The workings of NATO have historic roots. The North Atlantic Alliance between the United States and Europe was established in 1949, a time in which the United States possessed hegemonic dominance of the capitalist world-economy, enjoying a substantial productive, commercial, financial, and military advantage over all nations, even the more advanced European economies. Moreover, it was a time in which the prevailing Cold War ideology falsely defined the Soviet Union as an expansionist threat to Western civilization. US foreign policy sought to extend and deepen its reach in a world-system that was in transition to neocolonialism; and as dimension of this, it sought to contain Soviet influence in the Third World. Given the assumptions of US foreign policy at the time, the NATO alliance, with nearly total military and financial dependency on the United States, had advantages for the USA. In the first place, it ensured the expansion of the military-industrial complex, on which the US economy had become dependent. Secondly, US military support made it possible for the European nations to focus on the rebuilding of their economies, thus increasing their capacity to serve as a consumer market for US products. Thirdly, US global military presence, with military bases in Europe and in all regions of the world, guaranteed US dominance in international affairs.
However, by the 1970s, the situation had changed. The European economies, especially Germany, had become effective competitors to the United States, such that many European goods were marketed in the USA, and the United States began to have a balance of payments deficits. In addition, the United States had become overextended with respect to military expenditures, principally because of the Vietnam War. As a result, adjustments were made in the 1970s, particularly in the form of the devaluation of the dollar through the elimination of the gold standard. However, the adjustments were insufficient for the new situation. The United States continued to overspend on the military, relative to its actual productive capacity, including its disproportionate financing of NATO. The European allies gradually contributed more, but much less than what the evolving situation required.
Accordingly, it can reasonably be said, as Trump implies, that the US power elite has failed since the 1970s to defend US economic interests vis-à-vis Europe. Trump was right when he declared in his undiplomatic discourse that no previous US president dared to speak to the allies in such a form. If we accept the premise that Europe needs a strong military defense, he was right in maintaining that the European allies should pay more. No doubt, many of his followers in the United States were delighted to see him set diplomacy aside and speak publicly in defense of the interests of the nation in a form unprecedented in the history of the North Atlantic Alliance.
However, the debate occurs in the context of a limited and narrow frame reference. It ignores another dynamic that has been unfolding since the 1970s, namely, the growing signs of the unsustainability of the world-system in the form in which it is presently structured. The root of the problem is that the world-system has overreached the geographical limits of the earth, eliminating the possibility for productive and commercial expansion of the world-economy through the conquest of new lands and peoples, through which new sources of raw materials, cheap labor, and markets were acquired. At the same time, the previously conquered peoples have increased their political capacity to resist and structurally transform the world-system, which has evolved to a neocolonial world-system. In light of these dynamics, the world-system is increasingly making evident its economic, ecological, and political unsustainability, in the form in which it is presently structured.
The profound structural crisis of the world-system and the relative decline of the hegemonic neocolonial power require enlightened world leadership. They require a reformulation of the necessary direction of humanity. Whereas the world-system has been established on a foundation of conquest forged by competing empires, the future direction of humanity must be forged on a fundamentally different foundation of mutually beneficial international cooperation, if global chaos is to be avoided.
We have, therefore, a situation in which the leaders of the world are unprepared to attend to the issues of importance to humanity. The situation requires lifting up of new leaders by popular movements, leaders who are prepared morally and intellectually to lead the peoples of the world on the necessary road. This alternative direction is being constructed in theory and practice by the progressive and socialist governments and movements of the Third World, with the cooperation of China and Russia (see various posts in the categories Third World and South-South Cooperation).