Nato joke aside, Trump’s isolationism nothing new in US

Donald Trump’s rant in which he encouraged Russia to attack Nato member states failing to comply with their treaty obligations to pay their share in defence expenditure may have been in bad taste, but the days when Uncle Sam was prepared to defend the old world can no longer be taken for granted.

Trump told supporters at a campaign rally in South Carolina last week that when he was US president he told a leader of a big country in Europe that he would not defend a Nato member state that failed to contribute the agreed percentage for its defence. He added in jest that he would encourage Russian aggression against delinquent states – more a Freudian joke about being juvenile delinquent himself in making such an outrageous suggestion than that he actually meant it.

He was obviously hyperbolic about encouraging Russia to attack recalcitrant Nato countries, but his remarks sent shivers down Nato’s spine from the Baltic to the Balkans. The joke was lost on Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, and the White House spokesman who said that Trump was unhinged, and Joe Biden who branded Trump’s rant un-American. Biden forgot that there is nothing un-American about being isolationist and Trump is milking this for all it is worth – it is what his slogan of America first is all about.

Many Americans are notoriously parochial with little interest or knowledge of the outside world. Actually isolationism has influenced US foreign policy ever since the Monroe Doctrine in the middle of the 19th century. The Monroe Doctrine held that European powers were not to meddle in America’s backyard in the New World and America would not interfere in European affairs.

While it is true America became involved in two European world wars in the 20th century, she did so reluctantly on both occasions. In World War II not even the popular New Deal President Franklin Roosevelt was prepared to override American isolationism, until the Japanese attacked the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour in November 1941. Germany then declared war on the US, after having invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and sowed the seeds of her defeat – having to fight the world’s two new superpowers on two fronts was as stupid as it was arrogant.

The Soviets invaded Germany from the east and the Americans from the west and shook hands and drank vodka as they divided Berlin into sectors. The wartime alliance between the West, led by America, and the Soviet Union was bound to end badly after Nazi Germany and Japan were defeated and it was not long before the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union began in earnest.

And so it was that shortly after World War II the British devised a new alliance whose purpose in the words of the first secretary general of Nato, Britain’s Lord Ismay was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

The interesting thing about Nato, certainly from a British perspective, is that it was conceived as much to keep the Americans in as to keep the Russians out. During the Cold War, after the Soviet Union swallowed up East Europe, Nato’s primary role was to defend Europe against Russian communist expansion. American commitment to the defence of Europe at the time was solid; best epitomised by President John Kennedy’s ich bin ein Berliner speech in Berlin in 1963. It remained steadfast until President Donald Trump came to power in 2016.

Nato, itself, began to have doubts about its relevance when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Nato lost its raison d’etre and became a defence alliance in search of an enemy. Russia that had taken over the Soviet Union’s mantle as successor state showed no aggressive intent towards Nato or any of its members. And if you believe President Vladimir Putin, he even floated the idea of Russia joining Nato in 2000 when President Bill Clinton was in Moscow.

Apparently, Clinton’s initial reaction was positive, but he then consulted his advisers and the idea was not taken up and Putin did not pursue it further.

Nato’s search for an enemy found one in Yugoslavia in 1999 when Nato bombed Belgrade over Kosovo and again when America was attacked by Saudi Arabian terrorists on 9/11 in 2001 and invoked article 5 of the NatoTreaty that an attack on one is an attack on all.

But Nato did not really have a proper enemy to justify its existence until it recreated the spectre of an aggressive Russia once more. Only a conspiracy theorist would claim Nato’s expansion eastwards to take in countries that have issues with Russia was done surreptitiously in order to secure its own survival and keep the American’s engaged in European security. On the other hand, it is true that Nato would not have much of a role as a defence alliance if it had not absorbed into its ranks countries in Russia’s backyard that have issues with Russia.

Nowadays Russia is undoubtedly the enemy that Nato thought it had lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. But there is a problem. America is changing – perhaps reverting to type. Donald Trump and the Republican Party do not believe that Russia is America’s enemy. That has huge implications for Europe that was used to sheltering under America’s military defence umbrella.

It has been known for some time that realistically only a nuclear attack on America would automatically trigger an American nuclear response, but the new thinking in America would would also undermine Nato’s fundamental alliance principle that an attack on one is an attack on all by making it conditional.

I wrote this article, which is partly about Russia and her relationship with the West, before the death on Friday of Akexei Navalny was announced by the prison authorities in Russia. Every death in prison is suspect and that of someone as highly political as Navalny in a prison in the Arctic Circle in midwinter is highly suspect. Add to that that he “was almost murdered” by a novichok attack in Siberia in 2020 and the Russian state has a case to answer that directly or indirectly it was responsible for his death; but at this early stage it would be wrong to reach a concluded view about how he died.

Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge