Back in Episode 18 of The Atlantic Bridge, my co-host Emmet Booth and I talked to John Devere Gibbons, a frequent conversation partner on Twitter, about his support of Trump and his views on many issues from LGTB rights to values to the election. Recently I got into an argument with him on Twitter about NATO, foreign policy and the complex interplay of the USA, Europe, China and Russia. We decided to leave the constricting 140 character limit behind in hopes of exploring these issues in depth in form of a written argument.
Stefan Sasse: Let’s start this with the very existence for NATO. While Trump himself has so far not commited to either side of the debate, there are some in his circle - as well as in his base - who advocate for leaving NATO and letting the Europeans fend for themselves. As I understand it, you’re advocating for such a thing. So, what’s your reasoning behind this?
John Devere Gibbons: I would count myself among those who would argue for an end to the NATO alliance. One reason is obvious: the United States cannot afford it. As Trump has repeatedly stated, USA is 20 trillion in debt and fast moving (unfortunately) to more socialism that will further erode her ability to sustain her current defense posture. Another reason is purpose. Since the Cold War ended I've yet to hear a well articulated purpose for NATO other than the USA defending Europe and the John McCain argument that we must remain essentially a hegemonically inclined power in order to continue to grease the military industrial complex that has never been forced to return to pre World War 2 levels by politicians.
After 70 years, Europe is entirely capable of securing its own defense. I am convinced they are reluctant to do so because in order to do so, much of the socialist programs in place across the entire continent would become financially unstable but for the USA essentially subsidizing European socialism through its guaranteeing and paying for its defense. Trump in numerous campaign speeches even elaborated that this gives the EU an unfair trade advantage against the USA. These are a few but not all of my personal reasons I think it should be ended.
Stefan Sasse: You’re not entirely wrong about the budgetary consequences. Europe did in fact hide behind America’s metaphoric military skirts, as was painfully obvious in the Libyan intervention, for example. However, it is not correct that this is a purely one-sided exchange that the US either undertook out of the greatness of its heart or to maintain a hegemonial status (though the latter certainly did play a role). The US also bought a considerable amount of influence in Europe and especially the European perimeter with this policy, and it surely was cheaper in total than sustaining it on your own, without allies.
Now, it’s of course debatable as to it’s in the interest of the US at all to engage in overseas conflicts, but I guess this will be an argument that we have to tackle further down the road of this conversation. I want to return to the matter of money: the US spend an unholy amount of money for defense. But these expenses are constantly pushed by Republicans first and foremost, and even Trump promised gargantuan spending increases for the military (as every president since Roosevelt has). The difference is just that he also said he didn’t want to use the military, except in cases where he does. Which is, of course, not a terribly consistent position to hold. But my main argument is this: if you want to reduce the financial commitments of the US regarding defense, why would you start with NATO, instead of cutting the support for unreliable and actively harmful allies as Saudi Arabia?
John Devere Gibbons: The USA does spend far too much on yearly defense, so we agree on this. I would argue that maintaining the European perimeter was the function of NATO and it worked well for the threat at the time which was the Soviet Union, as far as USA buying influence the Marshall plan and European fear of the Soviets was key to that. As far as Trump’s calling for increased military spending (and Republicans’ in general), this was clearly articulated by Trump to be expressly for a naval build up.
Trump, unlike almost every other Republican, genuinely seems to believe - and I concur - that China is the great economic, military and cultural strategic threat. You will likely note to me Obama felt the same, but Trump seems to want to reorient the USA in a much more Mahonian way to deal with this 21st century reality. By this I refer to needing to have more influence with Russia in reference to the strategic interests they share in limiting China’s ability to become a Eurasian hegemonic threat to both Russia and the USA. In this context, what use is NATO?
