WASHINGTON ― Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump set off panic Wednesday night by suggesting he would torpedo America’s commitment to its partners in the strongest mutual defense alliance in the world, NATO.
Trump’s comment that he would judge NATO members’ spending on security before helping them face down a potential invasion ― a remark initially made to The New York Times ― took over the news cycle for hours. It played perfectly into widespread doubts about the self-described billionaire’s volatility and seemingly reckless views on foreign policy. For his opponents, it was an ideal opportunity to try to turn voters against him.
Have they taken that opportunity?
Instead, key anti-Trump forces are offering evidence for the Republican standard-bearer’s argument ― that U.S. elites are so hung up on past commitments that they can’t embrace fresh thinking.
The Clinton campaign, the Obama administration and top Democratic national security figures like Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) have chosen to attack Trump by describing his remarks as out of line with the history of Republican presidents, notably GOP hero Ronald Reagan. They’re trotting out classic boilerplate about upholding American promises to NATO.
While this might satisfy worried foreign leaders, it means very little to many U.S. voters on the right and left, who are signaling that they couldn’t care less about the traditions of the past. Republican primary voters have already demonstrated their anger with America’s historic foreign policy, including that of the previous GOP president. Now, widely followed activists on the left are describing the Trump critics’ line as further proof that Hillary Clinton is essentially a war hawk who has abandoned progressive
This could easily become the narrative that sticks ― that there’s really no reason for the U.S. to give money to an “imperial” alliance that supposedly provokes needless tension and and that Trump has it right. Bashing other NATO members for failing to meet their defense spending target (2 percent of their annual budget) has appeal across the political spectrum because it reinforces the sense that America is unfairly over-extended in the world. And talk about NATO’s recent track record ― notably the unpopular 2011 intervention in Libya, with which Clinton is widely associated ― only prompts more vitriol.
But there are a lot of good reasons why the vitality of the Western alliance should matter to regular voters. We’re simply not talking about them. Rather than just calling his remark reckless, Trump’s opponents need to set forth those reasons.
They could, for instance, make a case for NATO that dovetails with the growing war-weariness across America. Clinton and her advocates could explain why a strong NATO makes war with Russia less likely, by giving the country’s autocratic president an incentive to recognize his limits and stop short of prompting global conflict for his local gain.
For Vladimir Putin, adventures into the former Soviet world are an easy way to ignite nationalist sentiment by evoking memories of lost Russian stature. That’s a big reason why he invaded Ukraine in 2014, after that country’s people made clear they wanted to move closer to the West. The resulting crisis has claimed thousands of casualties and dealt deep economic damage to the rest of Europe and to Russia itself. But it’s also helped Putin win even more domestic support.
Mark Galeotti, a former New York University professor and an incoming senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, argued Thursday that this shows why conflict will not be prevented by NATO backing off from regions Putin is interested in. Galeotti’s conversations with Russian insiders have him convinced Putin does not truly want to grab territory. Instead, the Russian president wants to project fear abroad for the sake of his power at home. By undermining his capacity to do that ― by proving that his threats against neighbors are necessarily empty because of NATO’s commitment to those countries ― the defense alliance helps keep Russian belligerence in check and encourages peaceful engagement.
Laying out the current nature of Russia’s threat to peace is key because the classic “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” argument no longer works. With the rise of isolationist thinking across the political spectrum and the spread of Russia-sponsored “news” that encourages the world to see all international crises as Washington’s fault, many voters are willing to back off and let Moscow do what it pleases. Democrats mocked Mitt Romney for talking of Russia as a top geopolitical threat in 2012 ― and many still think that’s an overstatement. Can Trump critics hoping to woo voters convince them that this thinking is off?
Equally important, Trump critics need to argue that there’s more to NATO than opposing Russia. The alliance was there for the U.S. after it was attacked on 9/11 and continues to provide essential support in Afghanistan as the U.S. tries to slowly exit that war.
Helping voters understand the need for friends abroad means countering the pernicious argument that the greatest threats to American national security today are simply the results of Washington’s war-mongering abroad. The forces determined to target the U.S. arose for a complex mix of reasons, including, but not limited to, the sometimes brutal mistakes of America and NATO. They won’t spare groups of people in NATO countries just because those folks criticize the alliance or other “imperialism.” The alliance’s defenders need to remind Americans that NATO partners work with Washington to face many of these foes, including the self-described Islamic State and other militant groups.
None of this is to say that Trump’s critics should not acknowledge legitimate complaints about what’s not working in that partnership. Surely it’s not impossible for Clinton and her allies to point out that NATO nations are well aware they could share the burden of collective defense more fairly. Bolstering defense spending is simply politically harder for their governments than it is in the U.S., where even pseudo-isolationist Trump talks about more military money. But they’re trying, as Germany recently proved.
To anyone listening to voters’ thoughts about how America should engage the world, it’s clear that the best case against Trumpian pseudo-isolation consists not of invoking long-dead leaders but of talking plainly about U.S. needs today. Now it all depends on whether Trump’s rivals can make that case ― and, ahem, not blow this.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist