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President Trump’s tireless critics are at it again, accusing him of calling into question America’s “sacred” and allegedly legally binding obligation to come to the military defense of any of its European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) if they come under armed attack.

As charged by the author linked above (from the reflexively establishmentarian Brookings Institution), the president’s refusal to endorse this obligation explicitly in his speech today at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, will “raise grave doubts about the credibility of the American security guarantee and provide Russia with an incentive to probe vulnerable Baltic states.” Sounds awful – and unprecedented – right? Actually, not even close.  But as you’ll see, Mr. Trump could be on his way to creating another big – and completely unnecessary – problem.

In the first place, in concrete terms, Article Five legally obligates the United States to do absolutely nothing specifically if one of its NATO allies comes under assault. The clause simply requires treaty signatories to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

And this flexibility-preserving wording is no accident, or product of jargon-addicted diplomats or international lawyers. It resulted from the U.S. Congress’ insistence that the American government and the people to which it owes its first loyalties to retain the legally recognized right to decide when to go to war. And keep in mind: Congress was determined to reserve the right to stay out of a conflict in Europe as the Cold War was reaching its height.

Just as important: The European allies recognized this right – and its implications – as well, especially after the Soviet Union’s development of major nuclear forces greatly increased the risk to the American homeland of nuclear attack if it plunged into war on the allies’ behalf. We know this for sure because the continuing ambiguity ultimately persuaded both the British and French to create their own nuclear forces. As former French President Charles de Gaulle warned, the United States could not reasonably be expected to endanger the existence of New York or Detroit to save Hamburg or Lyons.

Tragically, American leaders were so strongly opposed to its allies taking back control over their own fates that they strove almost fanatically to convince the Europeans that the United States could indeed be trusted. And Washington put its money where its mouth was, stationing hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel and their families on or around the European continent. The idea was to create a “trip wire” aimed at denying any U.S. President a real choice of rushing to Europe’s defense with whatever threats or means were necessary. For standing by in the face of aggression would mean a slaughter or American troops and possibly innocents by vastly superior Soviet military forces.

Even during this era of high East-West tensions, however, American leaders never completely lost sight of the desirability of shifting as much of the burden of nuclear risk as possible onto the Europeans – while maintaining as much control as possible over nuclear weapons use. The transatlantic feud over intermediate-range nuclear forces – which threatened to confine the nuclear damage of any East-West war to Europe, leaving the American and Soviet homelands unscathed – was only one prominent example. And even this U.S. aim was fatally muddied, or at best thoroughly confused, by the continuing enormous military presence in Germany, directly in the likeliest path of the Soviet conventional juggernaut.

After the Cold War ended, the tripwire was steadily dismantled, but American presidents continued to treat Article Five as an ironclad promise to defend NATO members militarily – as demonstrated by the 2013 Obama statement in the Atlantic article linked above. Moreover, once Russian military and paramilitary activity began to increase in Moscow’s “near abroad,” Washington began, hesitatingly, to be sure, to respond to the demands of the newest NATO members in Russia’s sights for U.S. tripwire forces of their own.

Hence the charges that President Trump’s latest statement could dangerously destabilize NATO’s eastern flank. But there’s far more to the situation. In the first place, there’s much evidence linking Russia’s new revanchism to NATO’s expansion eastward right up to Russia’s borders. Second, if Article Five were rigidly applied to new NATO members such as the Baltic states or former Soviet bloc countries like Poland, the United States would be running the risk of nuclear attack on behalf of countries that (a) are completely un-defendable with conventional military forces alone, because they’re right next door to Russia; and (b) consequently, have never been considered vital or even significant interests of the United States.

Troublingly, however, despite the latest Trump statement (or lack thereof), which arguably could inject the Eastern European countries with a needed dose of realism concerning their real options in dealing with Moscow, the president has so far continued the policy of incrementally responding to these countries’ requests for tripwires.

In other words, his big mistake isn’t casting doubt on America’s commitment to these and other European countries. For if the United States might have balked risking New York or Detroit for Hamburg or Lyons, it’s certainly not going to jeopardize an American city or two to save Warsaw or Vilnius. Instead, Mr. Trump apparently is trying to fence-straddle here, which could well create the worst of both worlds on both sides of the Atlantic.

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