During his controversial presidential campaign, Donald Trump had referred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) as “obsolete”. Considering Nato was conceived as a military alliance against the Soviet Union, designed to secure the US interests during the Cold War, Trump’s statement cast a great deal of uncertainty over the organization’s future.
At his first meeting with Nato leaders, Trump acted incoherently, prolonging the uncertainty among US allies about Washington’s intentions. He shoved aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro, a country that has defied Russia to become the newest member of the alliance, on his way to his front row spot in a group photo, eager to appear as the main man in the room.
Yet his lectures to the Nato allies about pulling their weight and raising their defense budgets do not ring any fresh alarm bells. Obama used his two terms arguing for the same things.
So, what is the fuss about?
Two key differences constitute the international reactions to his recent statements: First, Trump refused to explicitly express his commitment to Article 5, a one-for-all all-for-one defense obligation at the heart of the alliance — a commitment his predecessors had always honoured. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the suspicion over his ties to Russia has cast a shadow over this Nato policy.
We have all observed in wretched horror how Trump handles political negotiations. He thinks he gains an advantage over others if they can’t figure out his intentions. His refusal to extend his commitment to the fledgling alliance is perhaps a bargaining chip to get what his predecessors argued for: greater contributions towards collective defense against an emboldened Russia.
In fact, Obama commended Greece for being one of the five Nato allies that spends two per cent of GDP on defense, a goal that the US has consistently set but not everybody has met. “Greece has done this even during difficult economic times. If Greece can meet this Nato commitment, all our Nato allies should be able to do so,” said Obama in November last year.
But what is the urgent threat that prompts the US to force greater contributions out of its austerity-stricken, economically fragile allies?
A spectre haunts Nato
Nato’s post-Soviet goals have long been debated. Nato was first established to protect Western Europe against Soviet advances. However, after the collapse of the communist union, the alliance expanded to the East, absorbing the former Soviet states right up to the Russian border. It also took the job of protecting key pipe-lines and sea-lanes, working on a number of issues, including anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism, becoming the international guardian of energy and economic infrastructures that benefit the Nato allies.
According to Professor Noam Chomsky, Nato “is a global system, and also a global intervention force, run by the United States, which tells you what it always was, and tells you something about anti-communism as a propaganda device.”
The eastward expansion of Nato has been a thorn in Russia’s side, which sees it as an instrument of the US dominance, and a direct assault on Russian interests. It has certainly rejoiced in rendering the Nato forces impotent in Syria, where Russia’s alliance with Bashar al-Assad resulted in a game changing turn in the Syrian civil war.
Perhaps, the biggest point of contention between the two is Ukraine. Russia accused Nato of provoking the 2013 ‘Maidan’ protests in Ukraine in a bid to drag it into what it considers an anti-Russia alliance which has wrought chaos through its intervention.
From partner to protagonist
Though Nato denies having a cold-war mentality in its approach to Russia, it still considers Putin a threat to the Western order. According to Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Russia poses an existential threat to the West’s military and political influence around the world, prompting Nato to assume a more militant mission.
“In the East, a resurgent Russia has turned from partner to protagonist as it seeks to undermine the Western-led international order and reassert itself as a global power,” Scaparrotti said, according to the Department of Defense in April this year.
Whether one agrees with Russia’s political vision or not, Scaparrotti’s statement does vindicate Russian claims about Nato’s hegemonic outlook.
Nato has become more militant in its response to Russian assertions. It has tripled the size of its response force, and increased the presence of battalions in the Eastern states, but it does not match Russia’s military prowess. All the war games conducted by the Pentagon in the Baltic states indicate that Nato would be unable to defend itself against Russian advances in Eastern Europe.
Nato’s inability to meet its commitments in Eastern Europe has been the outcry of the US military establishment for many years now. Trump seems to be towing the party line, albeit in his usual insufferable manner. The issue here may not be about content as much as a difference of style in negotiating a deal that the US military establishment has pursued for quite some time now.
Trump is also using the threat of non-commitment to pressure Germany — a country which enjoys a trade surplus with the US — to raise its defense budget, and invest more in the US market.
Nato bluffs and Russian probes
It should be easy to call Trump’s bluff, but there is another element that worries the US allies: his shady ties to the Russian establishment. Trump’s administration has been embarrassed with a multitude of Russia-related controversies. He fired FBI Director James Comey, after the latter launched a probe into the Trump administration’s links to Russia.
The Federal Election Commission, which is already looking into a complaint against Trump and the Russian government, is also considering whether to investigate allegations that Russian agents paid for Facebook ads that spread damaging stories about Hillary Clinton. And the business dealings of Michael Flynn, who was forced out of his job as Trump’s national security adviser because of his undisclosed contacts with Russia, are also under scrutiny.
An abdication of Article 5 is bound to cast further suspicions on Trump’s cozy relationship with the Russians, forcing Europe to develop a new security infrastructure, as indicated by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Bluff or not, Trump’s flippant negotiation style has thrown the future of Nato, and the Western-European order in disarray, and no doubt, the resultant institutional crisis is being observed in Russia with bated breath.