BRUSSELS — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, echoing his boss in Washington, warned on Wednesday that the amount of American support for NATO could depend on whether other countries meet their own spending commitments.“
Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” Mr. Mattis said in his first speech to NATO allies since becoming defense secretary. “I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms.”
“America will meet its responsibilities,” he said, but he made clear that American support had its limits.
NATO is what has kept world peace since the end of World War II. It's the only thing that constrained Soviet imperialism during the Cold War. It's the only thing currently constraining Russian imperialism now. Trump's ongoing efforts to weaken NATO only make sense if you either want to strengthen Russia or you do not understand the most basic facts of why the United States is the center of the world's economy and power structure. In Trump's case, the answer is almost certainly a combination of the two.
Like it or hate it, America's military power has let it set much of the economic terms of the world's markets. Being the sheriff has its perks and Trump's longed for "America First" isolationism would be a disaster in every conceivable way. It may rankle the anti-American imperialism left, but if we're not setting the terms, China or Russia will and they'll do it in a way that will weaken our economy, not as a byproduct but as a central goal. And despite America's terrible record of exploitation, the idea that Russia or China would be better for the poverty-stricken nations of the world is ludicrous. On top of that, unlike China and Russia, we are a nation of laws (for now) and we have the ability to bring Corporate America to heel. All we lack is the political will to do so, something that is quietly changing as Millennials take power.
As long as we lead NATO, the major industrialized countries will be our buddies and pals and the developing countries will follow their lead. As soon as NATO becomes unreliable, being in China or Russia's good graces becomes far more appealing. Such is the fickle nature of international alliances, bringing into question why Trump seems so intent on dismantling one of our greatest advantages on the world stage.
It's been suggested that Trump sees everything in a transactional way, meaning we have to get something for every deal and treaty we make. The problem is that Trump is a very limited thinker being informed by ideologues.
Take Trump's restoration of the "global gag rule," which will prevent millions of women in developing nations from having abortions. This will significantly increase poverty, causing unrest and instability. This, in turn, will negatively impact the United States' interests abroad, costing us billions (if not more). This kind of international policy is the very definition of "penny wise, pound foolish." There's a moral dimension to this as well but morality is not a factor being honestly considered by the Trump administration so it's not important in this context.
The same goes for America acting as the world's police. Yes, it's expensive and tedious but by keeping civil unrest from exploding into full-fledged regional conflicts and civil wars, we prevent the humanitarian disasters like the one unfolding in Syria. The steady stream of refugees is a heavy financial that could be better spent bolstering European economies so they can buy more America goods. Again, there's the moral component to helping those in need but that's not a winning argument with conservatives. In Trump's mind, we're not getting anything out of preserving the peace so why should we bother? It speaks a profound ignorance that bodes ill for the world.
In the wake of Michael Flynn's forced resignation, Trump may have been trying to assuage an unsettled Russia that he's still on their side. As much as Putin is no doubt enjoying the chaos Trump is sowing in the United States, that's nothing compared to the dismantling of NATO that he's truly after. If we're all very lucky, Trump will spend too much time embroiled in his numerous scandals and lunacy to put any real effort into doing Putin's bidding and within 6 months, President Pence (god help us) will put an end to America's threats to renege on our obligations.