I have made an effort to avoid partisan politics on my blog. It’s a personal choice, but I wouldn’t be surprised if readers, especially ones who know me personally are well aware of my political views on the American presidential election happening at the beginning of next month. In response to the severe and unprecedented circumstances of this election, I am temporarily abrogating my commitment to non-partisanship for this post. I could list off all of the reasons I oppose Donald Trump, from racism, narcissism, poor temper control, dishonesty, bragging about sexual assault, or outright incompetence and ignorance. I could link an extremely short summary of only a few of the most egregious reasons he should not be president, his opponent’s flaws notwithstanding. But I won’t (list them, obviously I did link that article). Instead today I will offer a somewhat more subtle rebuke, to a particularly virulent isolationist idea he has revived into national prominence. Just over a month ago, I posted an article devoted to the future issues of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and a way I thought it could help future-proof itself. This time, I am instead going to focus on NATO in the present, and an issue raised in this presidential election campaign: is the Alliance still relevant to American global interests, or is it a long-lived ghost of the Cold War? Does NATO have a place in a world focused on defeating international terrorism, or should America stop allowing European powers to free-ride on its own defense commitments? For myself, the answer is clear: NATO has never needed American engagement and energy more than the present moment. The long and short of why is thus: so you can have the iPhone or laptop you are reading this essay on. At a fundamental level, NATO and its security guarantee underwrite the international order that uphold the Western lifestyle and allowed the creation of that device. Not only will American withdrawal engender an international collapse, but the modern technology sector will rapidly follow global order and peace into chaos and dissolution.
Now, I will need you to bear with me. Let’s start with a short history lesson. NATO was founded on April 4, 1949, in Washington, DC, as part of a broad post-war effort to secure peace in Europe for the next generation. Starting with with the Treaty of Brussels two years before signed by the United Kingdom, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the organization added in the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland to form what today encompasses a total of 28 member states across the European continent and North America. NATO’s existence has been uninterrupted, even with the dissolution of its Cold War rival the Warsaw Pact when the Iron Curtain fell. NATO members coordinate on defense affairs, consult on technology projects and international initiatives, and work together to ensure and provide strong capabilities when NATO’s sword is drawn in anger. More importantly, NATO’s security guarantee in Article V, which lays out the collective defense provisions of membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, have been a model for the dozens of American bilateral security guarantees that crisscross the globe to a total of 68 countries. Article V has only been invoked once in NATO’s 67 years, in the aftermath of 9/11 by the United States, as we sought to respond to the terrorist actions of al-Qaeda.
These security treaties have underwritten the majority of US foreign policy for the last seventy years. Maintenance of these treaties and reassurance of our allies is a serious consideration for the Departments of State and Defense, and the ability to uphold our treaty commitments is a very large part of the US military’s strategic posture and order of battle. Because the United States is so far removed from the rest of the NATO states, the ability of American forces to arrive in Europe to their defense against Soviet aggression led to the development of the world’s only existing fully expeditionary military, able to fight wars anywhere on the globe, any time, with a spectrum of military options for the situation. This is why the United States military maintains a prodigious and unequaled logistics capability, across all three service branches, as well as unique capabilities required of such a force, including redundant communications infrastructure, supercarriers, and the great effort spent on ensuring relationships with allied militaries around the world.
It is this NATO command structure that has been the backbone of international military responses to crises, particularly efforts where the United States has taken a lead. NATO members worked together during Operation Desert Storm (Iraq 1991), Operation Deliberate Force (Bosnia 1995), Operation Allied Force (Kosovo 1999), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2001), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq 2003), to hit some operations the public is well familiar with. In many cases, particularly when advanced military capabilities are required, NATO is the organization authorized by the United Nations Security Council to wage humanitarian interventions, including many of the aforementioned cases, as well as other examples, such as Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s ongoing anti-piracy commitment around Somalia where US warships compose the bulk of the task force’s firepower more often than not. The vast majority of these interventions are led by the unique capabilities and sheer power of the United States military. In other cases, such as Operation Odyssey Dawn, the 2011 intervention in Libya, other NATO members besides the United States have taken the lead, but relied very heavily on US support, particularly for logistics, command and control, and even supply of munitions. Without the United States, NATO becomes a paper tiger. Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and the other military powers together in the other 27 nations cannot match the sheer military force of the United States, and certainly do not possess its unique capabilities nor the ability to rapidly or effectively replicate them.
Should the US leave NATO, the UN’s premier enforcement agency would struggle to continue to fulfill missions requested of it by the Security Council. This creates a power void that must be filled. In continental Europe, the same situation arises, as NATO no longer has massive conventional might to hold back the Russian Bear from further territorial aggression, the very mission the Alliance was founded to fulfill. That security guarantee was always questionable at an operational level, which is why NATO made no secret of its plans to use nuclear weapons to hold back a Soviet advance into Germany or other parts of Western Europe. However, the massive commitment also served another purpose, showing the depth of the resolve of the United States of America. Thankfully, the world will never know if NATO could have defeated the Warsaw Pact in battle, but every time the world considered the question, it could see American commitment to national security and sovereignty, and to its word of honor internationally. After two world wars, and millions of dead Americans and billions upon billions of spent dollars, observers after 1945 wouldn’t have faulted a war-weary America from abrogating itself from Europe for a second time, leaving the continent to its own devices. Instead, President Truman threw the full weight of the US economy into rebuilding the shattered continent and ensuring its freedom from Soviet dominance. When other countries sign defensive pacts and when the United Nations calls on NATO, and by extension the US, it is this commitment to honor and to the energetic defense of an international order built on rules, sovereignty, and peace.
