The Transatlantic Tussle – A Historical Case Study on How to Handle NATOBreaking News
David I. Goldman is a retired U.S. federal historian who spent much of his career at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian, and Army ‘s Center of Military History. He coedited a number of Foreign Relations of the United States volumes on the subjects of Arms Control, Science, and Vietnam; and he authored parts of a U.S. study on Holocaust assets, an official annual history of Army Headquarters in 2008, and a journal article on the Army and chemical and biological warfare, among other pieces. He is currently researching and writing on historical topics, and is working on other federal contracts.
In a meeting at his Florida retreat, the president was clearly annoyed at what he saw as the U.S. allies’ failure to pay their fair share of the defense burden. He told his senior military and defense advisors that it almost seemed that Europe was getting a “free-ride,” and that on both the political and defense side this situation with the NATO allies had to be changed this year.
This anecdote is not an unused excerpt from an early draft of Bob Woodward’s latest expose, the frustrated chief executive was not President Donald Trump, and the location was not Mar-a-Lago. Instead, the date was Dec. 27, 1962, the cross commander-in-chief was President John F. Kennedy, and the location was his family estate in Palm Beach, Florida, the “Winter White House.” But the story still has a lot to tell us about today’s struggle within the transatlantic alliance.
This article will revisit a less-studied foreign and defense crisis over NATO expenditures in the early 1960s, one in which the stakes were arguably much higher than today. It will contrast the methods used by Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, for resolving that crisis with those of Trump in the current transatlantic tussle. It shows that struggles within the alliance are not entirely new and that Trump has much to learn from the techniques of his predecessors.
Trump has been particularly outspoken about his distaste for multilateral institutions, and his preference for unilateral and bilateral arrangements. On NATO, he has threatened to withdraw the United States from the alliance altogether or markedly reduce U.S. defense expenditures in Europe, and he has also raised the prospect of substituting bilateral trade and defense treaties with the United Kingdom and France. These pronouncements have been heavily laced with falsehoods (such as Trump’s claim that the United States pays most of NATO’s budget) and invectives about the allies. To date, he has refrained from acting on these threats but has taken some significant unilateral measures that have indirectly affected the NATO allies. These have included announcing troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, where NATO nations have been actively involved in coalitions with the United States, and withdrawing from two key international accords — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under which Iran pledged not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from Western sanctions, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. He has taken these actions on his own, eschewing any consultation with America’s partners.
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