Two weeks ago, Donald Trump closed his inaugural address by saying he would make America safe again. The speech contained nothing about Putin or NATO, but on her subsequent visit to D.C., post-Brexit British Prime Minister Theresa May assured us that Trump would back NATO. 'The Donald' looked awkward as she said this and did not confirm it; and there are many other reasons to remain very skeptical about Ms. May’s claim.
Throughout an election that was influenced by Russia’s Watergate-style hacking of the Democratic campaign, Trump commented that NATO had grown outmoded. Few of us read much into this; we took it to be a ploy to get NATO allies to increase their militaries to the sizes promised under NATO agreements so that the United States is not stuck with too much of the burden. Sebastian Gorka at Breitbart, who now advises Trump on anti-terrorism policy, couches his critique of NATO just this way. That's fair enough; other Republicans like John McCain have complained about this bonafide problem, while also arguing for expanding NATO or even building a more global league of democracies that would span the world.
Pursuing this vital idea, which is also supported by Democrats such as Ivo Daalder and Anne-Marie Slaughter, would doubtless be the most affirmative way to punish Putin for attacking Ukraine, annexing Crimea by force, threatening the rest of Eastern Europe, trying to manipulate our elections, and allying with the genocidal Assad regime in Syria and their Iranian partners (and so on). Strengthening our existing alliance of democracies to include India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, along with Central and Latin American democracies and emerging African democracies would be a highly effective way to stop Putin's increasing aggression, and to provide a much more potent counterweight to China's bellicose expansionism as well. Expanding alliances between democratic states would also undermine Putin's attempt to bring developing democracies like India and South Africa into his sphere of influence through the infamous BRICS trade group.
Yet President Trump seems determined to move in exactly the opposite direction: in the weeks leading up to his inauguration, he doubled down on his criticisms of NATO, often hinting that he might try to pull the US out of this alliance that has prevented a third world war since 1945, stopped Serbian fascists who murdered 100,000 in Bosnia, and acted decisively on behalf of US interests in Afghanistan after 9/11. Now he is busy alienating other democratic nations such as Mexico and Australia, insulting the German Chancellor because she recognizes the most basic moral and legal duties to refugees, and stirring more animosity within Europe by praising Brexit.
These moves against NATO and other democracies looks bizarre, especially as they are not strongly motivated by popular concerns among Trump’s base. Trump's attacks on immigration, and even his appalling ban on Syrian refugees fleeing from a genocide that Putin is abetting, tally with some grass-roots themes heard in across the rust belt; ditto for his anger about the movement of US manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico. But to the average American in any of the main political groupings today, this new threat to NATO has come seemingly from nowhere; it is an elite think-tank notion that flies in the face of everything that Republican leaders have stood for since 1945. Many American servicemen and servicewomen have fought with NATO allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Even among scholars who study international affairs, most support NATO; more conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and more centrist foundations like the Carnegie Council call for US leaders to build robust alliances that share the burden of world leadership (the CATO Institute is an outlying exception; several of its writers, especially Ted Carpenter, have published shortsighted attacks NATO).
There is one other politician who would dearly love to see NATO dismantled more than anything else: Vladimir Putin. Ending NATO and rebuilding the Russian Empire have been his top priorities ever since his brutal war on Chechnya in the 1990s. This goal is described in Gary Kasparov's insightful book, Winter is Coming (Public Affairs/Perseus, 2015), which also argues that a stronger NATO expanded into a league of democracies can secure the 21st century against Putin’s aggressions and prevent the rise of a new generation of dictatorships. Our national leaders should also consult Douglas Schoen’s well-documented work, Putin’s Master Plan: to Destroy Europe [i.e. the EU], Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Influence (Encounter Books, 2016). If Putin had nothing to do with Trump’s political rise, it must have felt like winning the lottery.
