NATO summits customarily amount to public-relations lovefests, in which sonorous communiqués declaring the vitality of the “Atlantic community” obscure what has become the increasingly dangerous moves of the US-dominated military pact. But President Trump, no surprise, promises to make this summit uncharacteristically uncomfortable and potentially rancorous. The issue for progressives is that, mostly inadvertently and largely for the wrong reasons, Trump will be disrupting an established pattern sorely in need of disruption and provoking hard questions about the justifications for and perils posed by NATO and the related dangerous course of US-Russia relations.
To grasp the issues at stake, we have to have to look at the history of NATO’s somewhat hidden purposes. In the mid-1950s, George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, two of America’s most profound foreign-policy critics, started to question the rationality of US foreign policy. By that time, they understood that the Red Army posed no real threat to Western Europe, and so they each proposed a mutual superpower disengagement from the continent. Kennan and Lippmann’s aims in Europe were limited and specific. Defining America’s interest there as preventing the continent’s military domination by a single power, they perceived American policy in strategic, rather than ideological or “world order” terms. The foreign-policy establishment was enraptured by the notion of a Pax Americana, but Kennan and Lippmann had a far more modest view of America’s future European—and global—role. They looked to the restoration of a plural world in which other powers—the major European states in particular—would dilute the nascent US-Soviet confrontation. Disengaging the United States and the Soviet Union from Europe and thereby restoring a multipolar balance of power would be, Kennan and Lippmann reasoned, in America’s long-term interest, for it would free the United States from its responsibilities for others’ security and would enormously reduce the potentially apocalyptic tensions between the superpowers.
But the foreign-policy community reacted to Kennan and Lippmann’s proposals with a vehemence that stunned them both. Revealingly, however, that opposition didn’t center on anxiety over the Soviet menace, real or illusory, but rather on the now-familiar concerns regarding the imperative of American “leadership” and the need for America’s “continuing engagement.” Kennan was forced to conclude that American statesmen “would not have considered the withdrawal of a single American battalion from Western Germany even if the Russians had been willing to evacuate all of Eastern Germany and Poland by way of compensation,” and he came to realize that US preponderance in Europe served aspirations unrelated to stanching a Soviet threat. By enmeshing the Western European states’ (and Japan’s) foreign and military policies in alliances that it dominated, the United States permanently stifled the emergence of new, truly independent great powers—a development that it defined, and still defines, as ipso facto inimical to its interests and to the US-“led” (read: controlled) global order. Obscured by all the lofty rhetoric about transatlantic “partnership” was and is a simple fact: US policy in Europe has aimed not to counter others’ bids for hegemony but to perpetuate America’s own supremacy.