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NATO is celebrating its 70th birthday next week, but rather than blowing out 70 candles, the foreign-policy establishment is pondering whether it should still exist. In truth, we’ve been having this argument since 1992, after the Soviet collapse, and maybe since France pulled its military out of the alliance in 1966, a ruckus I followed closely from my crib.The short answer is that of course it needs to exist, and even flourish. If only because it makes Vladimir Putin almost as mad as when the Kremlin runs out of pistachio ice cream. But I will concede that the alliance needs some serious tweaking, if not a total reboot – to deal not just with Russian belligerence, but also with other longstanding quandaries like keeping the Balkan states from sparking another world war, and new ones such as African refugees on the Mediterranean and Chinese icebreakers in the Arctic. (Not making that up.)

As always, I talked to somebody who knows more about this than me: Jeremy Shapiro, the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. Shapiro served in the Obama State Department as a member of the policy planning staff and as an adviser to Philip Gordon, who handled the Eurasian Affairs shop there. He and Gordon recently published an article in Foreign Affairs titled “How Trump Killed the Atlantic Alliance,” and we had a short spat on Twitter over whether that title was more clickbait than honest analysis (which he won handily). This week we had a more friendly exchange; here’s a lightly edited transcript:

Tobin Harshaw: “How Trump Killed the Atlantic Alliance.” Some – myself included – might call that an overstatement. Can you explain what you meant by “killed”?

Jeremy Shapiro: To understand what a dead alliance would look like, one needs to understand what made it alive in the first place. In conversations about the trans-Atlantic alliance, we often imply that it is given life by the number of U.S. troops on European soil or the amount of NATO members’ defense spending. Those things are important, but they are not the lifeblood of an alliance. Troops are only as good as the willingness to use them; spending is only important if it buys a common defense.

Rather, NATO draws breath from the sacred commitment that allies make to defend each other in times of crisis and severe need. Without that sense of solidarity, any alliance is quite simply dead even if nobody has bothered to remove its body from the battlefield.

Trump’s constant questioning of NATO’s Article 5 collective-defense commitment, his frequent assertion that he would only protect countries that paid America enough money, his claim that he could simply walk away from Europe without any loss to America, his apparent plan to bill NATO members for hosting U.S. troops, and his refusal to criticize Putin have basically amounted to taking NATO solidarity out back and shooting it in the head. As former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski put it after Trump’s infamous press conference with Putin in Helsinki, “We have no idea what President Trump would do in a crisis.” But the very essence of the alliance is that Europeans are supposed to know.

TH: Fretting over the state of the alliance is hardly new. I’m old enough to remember the “whither NATO” arguments of the mid-1990s. How is this time different?

JS: A fair question. NATO’s post-Cold War and even its Cold War existence have seen a succession of internal crises, and it has survived them all. NATO, it seems, is on the verge of collapse and always will be.

But looking back at those crises, they do look different from today in at least one consequential way: They contained a multitude of important policy differences, but one never saw an American president questioning the central premise that the defense of Europe is a core American interest and, come what may, America will never abandon Europe. Worse from a European perspective, Trump seems to be an expression, albeit a particularly radical one, of a growing trend in U.S. domestic politics of questioning America’s role in the world, and particularly its commitment to Europe.

TH: We know how dismissively Trump has treated our allied leaders such as Angela Merkel. That’s bad. But have there been policy changes to complement the damage?

JS: Trump’s ridiculing of allied leaders, his fawning over totalitarians, and his systematic dismissals of allied views and their contribution to American security are all part of the puzzle. This rhetoric has had policy expression in his administration’s tendency to withdraw the U.S. from treaties and other international commitments and to run roughshod over allied concerns. Individually, intra-alliance disputes over, say, climate change or the Iran nuclear deal would not threaten the alliance as a whole. But collectively, and taken together with Trump’s rhetoric, they forcefully convey the impression that Trump does not value allies and will not honor America’s commitment to them. That loss of solidarity is the most dangerous aspect.

TH: You and co-author Phil Gordon do not make the case that this situation is unsalvageable. But how much of a difference would eight years of Trump make as opposed to just four?

JS: A lot. The current European plan is to wait out Trump and hope that American voters will regain their senses and throw him out of office and return the U.S. to some sense of normalcy in foreign policy. They have not made very much effort to hedge against the possibility of the loss of the American alliance — largely because they have no idea what to do without it. They are in fact not remotely prepared for his (very possible) re-election, but the shock would necessarily spur them to take some action to deal with the end of the alliance. And of course, a re-elected Trump would not suddenly find humility and a sense of international responsibility. It is more likely that he would be further emboldened to trust his anti-European instincts and become even less tolerant of advisers and bureaucrats telling him not to take risks with the alliance.


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TH: In our recent Twitter exchange, I made the case that the Trump administration has been good on things like spending on the European Deterrence Initiative. You said that the Obama administration put many these things in motion. What, specifically, got underway under Obama in terms of the alliance and countering Russia?

