WHEN PRES. DONALD TRUMP meets with our European allies, you can hear the clattering of dishes and the breaking of china such as during an exchange between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Trump during the recent Brussels talks. Stoltenberg tried to placate Trump. He assured the President that the allies are responding to his criticism and are increasing military spending. Trump was not impressed and, without pausing for an appreciative note, he told the NATO Secretary more is needed. He went on to claim that Germany is a captive of Russia for its dependence on Russian gas and oil. All of this is in full public view.
Trump is oblivious to bad manners and diplomatic protocol. He believes ruffling feathers will get the allies' attention and produce results. There is a risk. Such behavior could weaken the cohesion of NATO and the faith of our allies in our military guarantee. Yet, things need to said and done. Since the end of the Cold War, the NATO alliance has grown complacent and directionless. Behind his noise and disruption, Trump may be forcing an essential question: What is NATO's purpose in the post-Cold War 21st century? The lack of clarity on this question contributes to dissension and upheaval.
NATO began with a clear sense of what it was and what it should do. The North Atlantic Treaty was the result of the assiduous diplomacy of Pres. Harry Truman and his Secretaries of State, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. Its purpose was to bind the former warring European states Britain, France, Germany, and Italy into a close alliance; provide a strong deterrence against Soviet aggression; and assure the war-weary Europeans of American diplomatic and military support.
A secure and substantial U.S. military presence in NATO was essential in the early 1950s to convincing the French, Dutch, and Belgians to accept West German rearmament. Doing that required considerable arm-twisting on the Americans' part. It was done not in Trumpian style, but behind closed doors. Similar quiet arm-twisting was required during the Reagan years. At the time, the U.S. was attempting to limit the gas pipelines from the Soviet Union to Western Europe. In this case, Pres. Ronald Reagan was partially successful. Every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Trump has voiced criticism of the European effort to defend itself. Only Trump shouts it from the rooftops.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire, flaccidity has increased among some of our European...