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What Did Trump Actually Say About NATO And What Does It Mean?

Over the weekend a wide ranging interview Donald Trump gave to the German newspaper Bild and the Times of London was published. He covered a lot of ground but the statement that is causing the most excitement is his statement about NATO (via Bloomberg):

Donald Trump called NATO obsolete, predicted that other European Union members would follow the U.K. in leaving the bloc, and threatened BMW with import duties over a planned plant in Mexico, according to two European newspapers which conducted a joint interview with the president-elect.

Trump, in an hourlong discussion with Germany’s Bild and the Times of London published on Sunday, signaled a major shift in trans-Atlantic relations, including an interest in lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia as part of a nuclear weapons reduction deal.

Quoted in German by Bild from a conversation held in English, Trump predicted that Britain’s exit from the EU will be a success and portrayed the EU as an instrument of German domination designed with the purpose of beating the U.S. in international trade. For that reason, Trump said, he’s fairly indifferent to whether the EU stays together, according to Bild.

The Times quoted Trump as saying he was interested in making “good deals with Russia,” floating the idea of lifting sanctions that were imposed as the U.S. has sought to punish the Kremlin for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and military support of the Syrian government.

Repeating a criticism of NATO he made during his campaign, Trump said that while trans-Atlantic military alliance is important, it “has problems.”

“It’s obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago,” Trump said in the Bild version of the interview. “Secondly, countries aren’t paying what they should” and NATO “didn’t deal with terrorism.” The Times quoted Trump saying that only five NATO members are paying their fair share.

I quoted the longish lead in for this reason, if you read the Times version of the same conversation (stolen from behind the paywall by Redditt) you won’t find NATO mentioned. I don’t know what, if anything, this means but simply note it as a curiosity.

While Trump is obviously out of his tree on his “didn’t deal with terrorism” statement, NATO has contributed forces to our effort in Afghanistan under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. There may not be as many as one would have hoped (other that Brits) and some may not have been particularly valorous (thinking of you, Italy… btw during the first Gulf War Italian Tornado pilots were famous for taking off, discovering “mechanical problems” and returning to base with all their ordnance) but non-US/UK NATO typically composed about half of the troop strength in Afghanistan at any given time (chart).


On the two other points, especially the one about NATO being obsolete, there is really no debate.

NATO is a mutual defense treaty that was created to keep the USSR from picking off European nations one by one. By stating that an attack on one is an attack on all, the USSR was forced to contemplate thermonuclear war if it tried to simply drive into countries and take them by force. Or, as Hastings Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO said, the purpose of the organization was “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”

Ever since the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the USSR ceased to exist, NATO has been an organization without a mission. Russia does not and cannot provide the existential threat to the West that the USSR presented. It can cause mischief outside its immediate sphere of influence, it can brutalize its immediate neighbors who are not NATO members, it can fund populist parties in Western nations with the hope of changing the political landscape. But the idea that Russian, rather than Soviet, T-90 tanks are ever going to roll up on the English Channel or rampage through the Fulda Gap or across the North German Plain is simply nonsense. Russia does not have the population, the logistics base, or the industrial base to do that. This is NOT NEW. From 1990 forward in strategic planning circles the buzzwords were “NATO out of sector.” The concept was that NATO was a good thing, we need to keep it, but without a mission no one is going to be interested in playing. So a lot of papers were floated on the concept and lots of ideas were discussed on what NATO could do now that it had achieved its primary goal in a huge way. As I said this morning on Twitter:

But if you just look you’ll find lots of papers on the subject (NATO After Iraq: Out of Sector Or Out Of Business; this collection of essays from 2000; this 2010 essay from the National Defense University)

This takes us to the second issue that Trump is fixated on: spending. This from John Schindler, former intelligence officer who blogs as 20Committee. Schindler is about as anti-Trump as you are going to find:

Let’s look at what he’s talking about. NATO’s target for member defense spending is 2% of GDP:


Notice where defense spending goes off the cliff? 1990/1991. This is where the alliance is today:


Yes, they aren’t spending up to the NATO benchmark. But there is also no perceived military threat and the dissonance between the alliance’s spending target and performance is because most of Europe, and a lot of Congress, does see NATO, as currently constituted, as an expensive relic of the last war we won. This is what happens when a mutual defense pact no longer sees the need for mutual defense.

Some, and I’ll use Schindler as an exemplar of the point but he’s not the only one, are portraying NATO as a representing a huge difference existing between Trump and his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis:

I don’t see it:

Mattis, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation from 2007 to 2009, called the alliance “the most successful military alliance probably in modern history, maybe ever.” Mattis dodged questions about whether he’s concerned with the president-elect’s criticisms of the alliance, except he said Mr. Trump has “shown himself to be open.”

As part of his opening statement, Mattis said that Russia poses a threat to NATO.

“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance and that we take the steps — the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps, the working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must,” he said.

What I see is Trump speaking to the real problems with NATO and Mattis speaking to the value of NATO.


I’m the last guy in the world who would want to achieve a Vulcan mind meld with Donald Trump. I think the criticism of his statement is way overblown. NATO is without purpose at the moment and its funding crisis is a function of that lack of purpose. If we cure the first, the second will fall into place. Something has to be done or NATO cannot survive. That said, the policy questions become, a) do we care and b) if we care, what role can NATO assume that will achieve the buy-in of the member nations.

The post What Did Trump Actually Say About NATO And What Does It Mean? appeared first on RedState.


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