Actually in this context I argue that Europe holds little significant strategic purpose to the USA. As a society, Europe is in clear decline as is of course Russia, but Russia’s land border provides the strategic leverage against china that only it has the ability to bear. Now I agree this is basic Nixonian Kissingerist thinking, as I'm sure you will note. Furthermore, on the Saudis: I'm no fan of them myself and I would say they are far more problematic than I'd like, but they just bought 150 billion worth in arms and unlike Europe, they don't openly mock the leader of the nation that butters their bread, so to speak. In terms of the overall need for America to engage overseas, this IS a question that should be tackled at some point. I at my core prefer less, but that will be argued in time as you say. My main point is that NATO is not only a strategic disadvantage if we agree on a Obama/Trump desire to reorient the USA to Asia, it's a liability as you so aptly pointed out in the Libya reference.
Stefan Sasse: Not to get too much bogged down in details, but I just ran a quick google search for the time frame of June to November 2016 and couldn’t find ANY instance at which Trump has made any more concrete commitment than “increase military spending”. Several articles from the right to the left side of the spectrum note the lack of any detail whatsoever. As for Trump’s Mahonian bent, I fear you’re projecting. It may be that he does harbor such a strategic outlook - though I find it unlikely - but he definitely did not “clearly articulate” this on the campaign trail, or after for that matter.
Anyway, let’s delve into the meat of the argument. While the threat of the Soviet Union is gone, it is the expressed objective of Putin to bring its former borders and global weight back as much as possible. If you agree that NATO did serve a purpose back then to fend this off, I’m unsure as to why it’s a good strategy to throw away the tool and watch a comparable situation develop only to intervene then on a much worse basis.
I also do not agree that Europe is of little strategic significance to the US. While no conflict in Europe or at its perimeter is of a direct importance to the national security of the US, Europe in total - and its biggest member states like Germany, Britain or France individually - is a gigantic market, and the US is already on the receiving end of the global trade flows, as Trump also noted. It doesn’t make much sense to expose the biggest market area outside the North American continent needlessly. The pure economic weight of the European states ensures their relevance for the US, even if their function is a giant continental aircraft carrier and missile staging area has declined in importance since 1991. I also wouldn’t go as far as to describe them as a liability; I’d rather say their effectiveness as an ally leaves some room for improvement from an American standpoint.
John Devere Gibbons: Perhaps I am wrong but I on several occasions have heard Trump refer to a 350 ship navy, I will concede it could have been since he was elected. As I said on the podcast in reference to Trump’s Mahon outlook, he seems to do it more instinctively rather than a detailed knowledge of even who Mahon was. So in a way I'm trying to explain Trump to you, as he is often caricatured as dumb and stupid when in my opinion he is not. Regardless, I am of the opinion that he is basically right in the gut feeling he has expressed off the top of his head.
Now to your main point. The reality is Putin and the Russia of today do not adhere to an ideological insistence that it must dominate the world and destroy capitalism. Russia today is a normal nation that will always protect and push for its national interests. This can at times make it a competitor to both the USA and Europe, but it does not represent an existential threat as the supernational Soviet Union represented. If Europe really thought Russia was the potential threat you suggest, why to they continue to prop it up? Russia would collapse tomorrow if Europe stopped buying its gas and oil. Europe does not stop because Europe does not see it in its interests to do so. Absolutely nothing makes this more clear than the European sacrifice of the Ukraine in order to ensure that “the spice must flow”.
Europe is an awesome economic powerhouse, indeed I do not dispute this, but why should trade be dependent on the USA defending Europe at the USA expense? Europe as a whole is about to lose Britain and seems to want to punish it for being free. So the EU has lost one of its most powerful economies, and other than the Germans Europe is stagnant economically. The Atlantic trade route between the USA and Europe was once the world’s busiest, but this is no longer so. That title no belongs to the east coast of China and the west coast of the USA. The Pacific trade route between the two is by far the world’s most vibrant and dynamic.
Europe is now one of the most protectionist and bureaucratically burdensome places for outside nations to do business, so I wouldn't overestimate your economic strength. In the NATO context, why continue an economic burden to a group of protectionist nations whose Union is in decline and breaking up, that is willing to continue huge trade with a nation that you say is threat and has swallowed parts the Ukraine? The Russia argument for NATO is Europe once again using America to have its cake and it eat too, all while insulting the leader of the nation you want to do it for you. It's actually rather obnoxious and certainly inconsiderate of anyone's interests except Europe’s.
