Features, Foreign Policy

Trump, NATO and the Persistent Myths of International Relations

There’s a German word, which is useful to explain what I, and other political realists felt, after Donald Trump gave his first ever interview as PEOTUS to a British newspaper. Of course, the liberal Twitterati exploded. And yes the word is, as some of you might have guessed, schadenfreude. Most of us are not Trump supporters or fans, nor do we consider Trump to be an elegant statesman or practitioner of realpolitik. But his statements were inevitable and predicatable for anyone — barring the diehard liberal ideologues.

The apparent breaking point for the Twitterati was reached when Trump called Merkel’s open gate foreign policy a catastrophe, openly siding with UK against EU with regards to Brexit, and trashing NATO as a Byzantine bureaucracy, calling it “obsolete”.

How dare Trump criticise the quite obviously flawed and stagnating liberal global order? The global order paid for and secured by American taxpayers, mind you, and managed by terminally incompetent technocrats, adhering to a radical universalist ideology. How dare he invite the rage of the Davos men (as Samuel Huntington named them, in one of his last acts of academic defiance against creeping conventional wisdom)?

Indignation, scorn, and disdain have all poured in from traditional circles. The most laughable rebuke came from the BBC, which lamented that Trump’s relationship with Germany won’t be as “warm and trusting” as the one between Merkel and Obama (conveniently forgetting the entire NSA eavesdropping episode). With shameless irony the BBC also quoted the Vice-Chancellor of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, who claimed that the migrant crisis was the result of “faulty, interventionist American policies in the Mediterranean and Middle East”. Again, the BBC failed to mention that one of the reasons why Trump won was because he opposed such interventionist policies.

If wilful misrepresentation is one prerequisite of spreading fake news, BBC is treading a fine line here. It takes a special amount of skulduggery to accuse someone, even as conventionally despised as Trump, of something where his instincts are right on the money. Trump said NATO is obsolete. Obsolete, the word itself, means “outmoded in its current form”. No one in his right mind would call NATO perfectly functioning. In fact, in the same interview, Trump also said that NATO was very important to him, some evidence that Trump swapping his brusque business-speak for a more conventionally appeasing tone.

Despite recent media hysterics the debate on NATO is not new either. Robert Gates, a realist himself, and as Cold War hardened as it gets, said the exact same thing in 2011. In one of the most provocative speeches given by a top American diplomat to a bunch of hapless Europeans, Gates said presciently, that it will be increasingly hard to justify to future American electorates, leaders and taxpayers, why the U.S. should pay the lion’s share in securing a continent, when the continental leaders are not even willing to pay 2 percent of their GDP in their defense budgets.

Only 5 countries, out of 22, contribute the minimal requirement for NATO upkeep, which includes US, UK, Poland, Greece and Estonia. Belgium, the Islamist hub of Europe, contributes 0.85 percent. Naturally, when countries talk of the threat posed by lack of Intelligence gathering, or the rise of Russia, it sounds hollow and hypocritical. How threatened can Lithuania, Latvia and Germany possibly feel while simultaneously showing that they are unwilling to pay their minimal share?


International Relations, like every other subject, has been increasingly hijacked by sociology, with more and more research on empirically unproven garbage like feminist foreign policy, and other intersectional dross. But for those who still research on nation-state interactions, grand strategy, power politics and security, there are two bafflingly persistent myths in international politics, which although repeatedly disproved, are still parroted by an echo-chamber of journalists, think tankers and politicians. One myth is that alliances, once formed, are inviolable, and sacrosanct. Another myth is that ideological alliances are the most stable. Both of these assertions are historically untrue.

Ideology and shared values are a lousy glue to bind nation-states in an alliance structure. Stephen Walt in his seminal work, noted categorically that ideology has considerably less influence in alliance formation than raw national interest, and it takes increasing commitment to keep an alliance structure stable. Subsequent works by Michael Desch, Emily Meierding, John Mearsheimer, and others have shown that the only thing that shapes the international behaviour of a country is hard geopolitical interest. “Values” are superfluous.

