President Donald Trump returned early from the London NATO summit. Staged to satisfy British Prime Minister Boris Johnson—the official 70th-anniversary meeting was held in April—the latest gathering featured only one, mercifully short, session, to reduce the likelihood of a Trump eruption. Even so, before arriving he improbably chided French President Emmanuel Macron for being “nasty,” “insulting,” and “disrespectful” in suggesting that the alliance suffered from “brain death.” Then the session’s minimal substance was overshadowed by the president’s personal spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Of course, the assembled leaders filled their limited time together with happy talk. The greatest alliance ever is more necessary than ever as Europe faces the greatest security challenges ever. The Europeans are spending more and cutting Washington’s burden. NATO is preparing plans both to defend its members from conventional attacks and confront new threats. The Europeans even are ready to tackle the huge new challenge posed by increasingly aggressive China. All in all, the alliance is prospering greatly.
This is fantasy. A very pleasant one. But fantasy nonetheless.
NATO was formed in 1949 to shield European states from Soviet aggression as they recovered from World War II. The U.S. was only supposed to assist European governments in their defense efforts. For instance, Secretary of State Dean Acheson promised Congress that it would not need “to send substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, past wartime allied leader, first NATO commander, and future Cold War president opposed providing a permanent U.S. garrison which, he predicted, would “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide themselves.”
Alas, these sentiments were ignored as the U.S.S.R. tightened its control over Central and Eastern Europe. The Europeans recovered economically but failed to increase their defense outlays accordingly. Washington maintained its dominant military presence while constantly urging its allies to do more. They routinely said yes but did little.