withdraw from NATO, it should do so on a deliberate and phased basis. The next president should establish a date for abrogating the treaty — say, 2025 — that would give Europeans time to adjust to the fact that they will have to defend themselves. In the interim, the United States should fulfill its obligations, as it should do with any treaty to which it is a party.”
Trump is wrong on NATO, but that doesn’t necessarily make NATO right.