Could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of NATO?
President-elect Trump intimated during the election that he would be willing to see the USA withdraw from some of its military commitments abroad if other NATO members were not willing to contribute financially to their own defence.
He had previously described NATO as ‘obsolete’. Trump’s rhetoric has been far warmer towards Putin than any other Western leader, and has announced that General Michael Flynn, former Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency will be his Security Advisor – a man well-known for his sympathy for the Kremlin’s line.
NATO has been an integral part of our defence policy since 1945. It existed for a specific reason: Western Europe was menaced by an ideological state – the Soviet Union – whose Marxism-Leninism made explicit its desire to spread the Worker’s Revolution worldwide.
NATO existed not simply for purposes of mutual-defence, but also to contain Communism from spreading throughout the world, and immiserating the people on whom this experiment would be practiced. The paradigmatic case-study was the Korean War, in which a North Korean invasion (with Chinese and Soviet backing) of the South was repelled thanks to the involvement of NATO forces. The difference in quality-of-life for those who were born in 1950, either in Seoul or in Pyongyang, demonstrates the unbridgeable moral gulf which existed between the two sides in that global struggle.
During the Cold War the only people in the UK to call for withdrawal from NATO were the Bennite left – of whom Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a product. They were unable to make the moral distinction between East and West. We have traditionally seen this rhetoric as touchingly naive, and very likely dangerous.
It is certainly viewed as dangerous in the Baltic states. Lithuania has re-introduced conscription. Most Lithuanian adults remember the invasion of January 1991, when Gorbachev attempted to reverse the independence which had been declared in Vilnius in March 1990.
But with the collapse of the USSR it is no longer true to say that the security of the West depends on an aggressive containment of the Russian state. History affords no precedent for a Russian invasion of western Europe, when not dictated by Marxist ideology.
Certainly, Russia has her sphere of influence, what she calls ближнее зарубежье – her ‘near abroad’. What are now the Baltic states were part of the Tzarist Russian Empire, and although a military invasion is unlikely any time soon, it is clear the Kremlin will apply whatever tactics of propaganda and financial influence it can to secure pro-Russian governments there – or at least governments which are non-NATO and ostensibly neutral. Russia says it was assured that NATO would not extend into the Baltics, and the Kremlin is still resentful that this happened.
But just because the independence or otherwise, of the Baltic states does not imperil the security of the West does not mean that it is unimportant. It is unquestionably the case that the great powers have the ability to make the world in their own image. A life lived under the Russian sphere of influence is different to one lived under the influence of America, or, for that matter, of China. The continued justification of NATO will inhere in the belief within NATO countries that promoting liberal democracy in the Western mould is a good thing in-itself.
But this is precisely the world-view which has recently been under such strain. Trump’s moderated repudiation of NATO is of a piece with his moderated repudiation of liberalism. His election could help to usher in a new world order, but this will depend on what happens in France next year.
Marine le Pen is unlikely to win the French Presidency: although she might top the first poll, she is not predicted to win the second round when there will be an anti-NF vote. But the polls have been wrong so often recently that nothing is impossible. We have seen shy-Tories, bashful-Brexiteers, and now timid-Trumpers. When you consider the level of contempt in which the Front National is held in polite society, I fully expect that Le Pen will outperform whatever the polls predict. Marine Le Pen is a far more coherent repudiator of liberalism, and has made her opposition to NATO, and her approval of Putin, explicit.
In eastern Europe there has been a cultural conservative revival. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, both talk about preserving Europe’s Christian identity. They have wanted to restrict Muslim immigration, much like President Trump. In Hungary, the new constitution of 2011 defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
Post-Communist eastern Europe has witnessed a resurgence of Christianity, much like that which has occurred in post-Communist Russia following decades of persecution. Recent history makes eastern Europe very wary of Russia and its potential to expand, but in their cultural concerns their leaders sound much more like one another than they sound like Merkel, May, or Hollande.
What this means for the future of NATO remains to be seen. Will Trump’s election be the beginning of a geo-political and cultural re-structuring across the West? Or was it simply the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of a cultural conservatism which is finished but is unwilling to die without a fight?