A few short quotes for you to chew on this fine holiday morning. First, the key one from Trump from his new interview with the Times of London:
“I took such heat, when I said NATO was obsolete,” Trump told the newspaper in an interview. “It’s obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror. I took a lot of heat for two days. And then they started saying Trump is right.”…
“A lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States,” Trump said. “With that being said, NATO is very important to me. There’s five countries that are paying what they’re supposed to. Five. It’s not much.”
Actually, said a former deputy secretary of NATO, the organization has been useful in fighting terrorism, not just by supporting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan but in training Middle Eastern militaries in counterterrorism. Not surprisingly, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, took Trump’s comments as a bad sign for U.S.-European relations:
His remarks have been “received with concern” and caused anxiety “not only in Brussels” Mr Steinmeier said, after meeting with Jen Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, on Monday morning.
“This contradicts what the American defence secretary said in his hearing in Washington only a few days ago and we have to see what it means for American policy,” Mr Steinmeier said.
He’s right about that. Mattis’s testimony a few days ago was notable for how hawkish he sounded about NATO, contra Trump. He called it the most successful military alliance in modern world history and accused Putin directly of trying to “break” it. “If we did not have NATO today,” he said at one point, “we would have to create it.” Trump reacted to that contradiction by tweeting a few days ago of his cabinet nominees, “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” It’s commendable that he’d encourage disagreement from his deputies, but strong disagreement on fundamental assumptions is a recipe for frustration. Imagine if Obama had appointed someone to lead HHS in 2009 who despised the idea of health-care mandates. The president and his cabinet need to share a worldview even if they differ on discrete policies. “Is NATO obsolete?” is a worldview question.
Russia, of course, agrees with Trump about its obsolescence:
“Nato is, indeed, a vestige of the past and we agree with that. We have long been speaking about our views on this organization,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said on Monday.
Go back to the the bit in Trump’s quote where he calls NATO “very important,” which seems like a way to try to harmonize his position with Mattis’s. Given what he says about countries paying their fair share, is his NATO criticism really just a way to get other members to pony up more or does it point to something deeper, like reluctance to defend a member if it’s attacked by Russia? He’s right, incidentally, that only five countries are currently following the recommended guideline of appropriating two percent of GDP for defense:
Germany’s paying slightly more than half of what it’s supposed to. The question is what Trump wants to see happen if they and others ante up to the two percent they’re expected to pay. Would the U.S. reduce its own defense expenditures accordingly? “The fact that the US covers most of the costs ensures America’s military predominance in Europe,” one German defense expert noted. Forcing more of the tab onto Germany might shrink the U.S. defense budget but it’ll also shrink U.S. influence. And having a more robust German military comes with its own costs, as history tells us. Would Germany start building a nuclear weapons program as a quick blunt-force means of deterrence? How about Poland, one of the few NATO allies that is meeting its recommended obligations? And what if the U.S. didn’t reduce its defense budget as Germany and other nations increased theirs? Suddenly there’d be an even more muscular NATO on Russia’s doorstep, which would be a weird outcome for an “obsolete” organization led by a country whose new president wants better relations with Moscow.
And then there’s this:
“I think there are risks,” Riecke explained. “I can imagine if Trump keeps saying that NATO isn’t that important to him that the Russians will test out whether he means this seriously. They might challenge NATO in the Balkans or in Turkey to see whether America plays along in the hopes of showing that the alliance has been fatally weakened because the biggest member is no longer on board.”
That’s the big one. Is all of this NATO criticism by Trump really just negotiating leverage to get European countries to spend more on defense or is it a sign that Trump isn’t committed to the alliance and will balk if Article 5 is triggered by a Russian invasion in the Baltics? If you were Putin, knowing how eager Trump is for dialogue, wouldn’t you want to test him and find out? Even if Trump’s commitment to NATO is stronger than Putin thinks, they can probably reach some diplomatic arrangement to de-escalate after an invasion. E.g., Russia gets to keep Estonia — but no more westward pushes!
In lieu of an exit question, here’s a smart thread from an expert at the Center for a New American Security imagining how all of this is going to work once Trump and Mattis are at the wheel. Probably right:
9. DOD different. Mattis has plenty of authority to spend big money and move military assets without POTUS approval.
— Ilan Goldenberg (@ilangoldenberg) January 15, 2017
11. Trump is the only one with the authority to steer Mattis in a different direction and avoid this incoherence. Doubt he will do it.
— Ilan Goldenberg (@ilangoldenberg) January 15, 2017
“Bottom line: this is going to be an incoherent mess,” Goldenberg concludes. We’re a week away from our first clues as to whether he’s right or wrong.