Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Western Alliance

By yet another convenient coincidence, today's NATO summit falls on the feast of Saint Benedict (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism and Patron of Europe. Both events remind us of the historical centrality of Europe in the formation of our Western culture and of our unique American relationship with Europe as its civilizational heir and beneficiary and as the guarantor of that civilization's survival. Yesterday, the US Senate voted 97-2 to reaffirm the significance of the NATO alliance.

NATO is almost as old as I am. In the aftermath of the Berlin Blockade, the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, and other events, it became increasingly evident that a full-scale Western military alliance was needed to counterbalance Soviet power and possible expansion, The result was the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949 (photo). Its goal, in the words of its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Its historical success until now has been how it has indeed contained Russian expansionism, overcome American isolationism, and re-integrated post-war Germany into the heart of European civilization and collective defense. (West Germany became a member in 1955.)

The members agreed that an armed attack against any one of them in Europe or North America would be considered an attack against them all and that each of them would assist the country being attacked. The only time this provision has actually been explicitly invoked was in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S.

Prior to President Trump, probably the greatest threat to NATO's unity and effectiveness had come from the more independent policies of French President Charles de Gaulle (who resented American dominance of the alliance and the "special relationship" between the US and the UK. Even so, France remained in the alliance.

President Trump came to power on the strength of a kind of grievance politics - a popular belief that the US is constantly being taken advantage of by others. I have heard this all my life - usually in connection with "foreign aid," which is in fact a very small part of the US budget. Of course, there is some merit to the President's complaint that other NATO countries are not contributing their fair share of the cost of our mutual defense. Previous presidents have made the same point. Whereas when NATO began Europe was devastated, now - in large part thanks to the American security umbrella - Europe is now prosperous and probably ought to contribute a larger share.

Previous presidents have made the same point, but previous presidents understood the value of alliances and understood that what binds us together with Europe is much greater than disagreements over money. President Trump obviously has no sense of history and no appreciation of mutuality. To him, everything seems to be a zero-sum transaction. Hence his inability to appreciate how everyone can benefit in an alliance.

Yesterday's Senate vote is  reminder that, despite the appeal in this country of Trump's grievance politics, many Americans still treasure our inheritance from Europe and our contemporary relationship with Europe - and recognize the threat our long-time enemy Russia still poses.

Saint Benedict, pray for us!

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