During his visit to Warsaw in July 2017, President Donald Trump gave one of the best speeches of his presidency. Addressing the people of Poland in front of the Warsaw Uprising memorial, he made a rallying cry for Western civilization:
“We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are…The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”1
The United States and Europe are the two main bulwarks of Western civilization. Although born in Europe, that civilization was transmitted to America when Europeans colonized and immigrated to the New World. America inherited its traditional culture—our language, laws, traditions, and social institutions—from Europe.
Western civilization survived the bloody twentieth century, especially the threats of Communism and Nazism, thanks to the trans-Atlantic alliance. In the World Wars, America lost more than a half-million lives fighting in Europe. During the Cold War, American forces kept the peace in Europe, prevented a Soviet invasion of the continent, and received political and military support from European allies. NATO, the centerpiece of this alliance, is the main reason why there has been no major war in Europe since 1945. The United States remains the most powerful nation in the Western world, and the only one with the power to defend that Western inheritance from its enemies.
This mutually beneficial alliance suffered a blow when President Trump announced on Wednesday, July 29, his decision to withdraw 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany and to arbitrarily cap America’s NATO commitment to that country at 25,000. Half of those troops will be reassigned to bases in the United States, while the rest will be redeployed to Belgium, Italy, and the U.K.
If carried out, this decision will undermine the NATO alliance, harm America’s ability to project power across the world, weaken European security, encourage the West’s enemies across the globe, increase the chances of military conflict, and harm an already-weakened Western civilization.
America Benefits From NATO as Much as Europe
Critics often portray NATO as a relic of the Cold War, a burden on the American taxpayer, and an undeserved benefit for Europe. On the contrary, NATO is very relevant to both American and European security and provides valuable benefits for all its member nations.
Europe has not seen a major war since 1945 in large part thanks to NATO and to generations of American troops who stood guard along the Iron Curtain. Today, NATO—with its American security guarantee and nuclear umbrella—is the most significant deterrent against any foreign military attack on its European member states, whether it be an Iranian missile strike, Islamic terrorist attack, or Russian incursion.
America, too, has benefited from the NATO alliance. The first and only time that NATO invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter—which stipulates that an attack on one is an attack on all—was following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. From 2003-2014, tens of thousands of troops from non-U.S. NATO countries fought in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At least 850 have been killed in action. As of 2020, NATO troops continue to lead a non-combat training mission in Afghanistan.
With America’s power and influence increasingly challenged across the world, it needs allies more than ever. The countries in conflict with the West—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela—already form their own de facto alliance. These countries support each other at the United Nations and supply each other with weapons, technology, and economic support. Russia and China both support Iran, the largest state-sponsor of terrorism in the world, as well as Venezuela and communist Cuba. They also form an alliance in several areas, from weapons development to control of the Arctic.2
Communist China, in particular, is aggressively confronting and infiltrating the West. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese are building infrastructure and buying political support across the world. They have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into building bridges, highways, ports, communications networks, and other infrastructure in more than 100 countries, including NATO members Italy and Hungary. China is also promoting its own company, Huawei, in the global race to upgrade cellular networks to 5G, a technology with significant national security implications. Emmanuel Macron has warned that the Belt and Road Initiative, with its promise of easy money in a time of financial hardship, threatens to turn European countries into “vassal states” of China.3
America and Europe need a strong military and political alliance to face the Chinese threat. If America is serious about confronting Chinese aggression and expansion in Asia, it needs to keep China out of Europe. Weakening NATO by reducing the American military presence in Europe will create a vacuum that China is only too willing to fill.
President Trump Is Correct That Some NATO Members Do Not Spend Enough on Defense
For decades American presidents of both parties have complained—rightly—that European countries don’t spend enough on defense. NATO asks that all member states spend the equivalent of 2% of Gross Domestic Product on defense. Just nine of NATO’s thirty members reach the 2% mark, with the United States spending 3.42%, the highest in the alliance.4
While total American defense spending in 2019 was $730 billion—three-fourths of all NATO member defense expenditures—America is the largest economy in the world and the only NATO member with the need to project power and defend its interests across the globe. Naturally, the U.S. spends far more than Europe. But President Trump is not wrong to call out the unfairness of the major European powers spending so little on their own defense.
Large, wealthy members such as Germany, Spain, Italy, and France have been slashing their defense budgets since the 1990s. Germany’s defense spending fell from 2.4% of GDP in 1989 to approximately 1.3% by 2014. Spain spends a paltry 0.94%.
