Indeed, the ink was barely dry on the North Atlantic Treaty establishing NATO in 1949 before U.S. officials saw worrisome signs that Washington’s new alliance partners were shirking their share of the collective‐defense responsibilities. Secretary of State Dean Acheson assured uneasy members of the Senate that the Europeans would provide the vast majority of armaments and manpower for NATO, making it unnecessary for the United States to station a large number of troops on the Continent.That scenario proved to be untrue.
In the mid‐1950s, John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, issued a warning to his alliance colleagues that the administration would have to conduct an “agonizing reappraisal” of America’s defense commitment to Europe if the NATO allies could not develop a united policy regarding West Germany and make a more serious effort at collective defense. That American attempt at coercive diplomacy ultimately failed. European leaders never took the warning seriously, believing that their American counterparts regarded Europe as far too important to America’s own security and prosperity to ever consider abandoning the continent to possible Soviet domination. They called the Eisenhower administration’s bluff and quickly confirmed that it was a bluff. There was no reappraisal of Washington’s defense commitment to Europe, agonizing or otherwise.
There have been numerous calls from American officials and legislators in the decades since for European members of NATO to “do more” for the collective‐defense effort. The Nixon administration was able to beat back the Mansfield Amendment (named after Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield), which proposed to drastically reduce U.S. troop levels in Europe, in part because of informal promises from the NATO allies that they would step up their defense efforts. Those promises that were soon forgotten.
More recently, President Obama’s secretary of defense Chuck Hagel admonished the Europeans during a February 2014 meeting of NATO defense ministers that America’s patience was wearing thin. The current path of inadequate defense spending, he warned, “is not sustainable. Our alliance can endure only as long as we are willing to fight for it, and invest in it.” Rebalancing NATO’s “burden‐sharing and capabilities,” Hagel stressed, “is mandatory—not elective.” The tone of his message was quite firm. “America’s contributions in NATO remain starkly disproportionate, so adjustments in the U.S. defense budget cannot become an excuse for further cuts in European defense spending.”
Hagel’s speech and other calls for greater burden‐sharing have had only limited impact. Four alliance members now meet the target agreed to at the 2006 (!) summit to devote at least two percent of annual GDP to defense, up from two members at the time of his speech. But that is still an anemic effort, and it notably does not include such key powers as Germany and Italy. Moreover the slight increase in the military effort of NATO’s European members has been drowned out by the calls for the United States to do much more—to station heavy armor and the most modern military aircraft on Russia’s western flank. On balance, allied free riding is as bad as ever.
That’s why Trump’s calls for greater burden‐sharing are a fatal distraction. Americans have been chasing that unicorn for decades, and it is past time to recognize the chase for the futile quest it is.
NATO is thoroughly obsolete in any case. As I have written on other occasions, it was created for a very different world and it no longer serves America’s interests.Instead of considering U.S. withdrawal as a regrettable, “fall back” option if his burden‐sharing proposals fail, Donald Trump should embrace withdrawal as the preferred option for an intelligent twenty‐first‐century foreign policy.