NATO Is Sick, And Trump Is The Best Doctor It’s Likely To Get

NATO Is Sick, And Trump Is The Best Doctor It’s Likely To Get

If you don’t like the messenger or how he messages, fine, but don’t miss the real issue: Does NATO as it is functioning require a bit of scrutiny and reform? Obviously so.
Paul Bonicelli
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NATO is needed and always will be as long as threats to the West exist in the form of Russia and state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran, whose utmost desire is the weakening if not destruction of Western civilization. But support for NATO, just like support for free trade, does not mean that the status quo must be protected and left unchallenged.

Not much in life escapes the need to be questioned, probed, and reformed. Now, if you don’t like the messenger or how he messages, fine, but don’t miss the real issue: Does NATO as it is functioning almost 70 years after its birth require a bit of scrutiny and reform?

The recent NATO summit in Brussels underscored how much the United States’ relationship with European powers is under considerable stress. It is so because the United States elected a businessman, not a traditional politician, much less a traditional diplomat. Each thinks differently, speaks differently, and seeks different outcomes. That above all is causing the turmoil, not simply the president’s blunt messaging.

Business People Want Results, Not Static

Business people like Trump see whatever and whoever is on the other side of the table primarily as means to an end. It is not that they dehumanize them or put no stock in having good relationships. Rather, they don’t see any arrangement as permanent because the bottom line is outcomes, not comity.

Politicians, on the other hand, tend to seek permanence in relationships if they can achieve it because they like stability. True, politics spawns reformers and revolutionaries, but they tend to seek stasis as soon as they get the position they want; ruptures are exceptions and not the rule. As for traditional diplomats, they are at the far end of the spectrum seeking permanence in relationships: comity and quiet are the coin of the realm.

So whether it is trade, foreign policy, Supreme Court appointments, or just plain old political campaigning for votes and legislation, Trump is bound to disrupt every day and in every way until he gets the deal he wants. He believes his approach to Kim Jong Un was successful and so far it is working. He believes his approach to renegotiating trade arrangements is working. The jury is still out on that one, but so far the markets and investors are not shying away from keeping the economy growing.

With the events of the last few days, he is keeping up this approach with his desire to see NATO members pay more of their share for the defense of Europe. After all, NATO contributions have gone up some since he came to office with this message.

There should be no surprise that he governs the way he campaigned for office, so he’s having success with the public as well. If the rattled establishment and scandalized diplomatic corps would spend time talking with average Americans, they’d find that many find Trump’s MO refreshing and valuable, even if most would say, “Well, I wouldn’t have said it that way, but…” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that when I do my informal polling around the country, I’d have a lot of dollars.

It’s Not Helpful to Hide the Truth

The way Trump is going about his job disconcerts the diplomatic corps here and abroad, the politicians who must make sense of where he is going, and even the cabinet officials who surely are sitting in summit meetings the likes of which they never dreamed they’d be a part of. Having served in the executive branch in foreign policy positions, I am well aware of how careerists of all stripes are experiencing Trump.

I witnessed colleagues’ pearl-clutching when I used “undiplomatic language and tone,” but then I was saying things like “This Hugo Chavez guy coming to power is not a democrat,” and “There will be no peace between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs as long as the latter live under dictatorship,” and “We can spend taxpayer dollars on foreign aid for another 50 years to dig wells and plant trees and even to promote capitalism, but until people are free to self-govern, development is not going to be sustainable.” But I was right, and right to say it among rational adults.

But let’s put aside for the moment that Trump is being harsh and undiplomatic, because he has hit upon some real problems that everyone agrees are problems, and they have agreed on these points through several presidencies: European states are not paying a fair share of the burden of defending the West.

The typical politician, especially the long-serving, is slow to bring up a problem between allies, refrains from bringing it up very often, and is cautious in articulating it. Ultimatums, blunt demands, and criticism would likely be off the table unless an imminent threat were present. The traditional diplomat would likely never bring up problems unless the political leadership requires it, and even then there would be weeks and months of wrangling over the language of communiqués so that above all there would be no risk to the stability and comity of relations among the parties.

Not so for Trump. There’s a problem? Then go on and name it and be clear about requiring a change as we head into negotiations. This bluntness will produce a backlash? Well, so what, maybe that is what is needed to get everyone’s attention. George W. Bush and Barack Obama rightly called out Europe, but to no avail. Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama rightly confronted North Korea, but without doing so in a way that made the Kims and the Chinese regime appreciate that the United States really means to effect a change in a status quo that endangers our security and that of our allies.

