"There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans . . . . The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.''
--Alexis de Tocqueville,
Democracy in America
Can that really have been the first time a NATO secretary-general has addressed the Congress of the United States? This week? In April 2019? Never before a Lord Ismay, a Joseph Luns? Maybe the U.S. should apologize for not inviting one sooner.
And now we get to dust off the "Whither NATO?" editorial, also known as Old Standby No. 115. We keep it in the back of the file, between No. 114 ("Unfunded Mandates") and No. 116 ("Beware Big Brother").
We used to make fun of "Whither NATO?" at editorial conventions. But in the last few years, the darned thing has become a serious question and concern. The current president of the United States and commander-in-chief of its armed forces has publicly chided the alliance, and in his vulgar way, even insulted allies.
And it might have done some good.
This week, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the papers when he appeared before Congress, complete with Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi sitting behind him on stage. He said the craziest thing: "NATO allies must spend more on defense. This has been the clear message from President Trump, and this message is having a real impact."
Tweaking the United States has been good politics in Europe at least since 1945. Our diplomats can be very diplomatic, and usually don't offend in turn. But what to do when an American president talks like a New Yorker?
Every American administration since the end of the Cold War has "demanded" that NATO members pay their fair share, usually 2 percent of their gross domestic product, on defense. The United States, it should be noted, spends 3.4 percent. The countries closest to a resurging Russia actually meet their goals. But 2 percent of Estonia's budget isn't going to keep the bear at bay.
Demands, which have sounded more like polite suggestions, even pleadings, haven't been heeded. In past administrations, they've been fairly ignored.
As of last summer, Forbes magazine reported that the United States, the United Kingdom (there will always be an England!), Poland, Greece and Estonia are the only members of the alliance to reach the 2 percent target. Germany, the big dog in central Europe, spends only 1.2 percent, and has drawn more of the ire from Donald Trump. Spain spends less than 1 percent, as does Belgium.
It's another stumper for those trying to understand the inner workings of Donald Trump's mind: If he's such a fan of Russian president Vlad the Impaler and admires that country as much as he admits publicly, then why is he pushing to strengthen an alliance put together to interfere with its expansion? Talk about riddles, mysteries and enigmas.
A lot of folks forget the second half of that thought by Winston Churchill. This was the complete line: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
The Russians will probe, they will instigate, they will test. But a strong NATO continues to show them that their interests would be sorely abused if Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin over-steps in the wrong place. The president of the United States might be confusing and overly blunt, but his message to NATO countries is right: Get to 2 percent. Some of us pro-NATO types are glad to see its leaders taking those steps.
For the wages of weakness is death. The Europeans, of all people, should know that.
Editorial on 04/05/2019
Print Headline: The spirit of freedom