Trump’s Comments on NATO Threaten European Security


© Bjoern Meyer

August 05, 2016 12:11 EDT

Donald Trump’s comments on NATO threaten to embolden Russia and reduce European security.

With Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump continuing to make comments praising Russia, perhaps his worrying comment about his disinterest in NATO should not surprise us. However, Trump’s contemplation over recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the business ties of his advisors and his generally positive comments about Vladimir Putin worry not only many Americans but many Eastern European allies as well.

Most worrying, however, is his continued insistence that his administration will not support certain NATO allies unless they pay more for the protection of the United States. While Trump insists that he can make a better deal for America, these comments about NATO and American alliance partners shows he fundamentally doesn’t understand the intricacies of deal-making in the international political arena.

With Russia attempting to claim they are once again peer rivals with America, the continued commitment of the US to uphold its alliance commitments remains an imperative. As old Cold War boundaries have shifted from the Fulda Gap to the Baltic Sea following NATO expansion, the alliance remains relevant. Donald Trump’s misunderstanding of the partnership threatens to undermine American interests and security throughout Europe.

Flawed Logic

Trump’s main argument over the NATO alliance system is that he would be reluctant to defend members of the alliance that are not paying their fair share into the budget. Two major problems emerge from his claim. First, more superficially, Trump seems to think NATO members are required to pay the United States for their defense rather than use their military spending for their own defense. The NATO treaty requires members to spend 2% of their GDP each year on the military to maintain a robust military force. This is in no way paying the US to defend them, and instead is helping create a robust defense force that the US will supplement.

However, the countries most threatened by Russia today, Estonia and Poland, are meeting the 2% of GDP military spending threshold. Yet Trump continues to insist they pay for NATO protection, indicating a massive misunderstanding of how alliances and the Euro-Atlantic community operate.

Second, and more dangerously, Trump’s lack of understanding of the basis of the NATO military alliance network completely undermines the deterrent value of the alliance and makes a Russian military action in Europe much more likely. Deterring a land grab by Russia requires three things: a clearly (1) communicated threat to defend the territory that is (2) credible and the alliance possesses the (3) capabilities to follow through on the threat. In his discussions of NATO, Trump undermines all three of these components of deterrence.

By claiming that he may not defend the territories if they are not paying for protection, he is directly removing the clearly-communicated threat the NATO alliance is based on. Further, by stating that he would have to think about whether it is worth defending fellow states from Russian aggression, makes the US and NATO look less credible in their threat of retaliation against Russia.

Finally, in his remarks that he is interested in removing some elements of or eliminating the NATO alliance structure, he is threatening to remove the capabilities that will deter Russian aggression as Russian capabilities far outstrip the militaries of Estonia, Poland and others. Combined, the comments by Trump are already worrying as they make deterrence in the region more difficult and probably require a more prominent American presence in the region to reassure allies and dissuade Russia from land grabs.

Security Dilemma

In addition, Trump’s impact on reducing the deterrent capability of NATO would force Eastern European militaries to invest even more heavily in their militaries, which could make the Russians feel compelled to increase their force posture and view Eastern Europe as increasingly hostile. A reduced American presence and reduced NATO credibility in the region would create a security dilemma with both the Baltic states and Russia building up their military strength in the neighborhood. The threatening posture from the Baltic states would then give Russia a pretext to engage in a land grab (as they have already done in Ukraine and Georgia) without worrying about negative consequences. Or, more slyly, Russia might look to probe the defenses of the Baltics and test US resolve over whether they will defend their allies in the region.

Without a solid US deterrent backing Eastern European allies, Russia will feel free to try to regain its status as a great power and undermine the democratic societies created in post-communist Europe. Any policy platform that advocates for conditions that would invite Russian interference and military action in Eastern Europe is a failure. Trump’s foreign policy platform that would remove the deterrent value of NATO and leave the Baltic states open to annexation is a total disaster.

Ensuring that the deterrent remains robust is the best way to maintain the American interest in a stable and conflict-free Europe. Pushing that deterrent line east post-1991 creates a larger area of stability that should be embraced and protected.

After two decades of questioning the enduring legacy of NATO, the re-emergence of the Russian threat to the region reaffirms the need for NATO and the role of America in defending their interests in the region. The NATO system is a good deal for the US in the long term that enshrines the US as the dominant player in the Euro-Atlantic security hierarchy, allowing the US to reap the benefits of this position through basing, force posture and a secure economic market.

Creating a long-standing deterrent for Europe is also beneficial for the US as it prevents a military crisis in Europe from emerging that could necessitate a European or American response. Avoiding actions that could mandate military action or action by another close ally is a positive for American prosperity.

Ensuring that the deterrent remains robust is the best way to maintain the American interest in a stable and conflict-free Europe. Pushing that deterrent line east post-1991 creates a larger area of stability that should be embraced and protected. Trump’s dangerous rhetoric threatens the alliance structure and the stability of the region, threatening all gains made in the region since the 1980s.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Bjoern Meyer

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