The situation is even graver when assessing the actual readiness of military units and equipment. Lack of spare parts has left the German military in shambles. A 2018 study showed that only 39 of the German Luftwaffe’s 128 Eurofighter jets, half of the German Army’s 224 Leopard tanks, five of the German Navy’s six submarines, and five of its thirteen frigates were combat-ready.5
If lackluster European defense spending is a problem, what is its cause? The blame can be laid squarely at the feet of left-wing politicians.
In Germany, the Social Democrat Party (SPD) has consistently opposed any increase in defense spending. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spent most of her fifteen years in government in a “grand coalition” with the SPD. Repeated attempts by Angela Merkel and her Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to raise defense spending were thwarted by the SPD, which warned against an “armament spiral.” Former SPD leader Martin Schulz called the 2% spending goal “wrong.”6
European leftists have disliked NATO for decades and continue to do so. In a 2019 interview with the Economist, center-left French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO “brain dead,” a comment that was denounced by many European leaders including Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Earlier this year, the leader of the German SPD in the Bundestag, Rolf Mützenich, demanded that the United States remove the few dozen nuclear warheads it stations in Germany.7
Whether motivated by pacifism or anti-Americanism, left-wing political parties in Europe have always opposed a strong military and a strong trans-Atlantic alliance. Conservative Europeans, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, remain largely pro-American and pro-NATO. Across Europe, a median of 53% has a favorable view of NATO, including 57% of Germans and 82% of Poles. Only 27% expressed a negative opinion.8
NATO is a victim, not a cause, of insufficient European defense spending. Rather than blame NATO itself or whole countries, Americans should focus blame squarely on the European Left for its role in sabotaging the continent’s security. It is not Germany, but the German Left that is responsible for insufficient defense spending.
Cutting Off our Nose to Spite our Face
Withdrawing troops from Europe will harm America much more than Germany. We are cutting off our nose to spite our face.
America’s ability to project power, protect its interests, and respond to crises across the world would be impossible without its European military bases. Any actions in Africa, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East, for example, require European bases for logistical support.
Even from the point of view of cost, maintaining current troop levels in Germany is cheaper than sending those troops back to the U.S. Nearly every country that hosts American troops already pays some form of cost-sharing. The massive bases in Germany were bought and paid for decades ago and are partially maintained by the German government. If those troops were sent back to the U.S., the American taxpayer would have to pay for the full cost as well as build new bases or expand existing ones. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that repositioning will take months, if not years, and cost “several billion dollars.”9
Initiating a divorce is not the way to save a marriage. On the contrary, a divorce will only increase bitterness and harden both spouses in their positions. Likewise, if America wants Europe to increase its defense spending, withdrawing troops is not the way to do it. Germany is unlikely to “see the light” after an American pullout and suddenly double its defense budget.
Instead, European leftists—who were always critical of America—will be further emboldened in their pacifist, anti-American positions. Leftist parties such as the German SPD cut their defense budgets either out of pacifism or because they don’t believe that Europe faces any external threats, not because of the American security blanket. They never wanted NATO in the first place, and an American withdrawal will only encourage them in their socialist zeal to cut defense spending.
In addition, pro-American Europeans who have been advocating for closer relations with the U.S. will be politically weakened, humiliated, and demoralized. American influence in Germany and elsewhere is sure to decline.
The Baltic States Very Vulnerable to an Attack by Russia
Withdrawing troops from Europe has another effect: it makes a Russian attack on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania more likely.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” His foreign policy has been to restore Russia’s power and influence to something resembling the old Soviet juggernaut of his youth and to destroy Western institutions such as NATO.
In 2008, Russia invaded the sovereign state of Georgia and annexed two of its provinces—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—each with large numbers of ethnic Russians and totaling 20% of Georgia’s territory. In March 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, and in August of that same year, invaded the Ukrainian region of Donbass. Both territories have large ethnic Russian populations.
These three invasions marked the first time since the Second World War that a European power invaded another country and conquered territory by force. Although the annexations were widely condemned and unrecognized, Russia maintains a strong military presence in these territories, and Putin is unlikely to give them up.
Moreover, Western inaction in the face of these annexations makes a similar attack against Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania more likely. All three have significant ethnic Russian minorities and have already been the victims of minor Russian incursions and cyberattacks. Lithuania, in particular, is a sore spot for Russia as it was the first Soviet republic to break away, in March 1990, starting the process which led to the dissolution of the USSR the following year.
Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, the three Baltic nations are NATO members. A Russian invasion would trigger treaty obligations for the other 27 member states to come to their defense. A recent series of war games in 2015 sponsored by the RAND Corporation, however, demonstrated that Russian forces could conquer all three Baltic countries in less than 72 hours. NATO forces in the region are simply too weak to repel a Russian invasion, leaving NATO with few options to respond, none of them good.
Geography makes the Baltics isolated and difficult to defend. They are connected to the rest of NATO by a short border between Poland and Lithuania, with the heavily fortified Russian territory of Kaliningrad wedged in next to it. The balance of military power is slanted heavily in Russia’s favor: Russia has 22 battalions available for deployment, all of them motorized, mechanized, or tank units mere hours from the Baltics. NATO has only 12 battalions ready to fight in the region, none with heavy armor. In 2013, President Obama withdrew the last permanently stationed American M1 Abrams tanks from Europe. The only heavy armor available to respond with sufficient force is in Germany several hundred miles away. Moving them into the Baltics would take at least a week.10
In 2014, the U.S. State Department declared that Russia was developing nuclear-capable tactical missiles in Kaliningrad that violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia could use these weapons as nuclear blackmail against any NATO attempt to retake the Baltics.
Such a nightmare scenario would present NATO with an immediate need to liberate three of its members, a long, difficult, and bloody task for which there might not be sufficient political will or popular support. As with Georgia and Ukraine, many in the West would prefer to accept the Russian fait accompli in the Baltics. In a 2016 interview with CBS, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that “[NATO] countries ought to worry about our commitment… Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine… I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”11
If NATO countries refused to honor Article 5, NATO would collapse, and with it, American power, prestige, and influence. This collapse would have global repercussions, for if the NATO Treaty became a dead letter, then America’s other treaty obligations to South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia wouldn’t be worth the paper on which they are written. America would cease to be a country of its word. In one stroke, it would fulfill Putin’s desire to shatter the Western alliance in revenge for the Soviet collapse while at the same time building a new Russian Empire.
The same RAND study calculated that just six or seven brigades, including at least three heavy brigades stationed in the Baltics and ready to fight once hostilities began, combined with NATO’s air and sea power would be enough to avoid losing the war. The price of deterrence would be minimal in comparison with the bloody and costly prospect of reconquering NATO members from a Russian occupation.
Five Things America Should Do to Strengthen the Alliance With Europe
With so many threats to the peace and stability of the West, the United States must act to strengthen—not weaken—the trans-Atlantic alliance. There are five ways that President Trump can do this.
First, America should stop the bleeding and halt all troop withdrawals from Europe. American troop levels in Europe are already at their lowest levels ever. The administration should not make it worse by reducing American forces even further.
Second, America should send all the forces back to Europe that were withdrawn during the Obama administration, especially its M1 Abrams heavy tanks. Without armor, no U.S. deterrent will be taken seriously by any potential adversary.
Third, if for political reasons, Germany is not a suitable place to relocate our forces, then America should station them in Poland and the Baltic states. Those countries are far closer to Russia, far more favorable to a U.S. troop presence, and are close to or exceeding their 2% defense spending targets.
Fourth, the U.S. should engage in a massive diplomatic offensive and public relations campaign to push all NATO members to spend more on their defense. NATO can only be taken seriously when individual members do.
America should invest heavily in media platforms, such as Radio Free Europe, that advocate a pro-Western and pro-American message to counter the overwhelmingly anti-American bias in European media. Russia has used mass media to sway public opinion in Europe against NATO and the United States for less than the cost of one aircraft carrier. The Trump Administration can fight back with a mass media campaign of its own to make the case to Europeans for a strong NATO.
Fifth, Americans should remind themselves of the reasons why the West is worth defending.
Western civilization suffers from many crises. Internal and external enemies are fighting to divide and destroy it. But the West—with its culture, laws, tradition, and history—is the greatest civilization in history and the source of Europe’s and America’s prosperity and power. Most importantly, it is inseparable from Christianity, without which Europe and America as we know them would never have come into existence.
America has always been a generous nation, one willing to sacrifice for the freedom and liberation of others. This spirit is reflected in the words of the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” Just as America defended Europe from the Barbary Pirates in the nineteenth century, saved it in both World Wars, and defended it during the Cold War, America must continue to defend Western civilization from its enemies. A strong NATO is vital to preserving that civilization.