Trump and Hobbes visit NATO

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Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned of a state of nature when the ordering powers of mutual contracts are removed — a state of “continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

For as long as humans have been human, we’ve been organizing into social units to avoid that “nasty, brutish and short” part. From families to governments and international alliances, we form mutual bonds to secure a more prosperous and less violent future.

Such was the motivation 70 years ago when 12 nations formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Membership has grown to 29 countries, all bound by the premise that an attack on one is an attack on all.

NATO honored that responsibility when we were attacked on 9/11, and volunteered to defend the United States in our time of need.

They’ve been with us ever since, in Afghanistan and by providing crucial bases for our mutual war on terrorism. Our NATO allies remain vital to stability and security in Europe, in southwest Asia and in facing a growing threat from Russia.

But, none of those commitments or our own security interests hold sway when Mr. Trump decides he’s going to take the stage. And take it he did, this week, with his characteristic Twitter-storm approach to diplomacy.

To be fair, President Trump raised legitimate issues with Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Russia. That’s a strategic concern any U.S. president should raise.

Unfortunately, Trump approached the issue with a demeanor more befitting a drunk frat boy than a president. It would be difficult for any president to convince Germany to abandon a pipeline it sees as crucial to its energy strategy. For a president who’s cozied up to Putin, argued Russia should be readmitted to the G7 while still occupying Crimea and turned a blind eye to Russian meddling in our elections, it is an impossible argument lacking any credibility.

Trump spent more time this week Twitter-molesting our allies over defense spending. Again, this is a legitimate concern — one addressed in 2014 by commitments from our NATO allies to increase defense spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024.

But the president scuttled his own argument with his bombastic style and some outright falsehoods. On Monday, Trump tweeted the U.S. is “by some accounts” paying for 90 percent of NATO. This is patently false by all credible accounts.

The U.S. spent about $618 billion on defense last year, adjusted for inflation — about 3.57 percent of our GDP. That means the U.S. spent about 67 percent of the total NATO budget of $917 billion last year — if we were to claim all our military spending went to defend NATO and NATO only.

But, our forces and our budget span the globe. Thus, the amount actually spent on NATO is much less than 67 percent of its budget, much less than 3.57 percent of our GDP and nowhere near the president’s 90 percent figure.

And, what is Russia spending relative to NATO?

Combined NATO spending in 2015 was more than 17 times that of Russia, according to a March, 2018 Rand Corporation report, and last year the Kremlin cut military spending by 17 percent.

But, up is the only way to go in our spending, it seems. Trump changed course Thursday, crowing that he’d pushed our allies to increase defense spending “at levels that they never thought of before.”

His celebratory comments follow a reality-TV formula well-used by the president: 1) start a fire; 2) blame others for fire, and violently stomp it out; 3) lavish yourself with self-congratulatory praise for putting out the fire.

The president offered no real figures, and according to French president Emmanuel Macron, everything ended where it started, with NATO nations continuing on the path to 2 percent by 2024.

So, what exactly changed this week? Nothing tangible.

But, in diplomacy, the intangibles are everything. Much like a marriage, the bank accounts and assets come and go. But trust, once lost, is often an irreparable casualty of callous and careless deeds. This week, I fear, our nation did damage to our alliances that no amount of money can repair.

Loss of cohesion in NATO only means something if you believe we are stronger with numerous and diverse allies around the globe. That has been a guiding principle of American foreign policy since the Revolution. It is a principle our president showed himself willing this week to abandon, in his increasingly dangerous delusion that the U.S. can and should go it alone.

It will take considerable effort to repair the damage done by this president to our standing among nations. But, it must be repaired. The alternative is an American foreign policy future that follows a Hobbesian forecast: a path “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

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