American conservatives have abandoned their entire framework of thinking about national security.
Since the end of the Second World War, the foreign policy views of American conservatism have been about defending America's international power, and expanding it where possible. Ronald Reagan, at the top of conservatism's pantheon of heroes, crowed after a NATO conference that "the Western alliance remains a strong and unified guardian of the free world." Meanwhile, among the more consistent conservative criticisms of Barack Obama was that he was a coddler of dictators who was insulting our allies with his disrespectful behavior.
That perspective is melting away before our eyes, as President Trump thrashes around the international diplomatic arena like a mindlessly stampeding elephant — with the entire conservative movement following him in glazed-eyed lockstep.
Consider Trump's appearance this week at the NATO summit in Brussels. He opened with a blistering attack on Germany for being a "captive" of Russia — about the most obvious case of projection imaginable — and then blasted most of the rest of NATO members for not meeting the standard of spending 2 percent of their economy on the military. He then bizarrely claimed "I believe in NATO" just before leaving. European leaders were baffled and enraged. "What the heck is he doing?" they surely wondered.
Now, it is true that the NATO charter does say signatories should spend 2 percent of GDP on the military, and only a handful of members reach that standard. However, prior to Trump this was barely even noticed — Obama occasionally gently chided Europeans for not meeting that standard, but it was perfunctory at best.
The reason is that the 2 percent standard came from a collective defense agreement against a formidable foe (the Soviet Union) that doesn't exist anymore. It's not really a big deal if, say, Estonia doesn't pony up for a strong military, because there's no hostile superpower confrontation in the background.
Additionally, America (and especially the GOP) has rarely been grudging about covering the vast majority of NATO military spending. On the contrary, soldiers and weaponry are about the only thing this country loves to spend money on (especially hideously expensive airplanes that don't work). That's still true today; this year Congress casually flung another $61 billion — roughly enough to pay for free tuition in every public college and university in the country — on top of the already-mountainous military budget.
America's tacit willingness to bear such financial burdens is in no small part due to the whole complex of NATO, trade agreements, international financial institutions, and other such devices being correctly understood to be part of an American empire. "The West" was backstopped by American power because it benefited the U.S. Let Europe go it alone, the thinking went, and you'd get these disastrous world wars. (Allowing American presidents to puff themselves up as "leader of the free world" was a fairly important side benefit as well.)
Conservatives used to care about American dominance and alliances abroad. Not today.
Yesterday, President @realDonaldTrump delivered a strong message to NATO and the world. It’s time for NATO allies to live up to the commitments they made.
— GOP (@GOP) July 12, 2018
What we're seeing, I suspect, is a return to atavistic conservative attitudes — but combined with a great steaming pile of modern right-wing nuttery. Before the Second World War, conservatives like Robert A. Taft were hostile to international institutions like NATO, favoring a sort of fortress America free of entangling alliances and commitments, willing to let the world drown in blood so long as they kept out of our hair.
There are certainly many problems and much unpleasant history with the Western alliance system. But what Trump is doing is not going to achieve anything. There is no subtlety or intelligent policy design here. Trump's moves are just destructive lashing out from a very lazy and ignorant man with an in instinctive need to dominate and swindle. And conservatives, driven absolutely loopy by a generation of Fox News and AM radio, are right there behind him. From the rank and file to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, Republicans are watching Trump senselessly charge headlong into the bedrock of America's international power, over and over again, and either nodding or looking at their shoes.