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As this year’s summit of the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) begins, it’s nothing less than vital for Americans to understand two points about President Trump’s approach to the Atlantic alliance:

First, the President’s globalist critics are right in pointing out that Mr. Trump is thoroughly, and even dangerously, mishandling U.S. relations with NATO.

Second, these critics completely misunderstand why the President is off-base.

The heart of the globalist case against Trump-ian NATO policies goes generally like this: Mr. Trump drastically underestimates the contribution made by the alliance to U.S. national security interests not only in Europe but around the world. Especially worrisome are his threats to reduce America’s military presence in Europe if other NATO members don’t boost their defense budgets to agreed on levels, and the chance that he could strike some kind of a deal with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at their upcoming meeting that would in some way accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and designs on Ukraine. The result would be the kind of appeasement that could encourage more Russian aggression against former satellites of the old Soviet Union that are NATO members today, and against the Baltic states, other new NATO members that were part of the Soviet Union proper after being taken over in 1940.  

Yet this critique fundamentally misreads the Trump NATO strategy – at least as it stands this week. Many of the latest alarm bells were set off by a Washington Post report describing a Pentagon investigation of “the cost and impact of a large-scale withdrawal or transfer of American troops stationed in Germany” – where most U.S. forces in Europe are deployed.

Although semi-denied by the Defense Department, the alleged finding seemed consistent with Mr. Trump’s suggestions that if the NATO allies don’t pick up more of the alliance’s military spending burden, America’s commitment to their defense might weaken. (Interestingly, a similar statement was made earlier this year by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is generally considered a national security traditionalist who values America’s alliances much more than the President).

But widely overlooked in the latest trans-Atlantic tumult are Mr. Trump’s actions – which should speak louder than words. And many of them were nicely summed up in this Associated Press article:

Notwithstanding Trump’s grumbles about America shouldering the defense burden of Europe, his administration plans to boost spending to support it.

In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014 and its subsequent military incursion into eastern Ukraine, the Pentagon ramped up joint exercises in eastern and central Europe and spent billions on what it calls the European Deterrence Initiative aimed at Russia. After spending $3.4 billion on that initiative last year, the Trump administration has proposed boosting it to $6.5 billion in the 2019 budget year.”

It’s bad enough that a U.S. decision to increase the American military footprint in Europe will completely kneecap the Trump administration’s efforts to push more allied military spending by convincing the allies that continued free-riding and foot-dragging will carry no cost. Far worse is the focus of this new U.S. spending on beefing up the American/NATO presence in Poland and the other new alliance members in Eastern Europe. Indeed, that article about studying cutting American forces in Germany reported that one option being considered was moving some – presumably permanently – to Poland, which borders Russia.

The Poles and the other countries once under the Soviet thumb are understandably heartened by these possible moves. Troublingly, however, this apparent Trump gambit indicates that he’s just as ignorant about the paramount reason for overhauling U.S. NATO strategy as his globalist critics: Because of the alliance’s expansion to cover so many countries so close to Russia, because Moscow has recently been responding so sharply, and because NATO legally requires the United States and all other allies to rally to the defense of any NATO member under attack, the chances have risen that America could become embroiled in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia.

And worse still, the more American units are stationed in Europe, and the more permanent these deployments (so far, they’re periodically rotated in and out), the greater the odds that such a conflict will go nuclear – because defending Russia’s neighbors with conventional forces alone will prove impossible, and because the American forces will become a tripwire whose defeat or impending defeat would generate heavy pressure on any U.S. President to respond with a nuclear strike that would risk Russian retaliation.

A resulting, and tragic, irony: The security of Germany and the countries of Western Europe have for decades been considered vital American interests, primarily because their industrial and technological strength and potential could dramatically affect the balance of global power. The security of the countries to the East have never been considered vital American interests, partly because they have never remotely possessed these capabilities or potential, and partly because geography will always make them fatally vulnerable to Soviet or Russian ambitions.

So the possibly emerging Trump position amounts to assuming greater risks (including of nuclear attack on the American homeland) for assets of much less value.

As I’ve written, the continuation of status quo American policies on the Korean Peninsula poses similar nuclear risks to protect an ally – South Korea – that’s certainly impressive economically but hardly decisive to U.S. safety or prosperity.

I’m still firmly on board with President Trump’s declared intention of replacing longtime globalist foreign policies with an America First approach. But like everything else in life, this transformation can be carried out badly and well. Without a major course change, Mr. Trump’s policies could easily wind up leaving the nation with the worst of both international strategies.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing how I would deal with the above dilemmas, check out my new article in The National Interest – on what a genuine America First foreign policy would look like, and why it would be far better than its predecessor, or the strange hybrid the Trump administration has created to date.

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