Trump and NATO: Opportunities and Dangers

By Ira Straus
This article was first published by ATLANTIC-COMMUNITY.ORG


The Atlantic world is not coming to an end. Not yet, at least. It is facing turbulence, which means serious risks. Change always brings both opportunity and risk. The best way to head off risk is, in most cases, to find and focus on opportunities. On the evidence thus far, the risks from Trump are less, not greater, than they have been from Obama and Bush II. The latter two were very different, but both were bad for the Atlantic Alliance.

Bush II believed in winning his wars, quickly; which was good for the Alliance. Obama has believed in dragging out his wars; he has made an ideological point of it, arguing that it is bad for America or the West to win primarily by its own force and to own the result; with a consequence of his creating chaos in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

Allies much prefer to be allied with winners not losers. Being able to win is the basic reason that most people understand for having an alliance at all; which is what provides space for elites to add on the value of alliance for community-building.

Obama has leapt too late, and too weakly; Bush leaped before the UN inspectors could finish looking, and landed in a disastrously wrong place. On follow-up after the territorial defeat of the enemy, both Bush II and Obama have been poor; which has been bad for the alliance.

In Afghanistan, Bush II failed to let many allies participate in the initial sweep that drove out the Taliban, something that would have provided energizing sentiment for the alliance; failed to follow through, heading off to Iraq instead; then came back and called in NATO after it was already going bad and was bound to be a miserable experience and depress alliance sentiment. In Iraq, too, he failed to follow through sufficiently until much too late. He promoted parliamentary electoral democracy, installing a Shi’a government and bringing the country to the edge of full-fledged civil war, instead of using the de facto imperialist power situation to see to it that the inter-communal Shi’a-Sunni party of Allawi would stay in power. His initial invasion of Iraq, destabilizing the country, and his brusque handling of allies along the way to so doing, was a disaster in all respects except the quick initial military victory; although if more WMD had been found there, the diplomatic consequences would have been different. Some WMD in fact were found, just not assembled, and well short of the exaggerated fears that were raised; the politicized reporting on this, or underreporting of it, compounded the disaster. He finally rescued Iraq, partway, with the costly but successful surge; an unnoticed effect of which was probably to soften the damage to NATO sentiment.

Obama failed to follow through in Libya, despite all the years of criticizing ruthlessly the irresponsibility of Bush’s toppling governments and failing on follow-through. Bush learned from his mistakes, partly because the media hated him and drove home every criticism; Obama has learned very little. Bush finally stabilized Iraq, at great cost; Obama re-destabilized it, by leaving it too completely, on pretext of lack of an agreement, in order to please his domestic political base. Obama too failed to insist on the necessary compromise inter-communal government on Iraq, relying on democracy instead, with fatal consequences for Iraq. Obama half-way began to correct this when he got al-Maliki pushed out, but only after years of delay, and only because he was making this a precondition before doing anything against ISIS. And he failed to carry the change to the needed extent, which would have meant getting power in Baghdad shifted back to the party led by Allawi.

Both Bush and Obama made the terrible ideological mistake of pushing for democratic elections inclusive of Islamist religious parties in the Mideast; it was as if the Allies in 1945 had insisted that Germany’s postwar democracy let the Nazis organize and run, instead of insisting on the opposite. It was as if we had learned nothing from the lessons drawn by good Germans about the need in some conditions for “protected democracy” (also translated sometimes as “militant democracy”, or “defensible democracy”, democracy that is capable of defending itself), rather than embrace of democratic principles in amorphous forms that are plainly suicidal. These conditions are found in many non-Western and not fully Westernized countries, particularly in countries where the totalistic force of a traditional monotheistic religion has not been historically broken by anything comparable to the sequence of Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. In other words, the Islamic world is the space where democracy most needs to be in protected form in order not to be suicidal. Turkey for decades provided a positive model of that. Bush II, however, under the sway of the post-cold war ideology of democracy as the almost universal solvent for all problems and the only answer to terrorism, promoted precisely the suicidal forms of elections in Egypt; in the Palestinian Authority, where it put Gaza under the thumb of Hamas; in Iraq, where it was the factor that truly ruined post-Saddam politics; in Turkey itself, where it has gradually undone the limited but liberal democracy of the Ataturk regime.