To put it simply, alliances change, sometimes too fast and within one lifetime. France and Britain were historically geopolitical rivals, just as Britain and the U.S. were. However, they joined forces last century, repeatedly, to confront rising continental hegemons. Italy and Japan were on the allied side during WWI, and on the axis side within a span of 20 odd years. Among communist powers, common ideology didn’t stop China, the Soviet Union and Vietnam going to war against each other, and is not stopping Vietnam and China now continuously searching for new alliance and alignment partners, as ideologically opposed as the U.S., India and Pakistan.

Trump appears to be an instinctive mercantilist in a world where the currents are flowing towards a return of Hobbesian Great power rivalry. We are seeing the return of the forces of nationalism and nation-states, and more narrow, cold eyed, conservative realism. However, no one, not even Trump, would currently dismantle NATO. He will be constrained by structural forces, like the American deep state, the Democratic opposition, the Senate and his own cabinet. Nonetheless, this week’s interview was a much needed delightful slap at the face of the shocked liberal Twitterati, who incessantly and smugly lecture about values, completely oblivious to the lessons of history.


Here’s a simple word of advice to the European leaders and policy elites. An easy way to maintain an alliance is to demonstrate commitment through investment. Cut down on social spending, cut down on idiotic and redundant research like gender gaps in NATO forces, and formulate a wartime plan to channel resources towards defence. Spend less on bureaucratic and bloated command structures and more on manufacturing tanks and hardwares, less on open door migrant aid, and more on Mediterranean surveillance.

If one is serious about defending liberal order, then one should be prepared to spend. After all, freedom isn’t free, and Uncle Sucker won’t be there forever. It’s everyone for themselves, and if this lesson of 2016 is forgotten, then next time, someone worse than Trump will come along, with full cabinet backing, who won’t just be indifferent, but actively hostile.


Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in Great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.


  1. MisanthropicSisyphus says

    This is a very useful and cogent read on a number of the problems in IR, but it makes a fatal flaw in conflating, without explanation, shared ideology and shared values.

    A shared ideology is a shared set of particular values, but critically, not all values.

    For example, the response or making of threats by states is not dependent on a shared ideology, but shows a commonly shared value of how to interpret and perform a threat – there are some threats that can be weighed, interpreted and responded to, and there are others which can be discarded as the ravings of an insecure ideologue (see North Korea).

    Finally, perhaps the greatest flaw in your argument is to suggest that John Mearsheimer, et al (but JJM in particular) have ‘shown’ anything to be the case, on one hand, whilst on the other you rage against ’empirically unproven garbage’ of other approaches. Mearsheimer has proven caught out time and again by rejecting values over interest without providing any good argument that the interests a state holds are not driven by values or some other semantic variant.

  2. Another excellent article, thank you for being honest in your assessments. I don’t agree with everything, but I find this refreshing. I personally think that NATO should be restructured, and that members should be expelled until they can meet the prerequisites. Further, those that have shirked responsibility thus far should have to pay, with interest, before re-admission. Additionally, Russia should be a member if it so desires. I realize the children fear scary Putin and his throbbing Russian masses, but seriously.. It’s time to grow up! Russia, USA, & UK should be allies, of mutual respect. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine very many people truly respecting USA until stops rubbing shit on it’s face. I mean, I like peanuts, but that goes too far. Of course, EU is the maybe worse, because it seems full of masochists! Perhaps Trump will make things better, perhaps other leaders will follow in kind, but for sure nothing will happen if the people only “Moo” when they get shoved in front of the slaughter trough.

  3. MisanthropicSisyphus says

    Fenrir – those are utterly ridiculous suggestions. Let’s just start with the basic – that countries would be made to pay what hasn’t been paid…and with interest.

    For Canada, that would equal between 10 and 15 billion dollars per year for more than 10+ years…plus interest.


    • Would it be stupid for the US to pick up the tab for those who are unwilling to pay their agreed upon amount? Are the US, UK, Poland, Greece, and Estonia stupid for paying their fair shares?

      Or do the slacker countries simply not feel NATO is of any value to them anymore? If so, they should be fine forgoing their membership in NATO.

      • MisanthropicSisyphus says

        That argument would only work if NATO was underfunded or lagging behind the next great power.

        It isn’t in either circumstance.

        You also follow the nonsense that the US is picking up the tab – it isn’t. It is paying for whatever defence and security outcomes it wants to see. If others spend less, that has nothing to do with the US picking up anything.

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