Stefan Sasse: I actually agree with a lot of your analysis. Yes, the Russia of today is certainly not the superpower that the USSR was. Obama dubbed them a “regional power”, which irked Putin to no end. But of course, for us in Europe this is a distinction without much meaning, since it’s a direct neighbour. And Russia is only insofar a “normal” state as it is not a superpower. It’s still an authoritarian nightmare, which I’m hesitant to call “normal”.
I also agree that Europe is hypocritical towards Russia in buying its oil and gas, and Germany especially has a pretty infamous role in this, screwing over Poland in order to secure a favorable deal. I don’t see Russia as a mortal enemy or anything, but they surely are a rival, and one that needs to be monitored and checked. Right now, they can’t be considered security partners (which was an actual possibility under Jeltzin).
Where your argument gets shaky is when you ask why the US needs to help out the EU and at the same time condemn it by allegedly “punishing” the UK. The EU has no power to actively hurt the UK, they can only withhold favored status from them. So, both of your points can be true, because if the US is under no obligation to support the EU, the EU is under no obligation to support the UK. This whole “freedom” thing cuts both ways. For the record, I don’t think there’s any punishing going on right now; Theresa May is aiming for a hard break with Europe for domestic reasons, and Germany especially would prefer to keep the UK close. It’s France that usually antagonized London.
So, while Europe certainly isn’t the dominant trading partner of the US, it’s no slouch either. Sure, China is becoming more and more important, but continuing that line of thought, there’s no country more important to you than Mexico, and Trump sure as hell has no problem pissing them off - including by mocking them and their leaders, by the way, and entirely unprovoked at that.
But really, our biggest difference seems to be over the question of whether or not the US has any legitimate security interests in Europe. I posit that it does. A stable Europe is definitely in the interest of the US, as is a prosperous Europe. In our Twitter conversation, you brought up the “mercantilist” anti-US-sentiments of the European powers prior to 1914. How is it in the interest of the US to recreate that status? And to generate a military power bloc (the logical consequence of forcing Europe to effectively double their military expenses) to which you have no ties whatsoever? Wouldn’t the US profit if their European allies paid up the 2%-goal AND stayed as Allies? This seems like an easy win-win to me.
John Devere Gibbons: I will address your last paragraph first. You likely will not like it but I stress this is not personal just an assessment of factual realities as I see them. The United States of America does not have any legitimate security interests in Europe. In fact the very idea that Trump, perhaps unknowingly, brought to the fore in purely realpolitik terms is that by leave NATO the USA will ensure Europe spends on defense to protect itself from Russia, while at the same time freeing the USA to draw closer to and leverage either Europe or Russia against each other as its global interests dictate. To be clear this, is what Europe is free to do now under the current arrangements with regards to its interests concerning Russia, China and America, and I complement them on the skill on which they have done it.
A perfect example of how treating Europe as some eternal friend is foolhardy is what the Germans and others in Europe did to America under Obama concerning the AIIB bank that Obama explicitly and publicly asked his so called allies NOT to join. The Europeans clearly proved their interests are more important to them than our interests in Asia. Nothing represented the absurdity of NATO to US interests more than this, and you liked him. America must normalize relations with Europe and treat them like any other normal nation/ nations that are free to pursue self interests but have no veto power over the US ability to attend to its own interests.
As for the term “normal nation” in reference to Russia, let's not get in the practice of being outraged at basic words as liberals are always doing lately. Russia is a normal nation in every sense. Its government is horrid, agreed, but no more so than the normal nation of China or Venezuela. The only abnormal nation in the world is the United States in so far as it is a superpower.
All in all you make salient points that in some cases I agree with, although not completely in reference to the dangers of a pre 1914 mercantilist world, however I would argue weather USA likes it or not, the post Cold War world is long been heading that direction lead by Asia in particular.