Egypt alone came through this without disaster under Bush II. Mubarak managed to head off disaster by letting the Muslim Brotherhood run, but for only a fraction of the seats. When they won them all, Bush finally learned from his mistakes – disastrous mistakes, destroying the opening for PA-Israeli peace, and threatening much worse –and stopped pushing for suicidal forms of democracy.

Obama proceeded to do that “much worse” part. His Administration and the strongly supportive American media promoted with revolutionary enthusiasm the overthrow of long-standing peace-loving governments in Tunisia and Egypt, demanded the full legalization of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party (while speaking favorably of the suppression of the moderate parties of Mubarak and Ben Ali; it was surrealistic, as if to wish for yet another “revolutionary democracy” of the totalitarian stripe, not liberal democracy; or as if the Allies in 1945 had both kept the Nazis legal and supported keeping the old moderate parties outlawed; yet it was a near-consensus view in the West at the time), favored its winning the presidential elections, supported the resultant Muslim Brotherhood governments and helped them consolidate authority, and opposed the institutional and popular pressures that subsequently led to their removal from power. It went on to belatedly support Britain and France against the government of Libya, but only in a slow-motion civil war; bringing, by the deliberate delaying of the intervention and its subsequent dragging out, dangerous Islamist militias out of the woodwork, Islamists not liberals being the ones who like to fight; relying on them to win and own the victory; and not honoring the Libyan provisional government’s request to stay and disarm the militias, honoring instead the perspective – then dominant in the circles of pro-Administration discourse in America – that the Islamists and militias not the moderates in the provisional government were the real and rightful future of Libya, as of Egypt and of the entire Mideast. Finally, it kept Syria embroiled in civil war year after year, bringing the refugee crisis to Europe, and bringing on ISIS.

Trump says he wants to win in good time against ISIS and eliminate it as a territorial entity. That would be good for the alliance.

The deliberate dragging out of this war and perpetuation of ISIS as a territorial entity has given it time to metastasize, and develop affiliated groups and semi-states around the Mideast, recruiting terrorists globally. And, let us not underestimate the help the drag-out policy has given ISIS in claiming the loyalty of an unnecessarily large number of Muslims, on the logical-sounding argument that it must be ISIS’s stance asGod’s true Islamic State here on earth that has enabled it to withstand American power for a couple years, when the much more powerful military and governmental regimes of Saddam and the Taliban were not able to withstand America for two months. The terrorist wave in Europe in the last two years is a consequence of the ideological policy of dragging on the war.

The related dragging on of the wider civil war in Syria, on the same set of Obama ideological arguments – that on the one hand we can’t agree to letting Assad stay and destroy the rebels we’ve supported, and on the other hand it would be wrong for us ever to push our rebels clearly over the top and help them enough to be pretty sure to topple Assad, because then we’d own the victory and that would be bad – has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. This, in turn, has seriously destabilized Europe, compounded by help of Angela Merkel’s conversion to acting as a partner in Obama’s worst missteps. It is as if she too has shed defended democracy in favor of a suicidal usage of democratist norms.

The fact that Obama was personally loved by most of the allied governments and by the vast bulk of European commentators, Bush reviled by the same – and Trump thus far reviled too – reflects on the politics and prejudices of the commentators, similar to the prejudices of the American media, not on what is good for the alliance. The misplaced enthusiasm for Obama was not without harmful consequences. It helped inspire Merkel in her mistakes, which truly are putting the EU at risk. And it helped protect Obama from learning from his mistakes.

Obama has been pro-NATO, which is fortunate; but when he entered office, he talked of disbanding one of its main sister summit institutions, the G7, in favor of the G20. This posture flowed from the ideology, which permeated Obama’s milieu and the American mass media in those years, of wishing for the West to decline from and move out of its global leadership role and welcoming the rise of the BRICS as a partial replacement. It was Canada, Japan, and Italy that saved the G7: they got its dissolution delayed, and Obama after another year learned to appreciate its virtues compared to the G20 (and to the BRICS). Learning from experience of the usefulness of cooperation and the structures for it and the institutionalized roles: this was part of the neo-functionalist theory of what makes our Euro-Atlantic institutions work and endure. We can expect positive learning with Trump, too, as long as institutions are not dissolved before he can experience their virtues. There is a risk that that could be a tight race; but as yet, fortunately, the fact is that, unlike Obama, Trump has never called for disbanding any Atlantic institution.

