The last though by no means of the least of the five reasons that ConservativeHome gave for backing Brexit was global engagement. The case for it was put eloquently on this site by Daniel Hannan. Britain could sign new trade deals and export more freely, utilising new technology and falling freight costs. We would continue to host the world’s greatest city, top soft power league tables – and speak the world’s most widely-learned language in the history of humanity. We would carry on being a nuclear power, and have the fourth-largest defence budget on the planet. We would remain one of five permanent seat-holders on the UN Security Council, and play our part in the Commonwealth, the G8, the G20…and NATO.
There is a view on the fringes of British conservatism, usually held by those who see Russia as a strategic ally, that NATO is past its sell-by date. Alan Clark described it as “a bureaucracy in search of a pension” – but then again, he was a good example of the genre. In recent years, NATO has acted in Afghanistan; is currently “assisting with the response to the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe”, and sometimes provides earthquake relief. But its main purpose is much the same today as when it was founded in 1949: to deter Russia. This is why NATO membership remains open to “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty” (i.e: not Russia). It also explains why Clark, who had isolationist sympathies, was unsympathetic to it.
One can throw out the bathwater of provoking Russia without also throwing out the baby of NATO. Yes, Russia is capable of playing a beneficial role in Afghanistan and over Iran. Yes, it is unwise for NATO to seek expansion eastwards, including into the Ukraine. And, yes, EU bungling played a part in sparking the war there. But although Russia is not an enemy it is not a friend, either. It is not a democracy. It is consumed by corruption. Its agents have committed murder on British soil. It tortures and kills campaigners for justice. It has launched cyber attacks against a neighbouring state, Estonia. Unlike the old Soviet Union, it has no expanionist ideology. None the less, it has aggressive instincts. NATO helps to keep Russia out of much of eastern Europe.
You can see where this is heading. Clark has successors in Britain today, mostly to be found within UKIP or near it, who have somehow persuaded themselves that democratic, disarmed Germany is more of a current military threat to our interests than is authoritarian Russia. There is an echo of the admiration in which Mussolini was once held on parts of the Right in the admiration for Vladimir Putin among some UKIP-leaning circles – and the belief that he at least “stands up to Islamism”. (Wrong: Russia’s propping-up of Assad made a negotiated peace more difficult, and much of its military intervention deliberately didn’t target ISIS.) But never until now has serious reservations about NATO been expressed by the candidate for the Presidency of one of the two main parties of its most powerful member.
Donald Trump has a good point about many European NATO members not pulling their spending weight. One can understand why some Americans believe that the organisation is now an exercise their country paying for the security of others. It is this feel for a big slice of the United States that has got Trump to where he is today, and one does not have to agree with his policies (insofar as he sticks to any), like him (he is inherently unlikeable) or admire what he stands for (essentially the old American nativism married to a new yearning for the country’s own “man of steel”) to respect his instinct for where much of his country is now. He inveighs against Islam. But he himself is proof that a flight into protectionism and paranoia is not necessarily a response to the presence of Muslims in large numbers.
His soft spot for Putin is part of the same execrable story. Believing that NATO members aren’t doing enough is one thing; saying so loudly – as Trump could say anything in any other way – is quite another. It is an orange light to Russia. And to suggest that America might dishonour its NATO commitments with regard to the Baltic States comes closer to a green one. Trump’s vagaries are a menace to the peace and security of our continent. It is a tragicomic irony that this man is the successor as his Party’s Presidential candidate to such far-sighted internationalists as Reagan, Nixon and the older Bush. Perhaps it would all be different were he to be ensconsed in the White House, but there is a sound basis for suspecting the opposite: “the same arts that did gain/A power, must it maintain”.
One does not have to believe that Trump is somehow in the pockets of the oligarchs to hold this view. It is being put about by some of his Democrat opponents, mention of whom takes one to their candidate. In helping to tear up Glass-Steagall while President, Hillary Clinton’s husband actually helped to create Trump, since he is a backlash against America’s pre-crash legacy – another irony. Watching last week’s Democrat convention, with its obsession with minority rights and its cornucopia of Hollywood celebrities, was a reminder of why her Party doesn’t deserve to win. But Clinton is, as it were, the last man standing: the only person standing between Trump and the White House. And at least she is an experienced internationalist. That may not be much of an endorsement but it will have to do.