The Importance Of NATO And Trumps Refusal To Acknowledge It

Heather Cox Richardson

“In 1949, when leaders of 12 countries, including President Truman, came together in this very room, history was watching,” President Joe Biden said yesterday evening at the opening of the 2024 NATO Summit, being held from July 9 through July 12, in Washington, D.C. 

“It had been four years since the surrender of the Axis powers and the end of the most devastating world war the world had ever, ever known,” Biden continued.

“Here, these 12 leaders gathered to make a sacred pledge to defend each other against aggression, provide their collective security, and to answer threats as one, because they knew to prevent future wars, to protect democracies, to lay the groundwork for a lasting peace and prosperity, they needed a new approach. They needed to combine their strengths. They needed an alliance.”

That alliance was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the “single greatest, most effective defensive alliance in the history of the world,” as Biden said. 

The NATO collective defense agreement has stabilized the world for the past 75 years thanks to its provision in Article 5 that each of the NATO allies will consider an attack on one as an attack on all, and respond accordingly. 

Biden looked back at the alliance’s 75 years. “Together, we rebuilt Europe from the ruins of war, held high the torch of liberty during long decades of the Cold War,” he said. “When former adversaries became fellow democracies, we welcomed them into the Alliance. When war broke out in the Balkans, we intervened to restore peace and stop ethnic cleansing. And when the United States was attacked on September 11th, our NATO Allies—all of you—stood with us, invoking Article 5 for the first time in NATO history, treating an attack on us as an attack on all of us—a breathtaking display of friendship that the American people will never ever, ever forget.”

Biden celebrated that the alliance has continually adapted to a changing world and noted that it has changed its strategies to stay ahead of threats and reached out to new partners to become more effective. Biden noted that leaders from countries in the Indo-Pacific region had joined the leaders of the 32 NATO countries at this year’s summit. So did the leaders of NATO’s partner countries, including Ukraine, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and the European Union. “They’re here because they have a stake in our success and we have a stake in theirs,” Biden said.

The promise of collective defense was daunting for opponents in 1949, when the treaty had 12 signatories: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is even more daunting now that there are 32, with both Finland and Sweden having joined the alliance after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Together, the NATO countries can marshal about 3,370,000 active-duty military personnel and have a collective defense budget of more than $1.2 trillion. 

In addition, as Jim Garamone of Department of Defense News noted, the NATO countries share intelligence, training, tactics, and equipment, as well as agreements for permitting the use of airspace and bases. “[O]ur commitment is broad and deep,” Biden said. “[W]e’re willing, and we’re able to deter aggression and defend every inch of NATO territory across every domain: land, air, sea, cyber, and space.”

When NATO formed, the main concern of the countries backing it was resisting Soviet aggression, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russian president Vladimir Putin, NATO turned to resisting Russian aggression. “[H]istory calls for our collective strength,” Biden said. “Autocrats want to overturn global order, which has by and large kept for nearly 80 years and counting.”

Biden called out Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine and recalled that NATO had built a global coalition to stand behind Ukraine, providing weapons and aid while also moving troops into the surrounding NATO countries. He announced that the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, and Italy are donating more air defense equipment. 

“All the Allies knew that before this war, Putin thought NATO would break,” Biden said. “Today, NATO is stronger than it’s ever been in its history.” Biden noted that the world is in a pivotal moment, and reminded his listeners: “The fact that NATO remains the bulwark of global security did not happen by accident. It wasn’t inevitable. Again and again, at critical moments, we chose unity over disunion, progress over retreat, freedom over tyranny, and hope over fear.

Again and again, we stood behind our shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous transatlantic community.”

He assured the attendees that an “overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans understand that NATO makes us all safer…. The American people know that all the progress we’ve made in the past 75 years has happened behind the shield of NATO,” understanding that without it, we would face “another war in Europe, American troops fighting and dying, dictators spreading chaos, economic collapse, catastrophe.” He assured allies that Americans understand our “sacred obligation” to NATO, and quoted Republican president Ronald Reagan, who said: “If our fellow democracies are not secure, we cannot be secure. If you are threatened, we are threatened. And if you are not at peace, we cannot be at peace.”

And then Biden surprised NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister who is stepping down from his NATO position after serving since 2014, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Today, NATO is stronger, smarter, and more energized than when you began,” Biden said. “And a billion people across Europe and North America and, indeed, the whole world will reap the rewards of your labor for years to come in the form of security, opportunity, and greater freedoms.”

Today, Biden reiterated the theme that alliances happen not “by chance but by choice.” Before the attendees got to work, he explained that the NATO countries must strengthen their home industrial bases and capacity in order to produce critical defense equipment more quickly, a deficiency made clear in the struggle to get armaments to Ukraine. Such readiness will strengthen security, he said, as well as creating “stronger supply chains, a stronger economy, stronger military, and a stronger nation.” 

The Washington Summit Declaration released today reaffirms NATO as “the unique, essential, and indispensable transatlantic forum to consult, coordinate, and act on all matters related to our individual and collective security,” saying “[o]ur commitment to defend one another and every inch of Allied territory at all times, as enshrined in Article 5…is iron-clad.” 

It warns that “Russia remains the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security” and pledges “unwavering solidarity” with Ukraine. It says that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO” and calls out Belarus, North Korea, Iran, and China for enabling Putin’s war. Indeed, the declaration calls out China even more directly, warning that it “continues to pose systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security,” especially by flooding other countries with disinformation. 

Russian aggression is a deep concern for NATO countries; so is Trump, who worked to take the U.S. out of NATO when he was in office, vowed he will accomplish that in a second term, and in February 2024 told an audience that if he thought NATO countries weren’t contributing enough to their own defense he would tell Russia to “do whatever the hell they want.” (Biden noted yesterday that when he took office, only nine NATO countries met their target goal of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on their defense, while this year, 23 will.) 

Biden was key to rebuilding the NATO alliance after Trump weakened it, and the leaders at the NATO summit told foreign policy journalist for The Daily Beast David Rothkopf that they were “not concerned with Biden’s ability to play a leading role in NATO during his second term.” They “express confidence in his judgment” and “have a great deal of confidence in the foreign policy team around him.” But they worry about Trump. 

Shortly after Biden gave his powerful speech opening the summit, Trump had his first public event since the June 27 CNN event, at his Doral golf club. It was a wandering rant packed, as usual, with wild lies, but he did touch on the topic of NATO. “I didn’t even know what the hell NATO was too much before, but it didn’t take me long to figure it out, like about two minutes,” he said. Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton told a reporter that Trump’s willingness to undermine NATO is “a demonstration of the lack of seriousness of the way Trump treats the alliance, because he doesn’t understand it.”

Following the NATO summit, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who remains an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, will visit former president Trump at Mar-a-Lago, just days after meeting with Putin in Moscow and with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing. There is speculation that Orbán is acting as an intermediary between Trump and Putin, for whom the destruction of NATO is a key goal.

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