Obama was at best a poor leader of NATO, and less than loyal to the allies. When Britain and France took the lead in Libya, which in theory was what he wanted other countries to do instead of the US, he was begrudging in his support for them. It was the opposite of how to make friends and influence people. His Defense Secretary Gates, instead of thanking the allies for their trouble, made a misleading, oversimplified burden-sharing attack on them, and in rather demagogic form, threatening that America might leave NATO on this ground. He helped legitimize this highly inappropriate threat, hitherto the property solely of anti-NATO left-wingers, and spread further the public myths that now risk undermining the alliance.

NATO could probably have gotten a long-term base in Libya if it had stayed and helped disarm the Islamist-leaning militias, as the Libyan provisional government requested of it. Instead the alliance terminated its mission almost instantly after Qaddafi’s death, leaving Libya to sink into chaos.

Trump has repeated the burden sharing simplifications and myths that are directed against NATO. This shows the risk. However, in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn and the far left, who are organically anti-NATO, Trump has stated many times that he is pro-NATO. This seems sincere. It fits together with his liking to win wars when he gets into them – while also being less prone than the Clintons to enter into them.

In Britain, the Brexit camp is very pro-NATO and pro-trade. Its argument for saying that Britain can do without the EU depended on pointing to the fact that we have NATO and it is NATO that keeps the peace. It would be helpful if Trump’s friend Nigel Farage would impress this on Trump. If Brexit goes through, NATO will be more important than ever. And so will the trade arrangements of TTIP and TPP – Obama’s truly positive contributions to the Atlantic-Pacific community, reinforcing it internally and insulating the allies from Russian and Chinese economic power. This provides a positive agenda that the milder populist nationalists, particularly the Brexiteers, could play an important role in impressing on Trump.

Populist nationalists in Eastern Europe tend to be strongly pro-NATO – more than many in Western Europe, although it’s hard to compare; Kaczynski and Orban are in power, le Pen is in the opposition. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, quasi-neutralist socialists in the East win some elections; left-of-neutralist radical socialists won in Greece, which is east geographically and west in Euro-Atlantic institutional history, but thus far never the Corbyns or Tony Benns in Britain. In Italy, the large post-Communist and post-fascist parties seem truly reformed and moderate.) Even regarding the EU, on which the Easterners are critical, they want to keep an EU as indispensable for them; it is aspects of the EU that they criticize. De jure they criticize it in terms of extensions in its supranational powers, but de facto mainly for its excesses of political correctness, as e.g. in Juncker’s support for Merkel’s disastrous policy on refugees and the attempt to impose a sharing of her policy on all EU states. This is a matter on which it would be better for the EU to learn more from its mistakes and stop blaming the nationalists.

An immediate risk is that Europeans will believe the rhetorical exaggerations of Trump’s being an anti-NATO Russian stooge, deduce that this is Russia’s time and the West is finished, vote in pro-Russian governments, make deals on their own, and lift sanctions. The simultaneous votes in Bulgaria and Moldova raise this as a serious concern. The best immediate antidote is to get people to see the reality of what Trump has actually said, and cease the rhetorical exaggerations against him.

Of course, there are real risks that need to be watched for, and averted. Europeans should take care, as Congress will also take care, to try to make sure Trump does not give things away carelessly.

This does not mean that a Trump reset with Russia is a bad idea. On the contrary, it is a good idea, and Trump might well get farther with Putin than Obama and Hillary could. Nor does it mean that all bargaining should proceed with no concessions from our side, i.e. no serious bargaining, just “standing on principle” – and finding a principle to stand on for everything. However, America’s allies will need to be solid in order for it to work for the better. It would be a disaster if, responding to premature rumors of Europe being turned over to Russia, they hastened to the exit doors and more parts of Europe fell under heavy Russia influence in advance of the main event, the Trump-Putin dialogue.

One can expect Trump to be a fast-playing partner, like Putin capable of responding in real time and creating realities on the ground, not a passive absorber of Putin’s moves with only long-term responses. This provides opportunities. Long-term sanctions inherently divide the alliance. One might propose to Trump scrapping sanctions while quietly arming Ukraine more seriously on the ground. It could prove a good trade-off for all of us – for the alliance’s cohesion, for Ukraine’s security, for Russia’s economy, and, after some loud initial squealing, for our relations with Russia.

