Analysis 01-18-2019

Does Trump Want to Leave NATO?

Once again, the issue of Trump and America’s alliance with NATO has come into question. 

The New York Times reported President Trump has privately told senior administration officials that he wants to withdraw from NATO altogether.  They wrote, “Senior administration officials told The New York Times that several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set.”

Most of the remarks came surrounding last summer’s contentious NATO summit in Brussels, according to the Times. The 2-day meeting which concluded on July 12 was replete with Trump’s demanding that European countries pull their own weight on defense spending in the 29-nation trans-Atlantic alliance, including what was described at the time as a “vague threat” by the president that the US could exit the alliance if the imbalance continues. He told reporters at the time that NATO countries must radically increase defense spending or the US “will do our own thing.”

At the time Trump noted the Cold War era military alliance was a “drain on the United States” and that he “didn’t see the point” according to the Times report, citing current and former administration officials.

According to the Times, “In the days around a tumultuous NATO summit meeting last summer, they said, Mr. Trump told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, which he presented as a drain on the United States.

The Times report, which is notoriously anti-Trump, likens any potential US withdrawal “a move tantamount to destroying NATO” and perhaps to be expected, hypes NATO statements saying, “Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO — let alone actually doing so — would be the gift of the century for Putin.” But the report expresses alarm that “Mr. Trump’s skepticism of NATO appears to be a core belief.”

Notably, the NYT report opens by suggesting that even mere discussion of a NATO pullout plays into Moscow’s hands, and further in the report cites an anonymous US official to make the assertion that it would “accomplish all that Mr. Putin has been trying to put into motion.”

The accusation that Trump was playing into Putin’s hands was a bit farfetched as Russia’s recent behavior like military aircraft intrusions into NATO airspace seem to prove the need for NATO by heightening tensions.

Some supporters of Trump position claims that if Putin was really interested in destroying NATO, he would stop the assertive behavior and let NATO die a quiet death.

Trump has ignored conventional foreign policy wisdom by heavily criticizing NATO allies and publicly questioning their commitment to the collective defense.  He repeatedly told advisers that he didn’t understand the point of the alliance in the days leading up to the most recent NATO summit in July.

Several senior advisers, including John Bolton and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, were successful in convincing Trump of the negative geo-political implications associated with a NATO withdrawal. While Trump heeded his advisers’ warnings with respect to withdrawal, the president continues to be concerned that the U.S. is being forced to pay more than its fair share.

Secretary of Defense Mattis’s recent retirement has also unsettled his fellow national security officials and America’s NATO allies alike, as the general was viewed as a calming influence in the White House who could communicate the importance of the NATO alliance when necessary.

Where Will NATO Go?

Trump is not the first U.S. president who brought defense spending up to the European allies.  However, he has highlighted in a more dramatic and verbal way.

However, the truth is that Europe has let its military commitments lag and has grown to rely upon the US for its defense.  Its air forces are largely incapable of operating in advanced anti-access/area-denial environments, which means that in wartime it will be up to the Americans to attack advanced missile sites. European allies have failed to make significant investments in air and missile defense, giving Russia a free pass in these critical technology areas.

Europe has also failed to keep its navies able to wage an anti-submarine campaign in the Atlantic, which means that in wartime Americans will have to clear the Atlantic sea lanes before they can even land heavy equipment on European soil. So far as highly mobile armored units go, most European armies’ tanks are either too few or too antiquated to fight in a modern land war.

Although the conventional wisdom is that NATO is necessary, many are questioning its purpose.  It was created during the Cold War, when the threat was a major Soviet armored attack across West Germany from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. At that time, West Germany and France were “frontline” nations in any ground war and generals were worried that Soviet tanks could reach the English Channel within days of the beginning of the war.

Today no one worries about the threat of Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Paris or Berlin.  The Russian/NATO front line is hundreds of miles to the east and the front-line NATO nations of today are Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland.  Rather than large standing armies we saw in the front-line nations in the Cold War, NATO only has small armored battalions stationed forward today.  At best, these units are only “tripwires” if Russia tries to invade these nations.

Without the Soviet threat, NATO has evolved into a multi-national force for military adventures in non-NATO areas like the Balkans and Middle East – which has led to charges of neocolonialism.

Trump also has a justification for leaving as the European Union is forming its own army.

In 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for creating an army for the troubled European Union. Noting accurately that the EU isn’t “taken entirely seriously,” Juncker suggested standing up its own army “would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.”

In 2017, Berlin integrating brigades from smaller countries into the Bundeswehr.  Germany and two of its European allies, the Czech Republic and Romania, quietly took a radical step down a path toward something that looks like an EU army while avoiding the messy politics associated with it.  They announced the integration of their armed forces.

Each country will integrate one brigade into the German armed forces: Romania’s 81st Mechanized Brigade will join the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division, while the Czech 4th Rapid Deployment Brigade, which has served in Afghanistan and Kosovo and is considered the Czech Army’s spearhead force, will become part of the Germans’ 10th Armored Division.

In doing so, they’ll follow in the footsteps of two Dutch brigades, one of which has already joined the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division and another that has been integrated into the Bundeswehr’s 1st Armored Division.

For Romania and the Czech Republic, it means bringing their troops up to the same level of training as the German military; for the Netherlands, it has meant regaining tank capabilities. (The Dutch had sold the last of their tanks in 2011, but the 43rd Mechanized Brigade’s troops, who are partially based with the 1st Armored Division in the western German city of Oldenburg, now drive the Germans’ tanks and could use them if deployed with the rest of the Dutch army).

This concept has worked to its advantage; few people in Europe have objected to the integration of Dutch, Czech, or Romanian units into German divisions,

The European Union has also created a joint military headquarters — but it’s only in charge of training missions in Somalia, Mali, and the Central African Republic and has a meager staff of 30.

There are even reports that the EU army has already been deployed.  In the recent “Yellow Jacket” riots in France, there have been armored cars displaying EU flags instead of French flags.

Obviously, if the EU is developing an army – one that may have a role in subduing internal dissent, Trump and the US will want to avoid such development and will be reluctant to use or committing forces for domestic internal disputes in EU.

So, we come back to the issue of Trump seriously asking if the US should pull out of NATO since many of the member nations aren’t fulfilling their commitments.

Clearly, the original mission of NATO (fighting the Soviets) is gone, even though the NATO military structure is still geared up for a massive tank invasion across Germany instead of an invasion of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

True, Russia is still a threat, but less than it was 30 years ago.  Trump’s supplemental military budget boost for 2018 of $54 billion is almost as large as Russia’s entire 2018 military budget.  As for Trump’s claim that Europe is not paying its fair share of NATO expenses, remember that Britain and France combined spend more on their military forces than Russia.

There is also the issue of European Union Army.  Clearly, NATO units will be eventually moved into the EU force, which will only weaken any NATO response.  And, most NATO nations still refuse to spend the pledged 2% for defense. To Trump the issue is simple…. Why should the US risk its military and blood for European nations not committed to their own defense?

With Mattis out of the way, will Trump unilaterally try to leave NATO?  Probably not.  The New York Times article was about questions asked last summer, not today.  When it comes down it, it appears that the story is designed to criticize Trump (something that the New York Times tries to do daily) rather than focus on the real issue of NATO’s value or suggestions about modernizing the Cold War alliance.

However, many critics of US military expanding role and budget seems to suggest: questioning what NATO does and why the US should remain in it, is a wise move, even if it is controversial.