Finally Trump’s approach to Mexico is not unprovoked and clearly necessary he has already initiated NAFTA renegotiation and their tone has changed noticeably. Also, for decades the USA has supported and financed the the Mexican military and police and they have not lifted one finger to help enforce the rules of the mutually agreed border in relation to illegal immigration. You see it as unprovoked because Merkel has made Germany into an open border nation. The US does not and should not have to follow Europe in the open borders course.
Stefan Sasse: If the US really were to “leverage” Europe against Russia, they might be in for a rough ride. It’s not exactly like Trump and his base invented the “let’s embrace Russia” strategy. It has been a mainstay in the European left for decades, and now the far right joined in as well. If the US really do cut their ties to Europe and let if fend for themselves, they might find that Europe is all too eager to accomodate rivals instead of, you know, rivaling them. This might not be exactly in the American best interest either.
You have to realize that Europe is in large parts utterly dependent on the US for its nuclear umbrella. Aside from the UK and France, no country in Europe has a nuclear deterrence or anything resembling a defense system against it. This is not laziness or freeloading. It is very much in the interest of the US to keep the number of nuclear states small. If they unilaterally withdraw that commitment, Europe necessarily needs to find a rapprochment with the one neighbor who has these weapons, and it will certainly not be in the way you imagine the leveraging.
All in all, the Europe-North-America-alliance has been a guarantee for stability in these two parts of the world. It is not like it was a net loss for the US, despite what Trump says. American overreach and overstretch appeared in regions where Europe has zero interest in, namely the Southeast Asia and the Middle East. And again, I definitely am saying that Europe should take on more security responsibilities than it does now (which doesn’t necessarily mean more military hardware and interventions, by the way), like in North Africa, the Near East and the Eurasian border region (like Ukraine). This is a valid discussion to have, and I’m sure there are debates for this. But to simply throw away all connection to Europe on a whim seems like a really bad idea.
As to your point about China, NATO is a regionally limited alliance. It’s in the name - North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US does have alliances in other parts of the world, for example SEATO. If you want to have a discussion about broadening NATO’s scope to encompass all of the world, that’s a discussion you might start (although I’d oppose this move strongly), but you can’t fault the EU for failing to support US national interests in a region it does not have any stakes in and in which there is no framework.
I don’t want to mince words, I just wanted to make sure that you do not equate states with a functioning rule of law and those without. Russia definitely is a normal nation in regards to its status before international law, no question.
I have no clue why Merkel letting in refugees forced Trump to call Mexican immigrants rapists, but I guess I’m just way too liberal and elitist to instantly make such common-sense-leaps. It has been said a thousand times, but I’ll repeat it for you: for years now, the number of illegal Mexican immigrants to the US is declining in absolute terms. This was a problem a decade or two ago, but these days, more Mexicans are leaving the US than entering. Border security is not a salient issue. You might make a case that one needs to tackle the millions undocumented persons in the US, but that would mean you have to seriously talk about a path to citizenship, and I fear that’s beyond the scope of this particular debate.
John Devere Gibbons: Most of your assertions in the first few paragraphs is in my opinion sound foreign policy analysis. It is however quite rightly an analysis from a European perspective, and I stress it is not radically illogical or anything other than a sound approach for Europe. I do want to reiterate that the main crux of the building momentum in the USA against NATO and Europe in general on the right is the atrocious anti Americanism/Trumpism that is getting louder and more crass. Now it may seem petty but antagonistic approach to a nationalist USA government seems a poor strategic choice. Merkel’s beer hall statement set talk radio on fire.
In terms of Russia, Europe would go the way of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany if a NATO less Europe shackled itself to that corpse. Russia is insignificant economically to USA, its leverage value is only significant in relation to its territorial fears about China. So I don't think the USA would ever become hostile to Europe in favor of Russia, that is not something anyone on the right would accept. In terms of Europe cooperating with rivals I'd have no problem with that, it is logical. If Europe is so concerned about USA nuclear protection and the NATO alliance the Germans and French would be wise to tone the anti-Trump crassness down. Americans you may well see have difficulty differentiating it from smug European anti-Americanism. Trump as yet has made no move to withdraw from NATO. I would not lose sleep if he did, but I won't lose sleep if he doesn't. I get the sense that Europe must make a choice stop mocking a President who is only asking you to pay the 2 % as Merkel seems to be moving to form a European Army which will mean the end of NATO, so the ball is in Europe’s court.
