President Donald Trump made headlines Monday, Jan. 16 when he asserted that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the apex of the American alliance network during the Cold War, has become “obsolete.” While the Cold War may be over, NATO is still an important organization, even if it has evolved to serve a new purpose. Not only does NATO protect the very existence of democracy in eastern Europe, but it also ensures global peace at a relatively small price, both financially and diplomatically, for America.
It is worth acknowledging that there is a small hint of truth in Trump’s criticism of NATO: its members do not contribute enough financially relative to the US’s contribution. Trump cited this as one reason for his hesitance to continue supporting the alliance, according to an article from CNN. NATO’s own press release of defense spending by nation displays that many nations are spending less than the 2 percent of their GDP that NATO stipulates must be spent on defense. However, nations like Poland and Estonia, which are most threatened by Russia, are paying their fair share, as is another principle NATO country, the United Kingdom. France, too, spends just slightly under the stipulated percentage. Underpaying members should absolutely be forced to devote more money to defense, but this non-compliance is much less of a crisis than Trump makes it out to be, considering which countries are the ones underpaying.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s protection allowed many nations formerly under the control of the Soviet Union to establish themselves as thriving democracies. In an era in which Russia is becoming increasingly assertive toward its neighboring states, powerful democratic allies are more important than ever for Eastern Europe’s young democracies. Anyone who questions the Russian threat needs only look at their merciless invasion of fledgling democracies Georgia and Ukraine, nations that arguably would have been spared had they been members of NATO. Both nations were pursuing closer alignment with NATO and the European Union but because these commitments had not been made yet, Russia was not dissuaded from invasion.
Within NATO, the threat of Russian aggression looms largest in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three Baltic states. An article from The Independent details the fears of Russian invasion expressed by many citizens of these countries in the wake of their much larger neighbor’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia. Quoted in the article, one Lithuanian woman expresses the belief held by many in the region that “Russia is a very dangerous kind of neighbor. They are always aiming at us.” Another article from The New York Times outlines measures the government of Estonia is taking to train its citizens for insurgency in the event of Russian invasion.
Both articles also discuss Trump’s statements that the Baltic states should not automatically rely on US aid in the event of an invasion. Considering the principles of liberty on which our country was founded, the United States should hold a vested interest in protecting people who wish to exercise this same liberty from those who would deprive them of it. For those only concerned about America, note that a network of allies in Eastern Europe maintains America’s status as a global hegemon and prevents nations like Russia from making legitimate challenges to this predominance.
However, there are those like Trump who insist that the US has no obligation to protect other democracies around the world, and ignore existing moral arguments and possible effects on America’s status as a global superpower. After all, as many would argue, why should Americans put their lives on the line for citizens of another nation living thousands of miles away? What Trump and his supporters seem incapable of comprehending, however, is that NATO acts as a foolproof instrument of peace, and military action to defend Europe would never be necessary. Russia would never dare attack the United States (or a member of NATO in a binding defensive alliance with the United States) because it could mean nuclear retaliation, which would destroy both Russia and everything it hoped to gain from invasion. Vladimir Putin may pursue an aggressive foreign policy but he is not so foolish as to think Russia or the world could survive a nuclear war. Thus, all that is needed is a credible commitment to defend NATO allies in eastern Europe, something which comes at a small cost for the US and something that Trump is quite ignorant for calling into doubt.
Trump’s apparent revocation of this commitment displays a fundamental misunderstanding of why NATO works. NATO is not an instrument of war but an instrument that prevents it. It maintains European peace because Russia would never dare threaten military action against allies of a nuclear power. As soon as this protection is gone, eastern Europe becomes sitting ducks waiting for a Russian invasion. If it were to come to war, even if the US did not get involved, the economic consequences of a new age of conflict in Europe would be catastrophic for the United States, which is economically linked with the continent. Thousands of innocents would be killed and a now-stable region of the world would once again be thrown into chaos. Trump’s failure to understand this reflects a broader flaw in his policies: his inability to comprehend that globalization cannot be ignored. It is simply a fact in today’s world that what happens in one part of the world will affect the rest of the world and NATO goes a long way toward minimizing the negative consequences of this ripple effect.
Ultimately, Trump’s claim that NATO is “obsolete” is completely unfounded. It protects many important allies from Russian aggression, allowing millions of people who desire democracy and liberty to maintain these freedoms. A US-backed NATO also maintains international peace by deterring Russia through the threat of America’s nuclear arsenal. While many NATO members should pull their weight a bit more, America’s current commitment to NATO provides myriad benefits at a comparatively miniscule cost. Trump would be making a fatal error if he were to weaken this commitment.
Cameron Hall is a College freshman from Columbus, Ohio.