Nearly eight decades have passed since Neville Chamberlain told the British people in September, 1938, how “horrible, fantastic, incredible” it was that they were preparing for war over “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” The British prime minister went on to claim that whatever sympathy Great Britain might have for the Czechoslovak state, a war could only be fought for “larger issues.” Recent comments of the Republican candidate for president bear a strange resemblance to Chamberlain’s desire to evade his country’s security commitments. Although Great Britain was not bound to defend Czechoslovakia by a specific treaty, it had strongly supported the principle of national self-determination in Central Europe following World War I. By the late 1930s Czechoslovakia was the last democracy in this area. Its dismemberment would result in Nazi predominance over much of Europe. Like the British Prime Minister, Donald Trump claims little experience in foreign affairs, perhaps the reason he neglects the rationale for NATO’s creation in 1949. Article V of the NATO treaty maintains that an attack against one member of the alliance is regarded as an attack against all. In response to a state invoking this principle other NATO members are obligated to “assist”, but not necessarily with armed force. The sole beneficiary of this commitment has been the U.S. — following the attacks of 9/11.
Because NATO members are supposed to contribute 2 percent of GDP for defense, it is no surprise that less wealthy countries pay a smaller amount of the overall cost; the US funds about 25 percent of the ongoing budget. Of course, if a NATO country commits its forces to a military operation (e.g. Iraq or Afghanistan) its contribution may become open-ended.
Other than the US only a small number of NATO members meet the expected 2 percent expenditure on defense (Estonia, Greece, Poland, and the UK). The states spending less include both more substantial members of the alliance and smaller countries. The shortfall is slightly less in the case of some members (e.g. France — 1.78 percent), with several spending under 1 percent.
Still, it is troubling to link security commitments to a member state’s military expenditures. Were the US to hesitate in supporting a NATO member that had not met the 2 percent threshold, the entire rationale of the alliance would be in doubt. Even delaying a response to a threat could have serious consequences. Of course, a country whose security is menaced is very likely to make the most extravagant promises to pony up, commitments that may be well beyond its financial resources.
Those who believe, as does Donald Trump, that the bottom line should take precedence in dictating security would be advised to consider the results of Neville Chamberlain’s policy. Acceding to the partition of Czechoslovakia at Munich meant that Great Britain lost all influence — political as well as economic — in Central Europe. The years before the outbreak of World War II saw Germany come to dominate trade in this area and negotiate one-sided agreements — most notably for the delivery of Rumanian oil. Surely the result did not benefit the economic position of those who cared little about the fate of people “in a faraway country.”
• Robert Givens is Cornell College Professor of History, specializing in European history.