I normally sneer at conspiracy theories of all stripes, but it is surpassingly strange that Trump would develop such an animus towards NATO when it seems to have nothing to do with his economic and immigration themes, let alone with making America "great." Couple this with the reports that Russian officials had contact with the Trump's "immediate entourage" in the leadup to the election (a boast that the Russian foreign office then tried to retract). Add in the New York Times report in August 2016 about a secret ledger showing that Trump's man in Ukraine, Paul Manafort, laundered millions for the Russian puppet in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych (before he was ousted by in the anti-Putin Euromaidan revolution). There are even allegations that Manafort was crucial in Yanukovych’s initial rise to power — that is, after Manafort was done aiding earlier brutal dictators like Marcos (in the Philippines) and Sese Seko (in Zaire/DRC). And we have the very strong evidence that Russia was behind the hacking of Clinton's campaign manager's emails and foreign meddling in our elections (see the New York Times story, "CIA Judgment on Russia Built on a Swell of Evidence," Dec.12, 2016).
This kind of cyber-invasion could harm Republican candidates in the future: for example, imagine a future candidate like Mitt Romney, who correctly named Putin as our most dangerous adversary. Conspiracies aside, any even half-objective observer would be worried by the apparent trend, which looks even more alarming in light of Trump's continuing suggestions that we roll back sanctions on Putin for violating the UN Charter in Crimea and for supplying the weapons used by East Ukrainian separatists to shoot down a Dutch airliner.
Something smells very wrong in all this. I am not suggesting that Trump is being blackmailed by Putin with 'dirt' that the Russian regime might have on him (as the Buzzfeed story of Jan.14 suggested). Nor am I surprised that Trump supported Putin's use of the Russian air force in Syria to bomb Sunni targets in Aleppo, along with Free Syrian army and other democratic forces who are fighting a losing war against Assad and his Hezbollah and Iranian allies. On this issue, Trump simply seems to be deceived by the Assad regime's own propaganda that Assad is the only alternative to ISIS (a classic false dichotomy). But in suggesting that the United States pull out of NATO or weaken the western alliance, Trump stands virtually alone. It's as if he thought he could sneak this past us, capitalizing on the isolationist fervor of this moment to do a huge favor for a good friend (and business partner). Perhaps Trump does not realize how serious this matter is, or how much it could harm the cause of democracy and the progress of human rights from this point on in history. Perhaps he has really been charmed Russian smooth-talking. Or perhaps he has been deceived by Steve Bannon's construal of NATO as an entanglement that could drag us into war — which is part of Breitbart’s non-nuanced "antiglobalism" and know-nothing isolationism that just happens to play directly into Putin's hands. Whatever the true explanation, taking any action to undermine NATO should be considered an impeachable offense.
Addressing this new, unexpected danger to democratic nations and prospects for human progress across the globe will depend more than anything else on Republican voters standing up and saying that they support NATO and would expand it at least to include more eastern European nations (e.g. Montenegro and Ukraine). In Russia, Putin has virtually destroyed the fledgling democracy that Russian progressives built after the end of the communist dictatorship; he has ordered opposition journalists and politicians jailed or assassinated; he has destabilized Eastern Europe; and by keeping Assad in power, he has helped to drive a flood of refugees into Europe, which led directly to the Brexit vote that has maimed the European Union and threatened European unity against Russia (for a representative series of news stories on these points, see this link). Thus, step by step, Putin has succeeded in dividing democracies against each other and emboldening brutal dictators from Damascus to Beijing and Pyongyang. It is hardly surprising that such dictatorial regimes are increasingly attacking the US with cyber-strikes, which will only get worse unless they are seriously deterred (e.g. by a NATO policy promising strong countermeasures and backing the threat up with decisive action).
Senator John McCain has been correct on Vladimir Putin all along; yet it is a vast understatement to say that “Putin is not our friend.” We all need to wake up and recognize the grave peril involved in allowing Putin to rebuild the Evil Empire that we believed had been buried by the forward tide of history.