Trump and The Article Five Shibboleth

U.S. president makes another wise move on NATO.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The NeverTrump bitter-enders still can’t resist sniping at the president and his alleged éminence grise, Steve Bannon. Now it’s Trump’s “dangerous” refusal––despite advice from his national security advisors, and allegedly fomented by Bannon––to reassure fellow NATO members of his commitment to Article Five of the NATO treaty during the ceremonies in May celebrating NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels. According to _Commentary_’s Noah Rothman, for example, Trump’s snubbing of Article Five emboldens Russia, for it “undermines a credible American deterrence” and “invites Putin to test the parameters of Trump’s resolve, which could be disastrous.”

The inflation of Article Five into the West’s premier bulwark against aggression is one of the best examples of the magical thinking that ritualistic affirmations of toothless multinational treaties will keep the peace and deter enemies.

This belief, however, depends more on half-truths and political marketing than on facts. We often hear that NATO “avoided a major state conflict,” as one NeverTrumper wrote, in postwar Europe, and kept the Soviets at bay during the Cold War. But what kept the peace in Europe was the simple fact that the European nations did not have the means or the will to wage a war. They were too demoralized and too busy rebuilding their shattered economies, financed in part by the Marshall Plan’s $190 billion (in today’s money).

As for deterring the Soviets, it was the 300,000 American troops deployed in Germany between 1950 and 1990, and the 25,000 nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal threatening Mutually Assured Destruction that checked Soviet aggression, not the “military pygmies,” as NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson put it, of the European nations. NATO and Article Five were then and now a fig-leaf for allowing the European nations to hide the fact that their security was a benefit provided by American military power and funded by the U.S. taxpayer, freeing Europeans to concentrate on rebuilding their economies, and then creating their social-welfare, dolce vita EUtopia.

Indeed, the political purpose of Article Five is obvious from its actual language, which questions the common description of it as a mutual defense pact. Article Five states that “an armed attack against one or more of [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” In the event of such an attack, Article Five continues, “each” member will respond “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action _as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force_” [emphases added]. “Considering” an act of aggression to be an attack is inherently subjective, as are the “actions” any country might “deem” to be “necessary.” Such elastic language could make speechifying at the U.N., or imposing economic sanctions, or voting on a Security Council resolution to be a fulfillment of a member state’s treaty obligation. And no, there is no provision for enforcing Article Five, though there is one (Article 13) for leaving NATO.

These loopholes exist for a reason: they serve the political needs of each state, recognizing that the decision to use force will always be made by a sovereign nation’s leaders, who are answerable to their citizens and responsible for seeing to their particular interests. If Article Five had said, “In the event of an attack, each member state shall forthwith mobilize its military and declare war on the aggressor,” such a genuine mutual defense pact would have died in its diplomatic crib. The elasticity of Article Five’s language means it’s highly unlikely that, say, a Russian incursion into Estonia would be countered by military force on behalf of a faraway country about which most European and American voters know nothing.

Defenders of Article Five also make much of the fact that the only time it has been invoked was after 911. And some NATO states did send troops and matériel to Afghanistan, the bulk coming from the British Commonwealth countries. We should honor the sacrifice of those Europeans who died in that conflict and later in Iraq. But while we appreciate the help, it wasn’t necessary for defeating either foe. As happened in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Libya, NATO operations are in reality American ones, for we provide the bulk of men and matériel, and do most of the fighting and dying. Article Five is simply not necessary for our military effectiveness, since as the world’s greatest military and economic power, we can always find allies in other countries willing to bandwagon with the global hegemon. That’s why 34 nations in 1990 joined the coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

NATO’s benefits, then, go mostly in one direction: to provide security for rich countries that refuse to finance their militaries or develop the capacity to defend themselves––which, by the way, is a requirement of the NATO treaty’s Article Three, which states that “each member state must maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” That article has been as ignored as the 2006 requirement that each NATO member spend 2% of its GDP on defense.

More useful for our foreign policy than rhetorical obeisance to Article Five is Trump’s scolding of member states for not carrying their fiscal weight. It’s a scandal that the two biggest economies in the Eurozone, France and Germany, can’t reach the 2% of GDP threshold for military spending required by NATO. Germany is the world’s fourth largest economy, but spends a paltry 1.2% of its $3.35 trillion GDP on defense. This shameful fact––worsened by endemic German anti-Americanism and moral preening––is of more consequence than Trump’s failure to issue rote statements of support for Article Five.

As for deterring Russia, one has to be delusional to think Vladimir Putin, after eight years of Obama’s “reset” and “flexibility” and retreat, will be frightened off by mere rhetoric. Getting NATO members to spend real money on weapons and troops, and rebuilding America’s military capability are the ways to concentrate the minds of all our rivals and enemies.

All this Article Five blather and NATO encomia represent the decayed remnants of idealistic internationalism and its faith in multinational institutions, agreements, treaties, and diplomatic palaver. For nearly a century we have witnessed failure after failure of this ideal: The League of Nations, the Locarno Treaty, the Kellogg-Briand pact, none of which prevented World War II; the U.N. with its pathetic “peace-keeping” forces, coddling of tyrannical regimes, and impotent Security Council resolutions; the numerous arms reduction and arms control treaties invariably violated by the signatories; the fruitless nuclear non-proliferation protocols and negotiations that turned North Korea into a nuclear power, and promise to do the same for Iran––all prove that aggression must be met with deeds, not empty words.

The fact is, sovereign states relate to each other not on the basis of imagined universal principles recognized by all nations, but on their particular interests that sometimes collide, other times agree, and always are subject to changing circumstances. Spain’s participation in the Iraq War, for example, ended after the 2004 Madrid train bombing by al Qaeda, and Italy pulled out after antiwar sentiment helped elect Romano Prodi Prime Minister in 2006. Alliances and treaties are always subject to political change, not lofty universal principles.

When it comes to foreign affairs, the only certainty, as George Washington said, is “the maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by its interests.” It’s high time that we accepted that hard truth and acted accordingly.