18 July 2018   Leave a comment

In an interview with Fox News correspondent, Tucker Carlson, President Trump raised serious questions about the US commitment to NATO.  Mr. Carlson raised the specter of defending a tiny state, Montenegro, against a Russian attack and whether the US commitment to NATO would pull the US into a war with Russia over a state that Mr. Carlson seemed to believe was not worth the price.  Mr. Trump’s response revealed that he understands little about the true nature of the NATO alliance or any comprehension of deterrence strategy.  Mr Trump’s response was, according to ABC News: “The president replied that he’s asked the same question. Montenegro ‘may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III,’ Trump said.  [If you would like to watch the entire interview, click here.  Carlson’s commentary and questions in the interview are highly revealing]

The first point to make is that NATO is a defense alliance.  No NATO state is obliged to defend another member state that initiates a war.  When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, no member of NATO joined the invasion under the rubric of the alliance because Iraq had not attacked the US.  Contrariwise, the only time NATO has ever invoked Article V of the alliance charter which states that “an attack against one shall be considered an attack against all” was in 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of 11 September 2001 against the US.

Second, Russia has been trying hard to undermine Montenegro ever since it joined NATO in 2017, including a plot to assassinate the country’s Prime Minister.  Liberal states in NATO should be concerned with protecting other liberal states, particularly against aggressive actions by a non-liberal state such as Russia.  Russia has violated international law by attacking Georgia and dismembering parts of that country in 2008, creating two new entities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia which have yet to be recognized as legitimate states by most of the international community.

Russia also invaded and annexed part of, Crimea, as part of Russia in 2014.  It has also maintained a rebellion against the government of Ukraine in the eastern part of the country since that time, supporting a secessionist movement to dismember the country.  Ukraine is not a member of NATO Interestingly, the Trump political campaign was able to remove a strong pro-Ukrainian position from the Republican Party’s platform in the 2016 campaign.  That amendment included support for “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military and read, in part, “Today, the post-Cold War ideal of a ‘Europe whole and free’ is being severely tested by Russia’s ongoing military aggression in Ukraine….The Ukrainian people deserve our admiration and support in their struggle.”  The removal of the Ukrainian plank in the Republican platform was a clear aberration from historical Party positions vis-a-vis Russia.

Russia also indicated in 2014 that it sees a role in protecting Russian-speaking populations in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which became members of NATO in 2004.  There are, indeed, many Russian-speaking people in the Baltic states.  According to The Guardian: “In 2015, the Foreign Policy Research Institute found that the percentage of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia make up around 24% and 27% of the populations as a whole, whereas Lithuania can only boast of a population of 6%. Coincidentally, the percentage of ethnic Russians in Latvia is the same as that found in Crimea.”  The Baltic states were once unwilling parts of the former Soviet Union (given to the USSR by the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty between Nazi Germany and the USSR in 1939) and Russian military provocations against them in recent years have been numerous and highly unsettling.

In other words, Russian attacks against Montenegro seem to be part of a pattern.  Russian President Putin once declared that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” and many analysts have interpreted that statement as evidence of his desire to restore the boundaries as well as the formidable power of the former USSR.

Third, one need not believe that Putin is a highly aggressive totalitarian leader bent on world conquest to support a defensive alliance such as NATO.  I certainly do not believe that Putin is another Hitler.  He is, rather, the opportunistic leader of a middle-range power (Russia’s nuclear weapons notwithstanding) with significant economic weaknesses.  He also, unfortunately, lives in the balance of power world of the 19th century since his country is totally unsuited to prosper in the globalized world of the 21st century.  His only strategy is to exploit perceived weaknesses to assert Russian power, but he can be counted on to assiduously exploit the weaknesses of others.   A unified NATO is a relatively inexpensive way of checking Putin’s ambitions; weakening NATO only increases the number of opportunities for the expansion of Russian power.  President Trump’s behavior during the recent NATO summit magnified the natural fissures that exist in any alliance comprised of 29 sovereign states and was therefore a serious strategic blunder.

Finally, weakening NATO only increases uncertainty in world politics.  All member states of NATO are now going through the very difficult process of trying to figure out whether the US under the leadership of President Trump is a reliable alliance partner.  Lacking the clear certainty about the reliability of the US means that NATO states are now forced to think about alternative ways to defend their interests in the absence of US support.  Each of the 28 states will now take actions to fill that confidence gap and each of those actions will have knock-on effects on the calculations of the other member of NATO as well as on non-members of NATO.  The security dilemma of world politics–the unfortunate situation in which defensive actions taken by a state often are interpreted as offensive actions by its neighbors–is thus amplified in ways that are often unpredictable and dangerous.

Posted July 18, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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