DONALD Trump was full of praise for his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö this week. ‘I enjoyed being with you a couple of days ago,’ he said. ‘NATO has, I think, never been stronger. It was a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love. I appreciated your support.’ That Finland is and has never been a member of NATO serves to highlight the total ignorance that informs his consistently fierce criticism of the organisation.
Later, in an interview with Tucker Carlson, one of FOX News’ dead-eyed, dyed-haired, plastic-faced Trump mouthpieces, the President doubled down on this criticism. He suggested that tiny Montenegro (‘very tough people’), a country of little more than 640,000 people is in some way provocative towards Russia, and that American support for the nation should be conditional on its level of defence spending.
It’s not just ignorance about NATO that informs President Trump’s view. His worldview is fundamentally geared towards the rejection of international institutions and the rules-based world order; furthermore, he imagines the world as a zero-sum game – any organisation or agreement that benefits another nation must surely come at the expense of the United States. As a result, the presence of US troops in Europe and the relatively low defence expenditure of most European nations is anathema to Trump, who can only interpret this as America subsidising the defence of countries that refuse to pay their own way.
Outside of Trump’s mind, NATO has played a valuable role in allowing the United States to project its power beyond its borders, to defend its interests and protect liberal-democratic values across Europe and the wider world. In doing so, America has guaranteed friendly, sympathetic partners with economies open to US trade and investment.
Trump is right that European states should raise their defence budgets, particularly with a revanchist Russia on their doorstep, but this valid criticism masks a darker agenda: he ultimately wants to extricate the United States from its commitments to its liberal-democratic European allies, either by contracting NATO’s remit or perhaps winding it down entirely.
This is because Donald Trump’s fundamentally authoritarian, anti-democratic, illiberal and nationalistic worldview is totally at odds with NATO; the defence of liberal values and Western European integrity and prosperity runs counter to these core beliefs. I don’t know if Trump is totally beholden to Vladimir Putin – many were quick to liken his appearance next to the Russian president to an asset and his handler – but they are of a similar mind, and these views can only empower Russia expansionism. Like Putin, Donald Trump is happy to return to a world made up of independent nation states, each one disconnected, alone, and vulnerable.
At a time when the rise of populism, the refugee crisis and Russian aggression has frayed trans-Atlantic bonds, a confident, liberal United States is needed more than ever. If we are to protect the endangered liberal-democratic world and preserve the relationship that has nourished it, Donald Trump must be stopped.