The US presidential election campaign is already showing us that the two party system no longer works for today’s reality. But if it has any positive outcomes at all, it will be to highlight the need to look closely at how NATO has evolved and discuss whether it too fits today’s reality.
NATO is considered a relic of the Cold War, an instrument of US policy which has been more a destabilising agent than an instrument of peaceful coexistence in recent years. But it is too big, and represents too many vested interests, to be seriously questioned. Now Donald Trump has suggested that the US needs to look more closely at its position in this alliance, as some countries are not paying their fair share into the NATO budget, Cold War warriors have begun screaming foul, claiming that he is trying to dismantle the 60-year old alliance and doing the bidding of Putin. But his comments were entirely valid in purely organisational terms, and cannot be dismissed out of hand whether or not he is a presidential candidate.
Trump suggested that whether the US automatically defends other NATO members who are attacked could depend on the financial contribution these countries have made to this mutual defence structure. As quoted in the NYT, he 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, as coming to their defence.”
Trump says in clear enough language, “We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills and you can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.”
A comparison may be made with Fire Insurance Emblems, which were displayed on the sides of US buildings over a hundred years ago. If you had no insurance, it was highly likely that the firemen would let your house burn to the ground, only perhaps saving the chimney. It is claimed that even a volunteer fire company would not fight a fire unless there was a fire mark on the burning building, as only then would they be compensated by the insurance company for their efforts.
How such a policy would work is an open question. Would we see situations in which a NATO member was attacked and only then told, at that point, that they hadn’t paid their dues? If non-payers are going to be kicked out, or slip into a lower category of membership without the right to demand that the others defend them, how would that affect the current non-members desperate to join and pay?
But Trump is right to imply that if countries aren’t paying for the service but still subscribe to it they want the service itself but not what it actually gives them. So what should NATO actually be doing to meet the needs of its membership, and justify the millions spent maintaining it?
The enemy beyond without
Few can argue that NATO is not the organisation it once was, and others have suggested that its role should be readjusted so it focuses on addressing terrorism. But only now Trump has made it has there been any response to this suggestion, and he can claim considerable credit for this.
Trump is first recorded as having called NATO’s value into question during an interview with The Washington Post’s editorial board, in which he reportedly said that NATO “as a concept is good, but it is not as good as it was when it first evolved.” It is only as a result of this comment that there has been serious debate in media and foreign policy circles on what NATO is supposed to be doing in the post-Cold War world.
NATO’s role is currently being dictated by how many Western weapons can be sold in the name of NATO expansion. Not only is this not what NATO is supposed to be for, it is this imperative which has created the debacles in Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as recently confirmed by the hacked emails from NATO General Breedlove.
Breedlove’s aggressive efforts to persuade the US to go beyond a proxy war in Ukraine come as no surprise when we consider the backgrounds of those he was plotting with. But stunts such as these occur because NATO’s lack or adequate purpose gives them room to do so. You are in charge of a big army which its own members don’t want to pay for and is rarely called upon to do what it was set up to do. How else are you going to spend your time if you want to keep earning a living playing soldiers?
Whether Trump or Clinton wins in November it is certain that a discussion of NATO’s true purpose will take place. Of course those who profit from it now, the arms dealers and some politicians, won’t want things to change too much. But if a more effective model could be developed, which will give more justification and public and political support for arms sales, they won’t be shouting too loudly.
Robbing the other side to pay the other side
NATO has created a lot of the terrorism in the news now, either directly by funding and arming the groups concerned, or being used as a means of doing so, or by acting as the face of policy failures which have encouraged it. As terrorism is perceived to be a greater threat to the world at present than any theoretical “enemy” it is obvious that its largest armed resource, NATO, should be combatting it rather than creating it.
But as Trump implied, that won’t happen as long as the US contributes the lion’s share of NATO’s funding. It has no choice but to be a direct instrument of US foreign policy when the other members aren’t interested enough to push it in another direction.
Trump’s position is not dissimilar to that of the current US administration, but is more forward-thinking. As Jordan Evans, an MA student at the University of Kentucky, shared with me, “Trump understands that if you give your hand to the Russian bear, tomorrow he snatches the body of an Eastern European nation, which Americans care little about. Or he works with the Western states, which is likely in global economic capitalism. Peace and Paranoia is good for business – Trump is a businessman, remember?”
America is preying on the historic fear of Russia to suggest it is planning a European war, thus diverting attention from the terrorism most NATO members are more concerned about, but don’t want to admit having created. In this thinking, Russia gets off the hook by working with the West, on the West’s terms, or becomes aggressive to further the same argument and diverts attention from terrorism even more.
But the current US administration is pursuing this policy as a purely defensive measure. There is no apparent sight of the endgame. The longer such policies are pursued, the only way out will be to understand and address the sources of terrorism. Trump understands this, and is therefore preying on fear of Russia in his own way to make NATO reform happen, while he is still a candidate and doesn’t have to do anything about the vested interests he will confront if he is elected.
Those vested interests are now questioning Trump’s apparent admiration for Russia. When what they have done to create the terrorist threat everyone acknowledges becomes public knowledge, we will see why.
Stop in the name of self-love
Trump’s actual dealings with Russia seem to involve a beauty pageant and selling off some Florida real estate to Russian investors with more money than brains. Compared to the deals long made by the US authorities with Russia, even during Cold War times, they are small beer. What he might do in office is another question, but his track record so far is a world away from Clinton’s in this respect.
Russia is, as usual, happy to go along with Western corruption and then use it against it to serve its own interests. Russia knows what NATO has long been doing, and why the West still needs to present Russia as an aggressor. If the West wants to offer it a payday to stop being aggressive, why not be aggressive for long enough to get it? If the West wants to do this to disguise its creation of terrorism, Russia knows all about what the West has been doing, so such actions cannot threaten Russia at the end of the day.
It would not be hard for Russia to embarrass NATO into accepting that when you intervene militarily in a faraway country, one that poses no immediate threat to any NATO member such as Libya, you must be willing to accept moral and financial responsibility for that. This would give Russia yet more advantage over the West than at present, without a shot being fired. Ultimately, this is more of a threat to Western interests than terrorism, so the East has its own interest in NATO reform, if it would only see it.
A NATO that focussed on combatting terrorism would be a very different creature. As Americans have long known, if you say you are combatting terrorism nobody questions you. You can get away with anything, including things such as the adventure in Iraq, and automatically receive the funding for it. By definition, terrorism is the enemy, and none of NATO’s European members want to be seen refusing to contribute to efforts to eradicate it.
As an anti-terrorist organisation NATO would have a purpose which would generate funds from all members. Then it would no longer be an instrument of US foreign policy as others would demand their say, and get it in exchange for the support NATO needs to generate more arms sales profits for its sponsors. That element is not going to change. But those profits may not be a bad thing if the weapons are sold to those who make the world safe, rather than greater profits to be had in destabilising it as they are at present.
Trump will always be attracted to solutions which involve more profits all round. He can hang any idea on the need to combat terrorism because his voters will automatically accept that. He could advocate intervention all over the place for this purpose, but instead wants to stop costly US involvement in foreign wars in order to focus on the real enemy. Whatever else may be said about Trump, his NATO policy is not unreasonable, however it would create a paradigms change in the short term.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.