JS: After the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Obama administration, working very closely with its allies, took a number of steps to shore up NATO deterrence, to support Ukraine, and to punish Russia. In particular, all NATO members pledged to reach their target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense according to a set timetable, they put into place tough sanctions against Russia, and they began the so-called European Reassurance Initiative to rotate NATO troops, including U.S. troops, through the territory of nervous NATO members in Eastern Europe. Not all these steps were, in my view, a good idea. But they certainly showed a great deal of NATO solidarity and common purpose.

During the Trump administration, all these efforts have continued and even expanded a bit, though how much is often exaggerated. The sanctions against Russia have widened, but they were pushed by Congress over the president’s objections. The European Reassurance initiative has been renamed the European Deterrence Initiative to emphasize that it is absolutely, definitely not an Obama program — even though it clearly is. It has grown under Trump, but largely along a glide path that was set under the Obama administration.

But more importantly, all of this is a distraction. As noted, spending and troop deployments are not the essence of the alliance. The essence of the alliance is solidarity – the sense that in a crisis whatever troops are deployed, plus possibly many, many more that are not deployed, would come to your assistance. The period after 2014 demonstrated that, despite numerous trans-Atlantic disputes, the alliance still had the necessary solidarity to respond to a Russian provocation swiftly and with impressive unity. Under Trump, who believes that? Do you?

TH: I’d like to think that the administration would rally in the case of, say, an overt Russian military action against the Baltics. But Putin is slyer than that, as we saw in Ukraine, and Trump would have a lot of wiggle room to look the other way from little green men and the like.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is meeting with Trump next week on the occasion of the alliance’s 70th anniversary. If you were Stoltenberg, what would you ask of the president?

JS: Nothing. Asking for things only conveys weakness, and Trump’s responses mean nothing anyway. From his previous meetings, Stoltenberg seems to have already learned that the secret to getting Trump to stop bothering you is not to beg or change your behavior. It is to give him credit for something he can claim as a win in U.S. domestic politics. It is not important if he deserves that credit, or even if the thing actually happened. He should probably give Trump credit for winning the Cold War, or possibly NATO’s wildly successful operation in Ruritania.

TH: A somewhat personal question: Max Fisher of the New York Times once characterized your view of the history of American global power in this way: “Only Americans believe that the United States’ power is inherently virtuous; elsewhere, people see this idea as not only false, but dangerous.” Was that paraphrase accurate?

JS: Yes.

TH: Can you explain how that view relates to America’s place in the world right now?

JS: Maybe. For many Americans, including many American statesmen, the U.S. is an exceptionally virtuous power that only uses its immense advantages for essentially good purposes (even if it does, at times, make mistakes). The rest of world sees a more normal country that has always used its power primarily for its own advantage – even if it has often seen an advantage in protecting and even enriching its allies.

From their perspective, the U.S. alliance system in Europe (and beyond) has never been America’s gift to the world. It has been a mutually beneficial arrangement that has served all sides well. They certainly want to continue it and they even accept that, given the rise of China and other geopolitical developments, a certain amount of rebalancing of responsibilities is necessary.

But they do not accept that they have exploited America’s naïve beneficence, as Trump often asserts (though he uses different words). They think that although they need the U.S., the U.S. also needs them, so the issue is finding the right balance of responsibilities and contributions – not turning NATO into a protection racket, as the Trump administration is apparently planning.

TH: Finally, Obama’s infamous exit interview with Jeff Goldberg in the Atlantic was titled “The Obama Doctrine.” If there was one, can you sum it up briefly using your personal experience? Is there enough consistency from this administration to lay out the frame of a “Trump Doctrine”?

JS: I’m not sure if Obama had a doctrine, but I think one key focus of his foreign policy was to slowly steer the U.S. away from an overly aggressive and expansive global posture that he felt was unsustainable. He also understood that such a transition involved costs and risks and that it should be undertaken slowly and carefully lest it cause a lot of instability. That he largely failed to make that transition demonstrates that this type of long-term foreign policy planning is becoming increasingly difficult in the news-cycle-driven U.S governance system.

I have no idea what Trump’s foreign policy doctrine is — or even what his foreign policy is, beyond a ceaseless quest to demonstrate to America and the world, and perhaps to himself, that Donald Trump is a winner.- Bloomberg

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1 COMMENT

  1. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of Eastern Europe becoming democratic, NATO could have worked out a more harmonious modus vivendi with Russia. That did not mean winding up the organisation, but it enabled a huge peace dividend to be harvested. There is no good reason why relations between the West and Russia should be so fraught. Nor is there any justification for starting a new Cold War with China. Where the Trump administration has erred is in being so dismissive of international organisations that are required to keep a post US world stable, deal effectively with shared problems like climate change and slower economic growth.

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