Stop Pretending You Don’t Know Diplomatic Talk

Let’s remember that this is not the first time that Trump has focused on the problem of European defense—not just European powers’ lack of spending for defense, but also the dangers of allowing Russia to control the energy supplies of important states like Germany. He covered this in his Warsaw speech in 2017 that was nothing if not a call for the defense of Western civilization. He clearly meant what he said.

What is truly rankling his critics here and abroad is not that his facts are wrong. Let’s set aside the complaints that he is conflating NATO contributions required by treaty with the contributions each NATO member agreed to as long ago as 2006 and especially in 2014, when they did so in formal terms. Such critics are technically correct regarding some of the president’s tweets and public statements, at least so far as they call him on the lack of clarity of his statements.

But he knows what he is saying, they know what he is saying, they know that he knows what he is saying, and he knows they know what he is saying. I suppose we will have to get used to four or maybe eight years of the president’s critics pretending they don’t know what he is saying or demanding. That’s odd because in politics and diplomacy officials often say one thing when they mean another in order to let the other side save face. So if you can figure out what people mean when they are being vague, surely you can figure out what people mean when they are being blunt.

When President Trump is not being precise about the exact outcome he demands, it is obvious he is pointing the other side in the direction he wants the deal to go. And he wants to go further than his predecessors in solving problems.

Sure, Trump brings a new approach: bluntness, over-demanding, relentlessness, over-the-top praise one moment and trolling and gaslighting the next, but he is not being unclear. His goal is to get the other side’s attention so he can frame the discussion in the United States’ favor.

This will not change. It is time to get used to it and come to terms with what the most powerful leader of the most powerful nation in the world is negotiating for. He won’t stop because critics call him a brute. He’ll revel in that, go up in the polls, and press on.

Consider This Applied to the Russian Energy Deal

The lead-up to the NATO summit, the bilateral meetings, and the press coverage give us a great many quotes to draw from to illustrate the value of Trump’s approach to solving this problem of European defense. I’ll choose just one: the German-Russian energy deal, because it underscores how well his method can play with the American public, the rest of the U.S. government, and perhaps some on the other side of the table as the president negotiates with them.

In discussions with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the president pressed the point that while Germany fears Russian designs, it nevertheless spends only 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, far below the 2 percent it agreed to years ago. Thus it is letting the United States carry most of the burden for defending Germany. Yet Germany wants to make a deal with Russia that makes Germany dependent on Russia for much of its energy needs. How can this be? the president asks.

Said the president: “They pay billions to Russia for energy and then we have to spend billions to defend Germany from Russia. It doesn’t make sense.” You can’t have it both ways, is in effect what the president is saying. He raises an important question. It doesn’t help the German strategy in the president’s mind when they have an energy need now that they turned their back on nuclear power generation. You want to embrace Paris climate change accord thinking? Don’t ask the United States to pay for it.

We Want Defense, But Not to Pay for It

So NATO is ill, and the president has put his finger on a primary problem. The members want defense, but all but four seem uninterested in paying for it, rich though almost all of them are by world standards. They have been content to let the United States bear most of this burden, not to mention the fact that the United States—and only the United States—keeps the sea-lanes open. That is, we do a lot more to defend the West than simply paying our NATO dues and not being a burden to others.

So I return to my first point: NATO is needed, troubled though it is. No less than Henry Kissinger has answered the question “What is NATO needed for?” It is needed to restrain the centuries-old Russian desire to intimidate and conquer its neighbors out of both a sense of insecurity as well as “destiny.”

Confronting other enemies of the West like Iran is also NATO’s purpose. The united power of the world’s richest and strongest democracies is necessary to defeat those who despise and are jealous of our way of life. That is why President Trump’s diagnosis and prescription, blunt though they may be, and delivered with a bedside manner that shakes up the status quo, are in order.

Trump is not trying to divide the West, unless one thinks that blunt talk among rational adults about real problems that everyone acknowledges is “divisive.” He is trying to reform thinking and strategy in a dangerous time by insisting on fixing NATO’s problems. He values NATO, but not our grandfathers’ NATO.

Bonicelli served in the George W. Bush administration. His career includes a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation as assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development; as a professional staff member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives; and as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Tennessee.
Photo White House / public domain

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