As President-Elect Trump begins to form his governing team and to review the involvement of America in the world, it makes sense in the revolutionary change in American politics to look anew at almost everything. Trump has taken some hits for suggesting that our contribution to NATO has been disproportionately large. I will suggest what many of us may think but Trump may be too coy to openly state: America does not need NATO.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created at the instigation of an American superpower trying to find a means of containing global communism, led by the Soviet Union, by bringing together those nations in Europe who needed to be reassured that a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany would be resisted using conventional forces by those nations whose collective unity could cause the Soviets not to attempt a lunge through the Fulda Gap or other weak spots. This collection of allies included nations outside Europe – America, Turkey, and Canada – and although the language of the alliance did not specify the Soviet Union, that was the sole threat the alliance envisioned.
The alliance succeeded in preventing war in Europe, and once America began trying to win the Cold War, the whole structure of the Soviet Empire dissolved, first with the unification of Germany, then the liberation of all the other Warsaw Pact allies, then the independence of the non-Russian nations within the Soviet Union, and finally with the overthrowing of the communist overlords of Russia.
NATO was part of a grand system of alliances that America created to contain communism. CENTO, the Central Treaty Organization, included Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Britain, and America. SEATO, the South East Asia Treaty Organization, was a similar organization of regional partners and America, France, and Britain.
While NATO, which was created for a specific threat, worked as intended, CENTO and SEATO proved colossal failures. When the Shah was overthrown, Iran pulled out of CENTO, and Iran and Iraq were soon involved in a horrific and long war. Afghanistan was invaded, Pakistan fought several wars with India, and the whole region intended to be protected has since descended into a simmering cauldron of bloody wars, civil unrest, and terrorism.
SEATO was the umbrella under which America fought the Vietnam War. France and Britain not only did not help in that war, but actually behaved more like neutrals than allies. The SEATO alliance system was worse than useless during the Vietnam War. The British and French did not see their national interests at risk, so while
American forces in Europe guarded France against communist aggression, the French did nothing to help America protect its recent colony of Indochina from communist aggression.
Except for America, all the other nations of the planet form understandings, alliances, and security agreements when it serves the interests of the nation involved. Often the best course is to avoid organizations entirely. Israel defends itself. Switzerland and Sweden, both completely unaligned, defend themselves. Taiwan understands that it must largely defend itself. India, a large nation with external and internal threats, defends itself.
NATO, in fact, may never have been needed. America always retained the ability to stop any invasion of Western Europe by using tactical nuclear weapons against military and logistical targets in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary, and during the last decades of the Cold War, the democracies of Europe could have built military power equal to the Soviet bloc.
The defeat of the Soviet Union makes quibbling over NATO during the Cold War seem unimportant: we won a global war without firing a shot. What is the function of NATO today? Russia is not a totalitarian power bent on global domination. We know this, which is why the prospect of a tiny Iranian nuclear force is much scarier than a Russian arsenal many times greater.
If NATO serves little purpose for America today, the prospect of NATO allies (aside from Turkey) becoming Islamic nations, as France may do in a few years, suggests that NATO may become a positive danger to American interests.
Fifty years ago, President de Gaulle pulled French forces out of NATO, with no harm to French national interests at all. We have just elected our own President Trump, whose loyalty to America is as fierce as de Gaulle's loyalty was to France. Does NATO serve our national interests? If it does not, then President Trump ought to do what President de Gaulle did in 1966 and put the interests of the nation he governs first.