Is the rise of nationalist populism a matter of the old generation or the new? A bit of both. The World War II generation is gone as a political factor. Fighting side by side as allies is the nearest thing available to living as citizens in a common country with a strong joint loyalty. Ever since NATO founder Theodore Achilles raised the issue of “the successor generation”, it has been a serious problem, and one to which NATO has never been able to give more than a partial answer. In Europe, the new generations have been denationalized more than they have been Europeanized, and even less Atlanticized. Their globalization and “world citizenship” is in an amorphous sense, not the sense of citizens of a concrete global political entity. The overall sense of citizenship and political responsibility is weakened.

Already in the 1980s, NATO’s think tanks and pollsters drew the conclusion that our Euro-Atlantic institutions need a more constructive relationship to national patriotism, that being the only patriotism that as yet seriously and significantly holds the loyalties of our citizens. They said this particularly in regards to German patriotism, to the surprise of some of us. In other words, we need to partially retreat in the ideological realm to a more realistic appreciation of the this-era balance of our national and supranational loyalties, and a renewed building of “nationalisms” that can work and hold people’s loyalty in the existing situation, even as we continue building the supranational structures and fostering the growth of supranational loyalties on which we hope to be able eventually to rely more fully. It seems to me there is wisdom in this today, probably more than there was in the 1980s when NATO first came up with the idea.

On burden sharing there is much dishonesty, about which I’ve written elsewhere in recent months. NPR’s talking heads recently talked – unanimously – as if the 2% target were dues that members pay to some treasury in NATO. This is extreme ignorance. The subject is usually presented in the media in terms of the NATO Treaty requires Europeans to contribute 2% of GDP to (NATO) defense, placing this on a par with the Article V commitment. In fact 2% is just a target agreed at NAC meetings for national defense spending, it is not meant to be contributed to NATO, and it lacks any binding quality. It is pure illusion to think this burden sharing target is about the defense of Europe. Europeans already provide more than 90% of the troops and the bulk of the funds for Europe’s defense. Inefficient though much of this is, it is far more, not less, than Europe’s rightful share. What is lacking is Europeans’ sharing of the burdens of defending stability and Western interests in the wider world – which is something that the U.S. in 1949 insisted that NATO must have nothing to do with, and got it explicitly written out of Article V of the treaty.

We’ve learned since that the problems around the world are not all the fault of European imperialism and not all fixed by America’s being always on the right side of everything. Problems are real and tough, often intractable; the world turned out less manageable thanks to the end of the European empires; we have made many mistakes just as Europeans did; and we made a bad mistake in cordoning off the non-European world from NATO’s Article V. Fixing this mistake takes time, effort, and creativity. Some progress has been made since 1991. More progress is needed; the current trend – backtracking toward NATO dealing solely with European defense – is counterproductive.

It would help for Britain and France to take more of a lead on global military interventions, as they did in Libya; it would help for America to support them more when they do and make a good experience of it, something Trump might do better than Obama did; it would help for Germans to fight and die in Afghanistan, instead of just being there for other tasks – notwithstanding the fact that it was tremendous progress to get them there at all. The increase in defense spending will follow, as a natural patriotic reflex to support the national military effort, when this is done. But getting this done, sufficiently, will not happen overnight. Meanwhile doing a better job on the 2% target will help prevent the worst. It helps to push in Europe for this spending, and I understand the political logic that leads Europe’s Atlanticists to think it can be helpful to threaten Europeans on this matter; but they need to understand that it also would help to undo the massive dishonest myth-making on the subject, which is what motivates Americans to misperceive the matter and think in terms of making illogical threats of abandoning Europe.

I end where I began. Change always provides opportunity as well as danger. The best antidote to the dangers of a spirit of change is to find the opportunities in it and move them forward. This provides a better context for avoiding the dangers, one in which it is easier to get agreement on sidestepping the dangers than when one merely digs in defensively behind the status quo.

Ira Straus is U.S. Coordinator of the international Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO (CEERN), an independent public organization. CEERN was formed at the beginning of 1992 by long-standing Western Atlanticists and new Eastern European and Russian Atlanticists; it was the first organization to provide analysis of how NATO expansion could proceed, at a time when the issue was not yet being seriously considered on either the official or the public level; it did so with a view to avoiding the problems that have subsequently arisen. Opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of the author.