NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.
Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.

The theme of this week’s convention could have already been ‘I Took a Pill in Cleveland,’ because it’s clearly more Mike Posner than Richard Posner.Russia Flag IconUSflag

All eyes last night were on Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and, notably, Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his rival in a rousing address that is one of the most memorable convention speeches in recent memory. Trump’s allies instructed delegates to boo Cruz off the stage, and they spent the rest of the night trashing Cruz for failing to uphold a ‘pledge’ to support the eventual nominee.

But shortly after Cruz’s speech, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published a new interview with Trump about foreign policy, in which he indicated that he would be willing as president to break a far more serious pledge — the mutual collective defense clause of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty that essentially undergirds the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the organization that has been responsible for collective trans-Atlantic security since 1949:

Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he added, “the answer is yes.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies. It was consistent, however, with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.

The comments caused, with good reason, a foreign policy freakout on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, ‘It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.’ In The Financial Times, a plethora of European officials sounded off a ‘wave of alarm.’

In successive waves, NATO’s core members expanded from the United States and western Europe to Turkey in 1952, to (what was then) West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the new eastern and central European Union states in 1999 and 2004 (which include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Of course, many of the more recent NATO member states spent the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain subject to Soviet dominance.

Above all, so much of eastern Europe joined NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression in the future. Article Five provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, entitling the NATO country under attack to invoke the support of all the other NATO members. This has happened exactly once in NATO’s decades-long history, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s not the first time Trump has slammed NATO during the campaign; he called it ‘obsolete’ in off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall meeting in March:

 

“Nato has to be changed or we have to do something.  It has to be rejiggered or changed for the better,” he said in response to a question from an audience member.  He said the alternative to an overhaul would be to start an entirely new organisation, though he offered no details on what that would be.

He also reiterated his concern that the US takes too much of the burden within NATO and on the world stage. “The United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world, folks.  We have to rebuild this country and we have to stop this stuff…we are always the first out,” he offered.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump's criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump’s criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)

The latest attack on NATO and, implicitly, the international order since the end of World War II, came just days after NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, announced a new plan for NATO cooperation on the international efforts to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Stoltenberg, it’s worth noting, is the first NATO secretary-general to come from a country that shares a land border with mainland Russia. So he, more than anyone, understands the stakes involved. 

The classic example of the NATO Article Five standoff with Russia and its sometimes bellicose president, Vladimir Putin, is Narva. It’s bounded by the north, east and south by Russian territory and, though it’s the third-most populous Estonian city, 95% of its residents speak Russian primarily (and not Estonian). It lies just 98 miles from St. Petersburg, widely considered the cultural capital of Russia.

Putin, who has long claimed the power to defend the rights of Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in the so-called ‘near abroad’ of the former Soviet republics, might easily one day send Russian troops to occupy or annex Narva.

Now, there’s a big question about whether the Obama administration (or any sane Republican or Democratic administration, for that matter) would be willing to start World War III over Narva. Of course, NATO would rush to the defense of Poland against Russian aggression. It would rush to the defense of the entire country of Estonia, too. But one city that speaks Russian, is full of ethnic Russians, bounded mostly by Russia? If Putin stopped with Narva, there’s a legitimate case that NATO allies would not necessarily respond with military force. You never know. And context matters.

But it’s important to remember that the Obama administration and the international community didn’t go to war over the Russian annexation of Crimea in the non-NATO state of Ukraine. There’s a reasonable basis to argue that the former Soviet states are in Russia’s sphere of influence, and that the United States and other European governments should ease up on what Russian officials clearly believe is interference in what should, to them, be a Russian-dominated region.

As with Crimea, Obama (consulting, of course, NATO allies like German chancellor Angela Merkel) might decide that the costs of defending Narva exceed the marginal benefits. Merkel and Obama would have to spend a lot of time mopping up the damage, but there are ways to reassure Poland, the Baltic states and the rest of eastern Europe that Narva, alone, isn’t worth starting World War III.

It’s a vexing hypothetical. But it’s a hypothetical. Obama (nor any other NATO leader) would ever publicly do or say anything to cast doubt — prospectively! — on the commitment to defend NATO allies.

If Putin ever crossed that line, and NATO didn’t defend Narva, sure, it would embarrass NATO, and it would undermine NATO’s credibility. That’s probably why Putin would do it — with no further economic, military or geopolitical costs of a wider invasion, it’s the ultimate way of symbolically undermining Article Five. If you’re Putin, you don’t have to annex all of Estonia or Lithuania or Latvia. You just have to cross the line, just barely, just once.

Of course, Putin could cause even more damage with Trump’s implicit nod in non-NATO countries like Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and even Kazakhstan (where leaders worry Putin may one day go after the Caspian Sea oil reserves).

Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves pushed back against Trump's notion that Estonia hasn't 'fulfilled its obligations' to NATO. (Facebook)
Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves pushed back against Trump’s notion that Estonia hasn’t ‘fulfilled its obligations’ to NATO. (Facebook)

And sure enough, Estonia’s outspoken president Toomas Hendrik Ilves took to Twitter earlier this morning to defend his country:

Trump’s comments, though, invite Putin to take Narva almost as soon Trump would be inaugurated president in January 2017. Why wait? Trump could be impeached or die in office. Russia, meanwhile, would never get such a great opportunity to undermine the international norms that NATO has established for decades. In that scenario, it really would defy reality to call the sitting US president ‘the leader of the free world.’

What would Trump do? If he is goaded into responding (which seems likely, given his thin-skinned personality), his July comments will have propelled the United States into a needless conflict with Russia.

If he does nothing, he’ll have let Putin one-up him on NATO.

Earlier this month, Franklin Foer put together a long case in New York Magazine that suggests Trump is, essentially, Putin’s puppet. The circumstantial evidence is strong, from Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s relationship with the disgraced, pro-Russia former Ukrainian president Vladimir Yanukovych to Trump’s own business record and predilection toward Moscow to his praise — during the 2016 campaign — of Putin, while simultaneously denying Putin’s role in the murdered journalists that have proliferated under his rule. In the leadup to the Republican convention this week, Trump’s campaign interfered little with the Republican platform, except to weaken language about supporting Ukraine (including striking language to support providing weapons and other lethal aid to Ukraine’s pro-western government). Wednesday night’s comments about NATO and foreign affairs did nothing to disabuse American voters of the strange but increasingly plausible notion that Trump would, if elected, be Putin’s stooge. We’re not necessarily in ‘Manchurian Candidate’ territory, but it’s close.

That’s amazing, given that polls give Trump a small chance — but a chance — of become the 45th president of the United States. But, as with so much of his presidential campaign, it’s also unprecedented, irresponsible and it’s dangerous.

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