If the US leaves NATO, all of that becomes an open question. NATO has been a centerpiece of US foreign policy since its inception, and considerations of the Alliance’s ongoing utility should be had. However, a radical, mercurial shift, with no consideration of the massive ramifications of such an effort throw the entire system into shock. Every international actor on the stage today understands how the US works. We will act globally as we see fit, especially when called on by the UN, to secure our own national security and the international order, usually in that order. An abrupt drop of NATO means actors around the world must reassess all basic premises that follow from a rational United States. Suddenly dropping NATO will not signal rationality, and will create a titanic power vacuum in the international pecking order.
Not every nation, for various individual reasons, enjoys or appreciates the American-led order, and most would rather replace it with an order beneficial directly to them. China would prefer dominion over the South China Sea, where 60% of world sea trade passes annually, a sum of money and value literally incalculable. Russia seeks to reassert itself in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, rebuilding the Soviet system of buffer states against exterior invasion. This specter of invasion is a cultural fear for the Russian people, regardless of their own expansionary history, and the current status of many former Soviet states as modern NATO members, presently protected by the word and sword of the US military is irrelevant to that. Various illiberal democracies and dictatorships around the world don’t appreciate constant US nagging about such minor things as “human rights violations”, and would leap at the opportunity to hound the US and deflect criticism with its own abrogation of power. Other states have long-standing scores to settle, and would rather get along with it without international interference, led by the United States. That all of these actors must contend with the power and will of the United States of America is the bedrock of current international calculus, and would be dealt a potentially irreparable power by a sudden death to NATO’s legitimacy and capability.
Frankly, I believe I have only scratched the surface of what a world without the US as an international policeman by virtue of its nature as the sole planetary superpower at the moment could possibly look like. I am reasonably confident such a world would eventually settle down into a new normal, but only after a series of restructurings that will likely end in wars of aggression from emboldened regional powers seeking hegemony and that it will settle out into a multipolar world much less stable than our current one. Now, this is not to assume that by leaving NATO rashly, the US is abrogating its role as superpower and once more containing itself to its own borders. It is certainly possible that the US could continue to work with the United Nations to maintain the peace and order, but without that guarantee, US security alliances around the world would be called into question, and actors seeking the overthrow of the United States as global hegemon will be emboldened by this apparent back step, one made with little concern for the gigantic consequences. Even now, the mere idea that the United States might withdraw from the international system has produced a wave of consternation and plotting across the world’s capitals, as nations reassess and reevaluate how they do business both internally and abroad.
Some damage to American character has already been done, and its effects are impossible to predict. Even greater damage has been done to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the document restraining nations around the world from seeking the destabilizing power of nuclear weapons. That the United States is on the verge of electing as president the candidate that has floated both of these ideas is perhaps the most worrisome of all. Setting aside whatever asinine trade policies Mr. Trump might enforce or introduce, a world where the United States commitment to the international order is weakened is a world where the system of relatively free international trade is equally weakened. Economies flourish when they are allowed to do business freely where and how they choose, and do so knowing that the international order valuing that is stable and enforced by the monumental might of the US. Without those assurances, international corporations will retreat, investing in fewer ventures abroad and likely encountering greater barriers to trade wherever local politicians manage to erect them. This is a world where it is much harder for Syrian engineers at an American firm to buy materials mined in Central Asia and Africa, assemble components in Indochina, complete their products in East Asia, and sell them by the millions in Europe and South America. Make no mistake, though I have chosen Apple, all companies from all countries will be affected by this change, whether they are technology firms, agricultural producers, metal and energy commodities conglomerates, international finance houses, or light and heavy industry manufacturers, whether they are in the United States, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, India, Kenya, Russia, Japan, Australia, or China. The economic effect I personally cannot begin to imagine, but I am quite certain that Brexit will be but pocket change by comparison.
And, bear in mind further that I have ignored the economic effects of wars that will invariably be started by Mr. Trump’s election, whether he withdraws from NATO and Russia responses with a continental cataclysm over the Baltic states, as NATO’s Article V requires of its adherents, or whatever brushfires Mr. Trump starts himself when his temper is engaged like a toy by international actors to their own ends. This is before considering that it may well enshrine the West as the enemy of Islam it is not for a generation of minds, ensuring the debacle of international terrorism and Middle East conflict continues to broil for further decades, a cornucopia of death and chaos no international coalition can untangle. This is before considering that we are handing the codes to launch one of the two most powerful nuclear arsenals in the world to a man who felt it a personal necessity to respond on a national debate stage to a quip about the size of his penis. I do not dare imagine such a world, but I am forced to by the imminent possibility that he might be elected to the highest office of the United States federal government.
I believe the case here is clear and damning. I should not think of anyone who could rationally analyze this situation and find it acceptable to elect a President who will likely enable some of the apocalyptic visions I have laid out here. And this isn’t even frankly his greatest scandal, from his lying, cheating (in many senses), swindling, narcissism, ignorance, racism, sexism, sexual assault, and other cardinal sins too many to name here. Frankly I don’t understand the people who will vote for Trump, and I doubt I ever will. However I will leave you readers with one final plea: Vote. Whether you vote for Donald Trump or not, please over these next few weeks go out and vote, exercise your rights and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States, and vote. Your vote counts, and your voice matters.
As always thanks for reading. Feel free to share and comment below, though given the tenor of this campaign, I feel compelled to point out I will delete without warning any comment expressing racist or sexist views, or incites anyone to violence against anyone else, regardless of the political affiliation of either party, and ban that user permanently. Have a pleasant day, and thanks again. – GP