I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Trump came late to the meeting where Ukraine and Georgia were banging on about the Russian threat, started ranting about spending and blew up the decorous charade.
Ukraine and Georgia were then dismissed and a special meeting was convened. (A side effect of his “creative destruction” was that the Ukrainian President delivered his speech to a practically empty room).
He started his assault before the meeting, opening Twitter fire on Germany, returning to the attack in his breakfast meeting with NATO’s GenSek:
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they will be getting from 60% to 70% of their energy from Russia, and a new pipeline, and you tell me if that’s appropriate because I think it’s not and I think it’s a very bad thing for NATO.”
As ever, Trump’s statements were extreme and his numbers might not stand up to examination but most commenters (typically) left out the context. Which was a piece by German Chancellor Merkel herself in which she called for NATO to focus on the threats from Russia: “the alliance has to show determination to protect us”.
This gave Trump the opening to pose these questions (posed in his own way, of course, in a strategy that most people – despite the example of North Korea – have still not grasped).
1. You tell us that NATO ought to concentrate on the Russian threat. If Russia is a threat, why are you buying gas from it?
2. You tell us that Russia is a reliable energy supplier. If Russia is a reliable supplier, why are you telling us it’s a threat?
3. I hope you’re not saying Russia is a threat and its gas is cheap but the USA will save you.
Good questions to be sure; questions that crystallise the contradiction of NATO. If Russia is such a big military threat to them – as NATO communiqués incessantly say it is – then why aren’t the Europeans, presumably first on Moscow’s cross hairs, doing more to meet that threat?
And, if, as their doing so little about their defence suggests, they don’t fear Russia, then why do they say that they do? From the latest NATO communiqué: meeting Russia’s aggressive actions, including the threat and use of force to attain political goals, challenge the Alliance and are undermining Euro-Atlantic security and the rules-based international order.
I always like to count words in these cliché-ridden screeds: it gives a metric of importance and saves force-marching my eyeballs through 12,000 words of self-satisfied pap. In the countries where NATO forces are actually deployed, the communiqué mentions Afghanistan twice, Kosovo six times and Iraq 14 times. NATO destroyed Libya but it only gets six references; it’s doing its best to repeat the performance in Syria (nine).
But Russia leads with 54 mentions, none of them complimentary. Why even NATO’s favourite mush words, “values” (16) and “stability” (26), appear fewer times. Ukraine, on the other hand, has 25 appearances, all in what could be called the phantasmagorical verbal mood: “We welcome significant reform progress”. So, in NATOland, Russia’s back.
By contrast, the Riga Summit communiqué in 2006 mentioned Afghanistan 17 times, Iraq eight times and Russia ten times (“values” and “stability” scored 15 each). But NATO was still looking for a purpose then:
It recognizes that for the foreseeable future, the principal threats to the Alliance are terrorism and proliferation, as well as failing states, regional crises, misuse of new technologies and disruption of the flow of vital resources.
The logic of NATO’s very existence creates the contradiction. NATO, having lost its raison d’être when the Warsaw Pact and the USSR disappeared, having floundered around in out-of-area operations and the “War on Terror”, has returned to “the Russian threat”. (But in a bureaucracy nothing ever actually stops: this week’s meeting approved a NATO training (!) mission in Iraq Year 15 and more British troops in Kabul Year 16.)
Without the “Russian Threat” there would be no reason for NATO to exist, and certainly no big arms contracts, and all the warm butterscotch sauce of “common values” or “projecting stability” could not keep it together. Because, the brutal truth is that military alliances are kept together, not by common values, but by common enemies.
But, no question about it, it’s Washington that bears the major responsibility: Washington pushes NATO expansion, adding monomaniacal anti-Russian members; Washington foments color revolutions; Washington blew up Ukraine and tried to snatch the Sevastopol naval base; Washington “twists arms“; Washington demands European sanctions and Magnitsky Acts; Washington’s failed wars in the MENA suck in NATO members; Washington dropped the ABM Treaty inspiring Russia to create its super weapons. The truth is that, whatever might have happened otherwise, Washington drove NATO in the anti-Russia direction.
But Donald Trump is not that Washington: he is the anti-Washington. He tosses bombs into gatherings of complacent apparatchiks: if you believe what you’re saying, act on it; if you don’t act on it, stop saying it. Then he threw the spending bomb. For years there has been a vague commitment that NATO members should spend 2% of their GDP on defence; the commitment appears to have been formalised in 2014. (14) But the members aren’t paying much attention.
Few have achieved it and the downward trend, begun at the end of the Cold War, has continued. Regardless of whether “2%” makes any sense or how it is calculated, Trump was right to remind NATO members that they themselves agreed to it. Again Trump raises the pointed question: why don’t you act as if you believe what you’re saying?
Indicators of European NATO members’ actual readiness and combat capability are stunning; the latest being “Only 4 of Germany’s 128 Eurofighter jets combat ready — report“; “Ground force: Half of France’s military planes ‘unfit to fly’“. “Britain’s ‘withered’ forces not fit to repel all-out attack“. “Europe’s Readiness Problem“. Obviously they’re not expecting a Russian attack any time soon.
NATO is, as I have argued here, a paper tiger. It is questionable whether NATO members can conduct any operation without the USA providing satellite navigation and observation, air defense suppression, airborne command and control, inflight tankers, heavy lift and ammunition resupply to name a few deficiencies. So, either the Europeans are not worried; or, as Trump likes to say, they are free riders.
Six months ago I suggested that Trump may be trying to get out of what I called the “Gordian knot of entanglements“.
President Trump can avoid new entanglements but he has inherited so many and they are, all of them, growing denser and thicker by the minute. Consider the famous story of the Gordian Knot: rather than trying to untie the fabulously complicated knot, Alexander drew his sword and cut it. How can Trump cut The Gordian Knot of American imperial entanglements? By getting others to untie it.
He stamps out of NATO leaving them quaking: if you say Russia is the enemy, why do you act as if it isn’t; and if you act as if it isn’t, why do you say it is? And firing, over his shoulder, the threat: 2% by next January.
I believe it is a threat and a very neat one too:
If you don’t get up to 2% (or is it 4%?) and quickly too; I warned you. Goodbye.
If you do get your spending up, then you don’t need us. Goodbye.
Another strand of the knot gone.