Stefan Sasse: When is talk radio ever not on fire? But seriously, the biggest mistake you make in your analysis is to do what Trumpists love to do - conflate people who share your opinion with “Americans”. It’s only Trump fans who conceive of European Trump-mocking as anti-American and conflate the too. It’s an exact repition of the relationship from the Bush years. When Dubbya was president, he was widely mocked in Europe, but I do not recall any Democrat ever losing sleep over it. This is a partisan issue. I agree that we Europeans are supplying ammunition to the right and rile up the base, absolutely, but at the same time it is helpful to liberals who point out the damage Trump is doing to their own base. Besides, as I stated earlier, most people don’t care about foreign policy anyway, and the people basing their vote on what the head of state of a country 6000 miles away says about their president has have to be invented yet.
I don’t think that Russia is on the track to becoming a superpower, far from it. Obama was definitely right in calling them a regional power. Unfortunately, the region they’re in is partially overlapping with the one we’re sitting in, unlike you Americans. And carcasses with atomic bombs, and carcasses at your border, are generally more dangerous than carcasses on the other side of the globe. This is a bit like stating that the Mexican border poses no problems for us here. It’s at the same time true and useless and assertion.
I also stand to my point that it’s highly unprofessional and borderline stupid to base your foreign policy on whether or not someone said something mean about you. Putin set his goddamn dog on Merkel, and you don’t see it informing her foreign policy choices. Trump can suck up some witty remarks from Europeans, or he’s proving himself as unfit as we all assume he is.
John Devere Gibbons: Fair point on conflation. However I think you horribly underestimate the effectiveness of Trump’s speaking style, and how effective he and the right in general are amplifying European criticism. Basically Trump tells people: “You see, they think we are stupid! Well, we're not going to be the stupid people anymore!” It's rather remarkable how European blindness to American nationalism is killing both the Never-Trump Republicans and the Democrat argument for remaining in NATO.
Before Trump it was unthinkable NATO would be questioned. I implore you to understand how the European reaction to Trump is normalizing the questioning of NATO. This is what I mean by the reaction to it being a palpable change that has happened. I also think it is irresponsible and dangerous of you to believe Trump himself and his team do not understand this, and how cleverly he has weaved a narrative about the Europeans (Germany in particular) into the whole “America First”-narrative. You are right, no one cares about foreign policy, but Trump has made it about something else, and in this sense you play the willing scapegoat. He has turned criticism of him into a criticism of Americans and their intelligence.
As a whole this thread contains both valid reasons for NATO and against from purely rational foreign policy points of view. The real reason Trump is winning the emotional sentiment against NATO is because Europe is continuing to not understand the intensity of resentment to NATO and Europe in the non-coastal areas of America. All in all it's clear you disagree with USA pulling out of NATO, and I don't entirely disagree with many of your arguments. It seems we are at an impasse and we shall have to see how it shakes out.
Stefan Sasse: That is so. Let me briefly talk about the whole perception thing. You’re absolutely right about how European reaction is received in Trump’s base, but you can hardly argue that European reaction to Trump goaded him into questioning NATO. He did so from the beginning of his campaign, after all. My point is less trying to convince you that your view of the perceptions is wrong. People definitely see it that way, and we are the willing scapegoat for them. But I implore you to consider that it is only a minority (albeit a strong one) that sees things that way. And we were at the same point in 2003, when Bush talked up the divide in “Old Europe” and “New Europe” and started his “Coalition of the Willing”. We had the same arguments then, and Europeans weren’t responsible for the invasion of Iraq neither. If Trump wants to disband NATO, he can do that, but please don’t hide your responsibility for this behind Europe’s reaction.