I was surprised to hop into an Uber car in Brasov, Romania last month and hear the driver, after figuring out that I was an American, excitedly say, “Trump and Article 5 yesterday!” The next day, on the way to Bran castle in Transylvania, another driver said, “American? Did you hear Trump and Article 5?” Clearly, Article 5 was on the minds of Romanians, which was remarkable after being an assured NATO tenet for more than half a century. Since the founding of NATO in 1949 – through twelve presidents, Truman to Obama – there has never been a question of the U.S. commitment to the bedrock principle of collective defense. That is, until Donald Trump, who during his campaign said that NATO might be “obsolete” and who refused to commit to Article 5, the linchpin of the alliance (and notably the stick that stops Russia from invading various countries in Europe) until six months into his presidency.
The same goes for the European Union. Trump sees the weakening of the EU as a good thing, as shown by his comments on the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU and by his encouraging EU countries to negotiate individually with the U.S. rather than as a bloc. Edward Lucas, in a recent column for The Economist, wrote, “Mr. Trump again and again demonstrates his ignorance of and contempt for the postwar rules-based international order of which the U.S. is both the architect and the greatest beneficiary.”
Five weeks of travel through the UK and seven Balkan countries revealed tremendous uncertainty about America as a world leader. Most noticeable was confusion about why the U.S. president would want to tear down a system that our grandparents and parents had so thoughtfully and painstakingly crafted. David Frum, writing in The Atlantic in May, has an answer: “Trump sees the world as a competitive arena in which nations either dominate or are dominated. And he imagines the U.S. as the world’s ultimate dominator, imposing its will on each nation, one by one.” Frum argues, however, that this approach has never worked. “No one state is ever stronger than all other states combined, or not for long anyway.”
In my travels, reminders of American leadership through the years seemed to be everywhere. In concert with its European allies, the U.S. repeatedly extinguished attempts by “dominators” to seize control by force of vast regions and peoples of the world. In Sarajevo, I stood on the street where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, setting off World War I. In the UK, I toured Bletchley Park, where British codebreakers worked feverishly to aid the D-Day invasion that was vital to defeating Nazi Germany. In Kosovo, I found a statue of U.S. President Bill Clinton and a street named “Bob Dole Avenue,” tributes to the U.S. role in stopping the ethnic cleansing of that country in the late 1990s. In Belgrade, Serbia, I saw a bombed-out building that U.S. and NATO airplanes had destroyed in 1999 to stop the war criminal named Slobodan Milosovic.
The point is that the U.S. and our European partners designed an international system that has worked for generations to avoid true global catastrophe. As Frum notes, “America would find security by working for the security of others.” In short, and even ironically, “America First” really means that at times the U.S. has to “subordinate its parochial and immediate national interests to the larger and more enduring collective interest,” he says.
Perhaps it’s strategic for some people, like Trump, to make fun of our European allies and, in the process, sow apprehension and mistrust among them about the U.S. and our intentions. But it’s not funny nor wise. Lucas quotes Edward Burke in saying, “Rage and frenzy will tear down more in half an hour than prudence and deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years.” Burke passed away in 1797, but he magically captured a Trump campaign rally or early morning Tweet with this comment.
For his part, Frum simply concludes his analysis of the remarkable post-war international system – centered on NATO and the EU – that has been built with the leadership and encouragement of the U.S. by saying, “Will the story really end this way? It all seems not only heartrendingly sad, but also teeth-grindingly stupid.”
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka and a contributor to The Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.