The summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization this week – on Wednesday and Thursday – is a landmark event. It will be the first summit the alliance hosts in its new $1.2-billion headquarters in Haren district in Brussels. It ought to be a happy get-together. However, the event is becoming a somber occasion.
The blame for this is being put squarely on the shoulders of President Donald Trump, who has questioned whether the US’ European allies spend 2% of their GDP on defense and making that a key issue of his security and defense agenda. The American think-tank German Marshall Fund of the United States said in a report last Thursday: “The big question is how the showdown will play out around the table when Trump raises the issue.”
The think tank made an astonishing allegation: “Even greater damage could be done at the Trump-Putin meeting four days later [in Helsinki on July 16]. Among European Allies, but also in a staunchly Russia-critical U.S. Congress, suspicion about why the President wanted to meet with his [Russian] counterpart now is rampant. Observers are fearful that the notoriously unpredictable and diplomatically idiosyncratic Trump might sell out NATO security interests by agreeing to some deal with Putin … Should such fears prove justified, expect the European security architecture to become seriously unhinged, maybe to a historic degree.”
The old warhorse fears Trump could sell them out. Simply put, the US’ NATO allies are horrified at the prospect of an easing of tensions between Russia and the West. And there is a congruence between them and forces arrayed against Trump in US politics today. A profound contradiction has arisen.
Unless this contradiction is resolved, the western alliance cannot continue turbo-charged on the path that was set at its historic summit in Wales in 2014 under Barack Obama’s watch when it formally cast Russia as the “enemy” and embarked on hostile military posturing along Russia’s border regions in a wide arc stretching from the Baltics to the Mediterranean.
NATO expansion broke vow to Gorbachev
NATO members at the Wales summit claimed they were reacting to Russia annexing Crimea and Moscow’s intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014. But in reality it was fast-forwarding an agenda that can be traced to back to the Clinton presidency – 1994, to be exact. When Bill Clinton ordered in 1994 the expansion of the alliance into the former territories of the Warsaw Pact, he jettisoned solemn Western assurances held out to the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand even by an inch following the reunification of Germany.
American diplomat George Kennan had warned then and there that it was an epochal mistake that would alienate Russia forever, but Clinton’s intention was to keep America in Europe and keep Russians out. By March 1999, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic had signed up; and over the next five years, NATO incorporated a further seven states – Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Then in 2009, Croatia and Albania joined, and in June 2017 Montenegro followed. Indeed, NATO had to commission Madeline Albright for a project to provide an intellectual construct to the NATO enlargement.
Again, the petard of a “Russian threat” was raised at NATO’s 2014 summit but the plain truth is that the crisis in Ukraine was caused by clumsy Western meddling with the aim of turning that country into a military adversary of Russia through a half-baked offer of EU and NATO membership.
The US Assistant Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Victoria Nuland, has admitted that since 1991, Washington had spent upwards of $5 billion on “pro-democracy initiatives” in Ukraine.
Putin scoffs at ‘Russia threat’
On the ground, NATO enjoys vast military superiority over Russia. Putin has scoffed at the talk of a Russian threat to NATO members being “the type of thing that only a crazy person thinks, and only when dreaming”. Suffice to say, without an honest introspection by NATO of how it reached the present point on the so-called “Russia threat”, the alliance is in a cul-de-sac. It has nothing to do with Trump.
Where Trump really differs from Clinton or Barack Obama is that he is a political outsider. Not being an Establishment figure, unlike his two predecessors, he sees that NATO’s real predicament is that it is all dressed up with nowhere to go. As Trump sees it, the alliance’s contrived posturing of a war footing imposes a set of financial and military burdens on the US, which is unacceptable.
Trump framed the paradigm at a rally in Montana on Wednesday: “And I said, ‘You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us ’cause I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.” And, if Trump constructively engages with Putin, NATO’s anti-Russia animus becomes unsustainable and the alliance loses its purpose.
Plan to counter a Russian attack
Curiously, the summit in Brussels next week – just four days before the Helsinki summit – is slated to formalize a “30-30-30-30” NATO plan to counter a Russian attack – 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 ships to be kept in readiness for deployment within 30 days of being put on alert. Poland is pushing for a new US military base on its soil and the Baltic States have also requested a permanent stationing of American troops.
Meanwhile, there are growing divergences among the NATO allies in regard to threat perception. The Baltic States, Poland and Romania see Russia as a national security threat and foreign policy challenge. But for France or Germany, Russia doesn’t pose any such threat and although they disapprove of aspects of Russian policies, they also underscore the importance of a productive relationship with Russia.
The countries of southern Europe – Hungary, the Balkans, Greece, Italy, etc – are outright disinterested in sanctioning against Russia and keenly seeking opportunities of cooperation. As for Turkey, it has become Russia’s strategic partner. Even for the US, selective engagement with Moscow has been a necessity during the Clinton and Obama administrations. Clearly, shoring up Euro-Atlantic solidarity on the Russia question is becoming difficult. And a confrontational approach toward Russia as a default position becomes illogical.
It is not that Trump fails to see NATO’s political significance. It is rather that he sees the alliance for what it is – old fraying knots tying the US to its Cold War-era allies at such heavy cost without commensurate benefit. He feels that the US is being taken advantage of by free riders. Basically, Trump has never been caught up in NATO’s existential need for Russia to be the enemy from the east.
Germans concerned about Trump
Senior German officials have openly complained that NATO states were not included in the planning for the Trump-Putin summit at Helsinki. Peter Beyer, trans-Atlantic coordinator for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition, told the Funke Mediengruppe newspaper chain on Saturday: “There are great concerns in the alliance about what agreements Trump and Putin could reach.” That sentiment echoes Trump’s political adversaries and the large corpus of Russophobes in the US.
This is the first time in a half-century after Dwight Eisenhower, that the US has a president who is convinced of the imperatives of cooperative – even friendly – relations with Russia. Eisenhower failed to push through the planned May 1960 summit with Nikita Khrushchev following the controversial U-2 affair and the Soviet arrest of spy pilot Gary Powers.
When he vacated the presidency, he was an embittered man warning starkly in his farewell speech against the machinations of his country’s “military-industrial complex”. Where the war hero of the beaches of Normandy failed, can Trump succeed? Unlike Eisenhower, Trump also has to tackle the curious line-up between the US’ NATO allies and his enemies in Washington. That makes the Brussels summit a momentous run-in for Trump.