Trump's criticisms have reinvigorated NATO

Trump's criticisms have reinvigorated NATO
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The signing of accession protocols by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ministers and the government of North Macedonia on Wednesday demonstrates that, regardless of his intentions, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space-Force deal House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE is boosting NATO and reinforcing Western security.

During and after the election campaign, Trump declared NATO as redundant and threatened a full-scale U.S. military withdrawal from the alliance.

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His pronouncements may have misled both Europeans and Russians into believing that Washington would terminate U.S. commitments to Europe’s defense. In reality, Trump’s criticisms have helped to reinvigorate NATO’s core missions and capabilities.

Trump’s main indignation has been directed at European governments that consistently allocate under 2 percent of their GDP for national defense despite NATO’s common requirements.

Trump threatened to cut American support if these targets were not met, claiming that American taxpayers should not bear the main burden for defending a wealthy Europe.

Trump’s words and Russia’s threats have had an impact, with several capitals pledging to boost their spending and improve their fighting capabilities. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently asserted that Trump’s demands have produced results: By the end of 2020, the allies will have added $100 billion to their defense budgets. 

But the White House needs to recognize that more important than the 2-percent spending stipulation is the effective allocation of resources to maximize military capabilities.

Washington must also acknowledge the benefits that NATO consistently affords the U.S., including basing rights, infrastructure, intelligence sharing, political and diplomatic support and participation in military missions, including Afghanistan. 

Trump’s commitment to strengthening NATO has been evident in the selection of his security team. In particular, his vice president, secretary of State and secretary of Defense have all been staunch "Atlanticists" and committed to a strong alliance.

The Pentagon in particular understands that the Russian threat to Europe is growing and that NATO must be better prepared to fulfill its mission of common defense. 

During President Obama’s tenure, Europe’s defense was downgraded until Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2014 sparked fears about Moscow’s revisionist ambitions. Trump’s team has learned lessons from Obama’s naïve expectations about “resets” with the Kremlin. NATO can only negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength. 

Trump’s national security team has fortified NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence along its eastern flank, whereby troops are rotated in several front-line states through four multinational NATO battle groups that total some 4,500 soldiers.

Poland is also looking to permanently host a larger contingent of American troops as Moscow escalates its threats and deployments along NATO’s borders. Washington has also welcomed new members in the Balkans that can contribute to regional security, with North Macedonia poised to follow Montenegro into the alliance over the coming year. 

All these measures have caught the Kremlin off guard. Trump may periodically lavish praise on Putin, but his cabinet and the Congress continue to ratchet up financial sanctions against Russia’s corrupt elite and have supported weapons sales to Ukraine and Georgia to help defend them from Russian attacks.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow’s view of Trump has swung from euphoria to trepidation. Officials are even more worried about Trump’s dismissal of arms treaties with Russia as “bad deals” for Washington.

With the imminent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a renewed arms race will prove more damaging to Russia than the United States. Moscow’s violation of the INF Treaty by developing new land-based cruise missiles to threaten NATO states will boomerang against Russia, whose defense spending is dwarfed by the alliance.

In the 1980s, Soviet leaders were outmaneuvered by Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and into an arms race that bankrupted their economy. Moscow ended up signing several arms control agreements and the Soviet empire collapsed. A similar fate could new befall the increasingly impoverished Russian Federation.

Nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, there is no viable alternative to NATO as an alliance of solidarity that guarantees the national security of all members, including the U.S.

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American forces are deployed in Europe not as an act of altruism but in order to protect U.S. interests within and beyond Europe and to detect, deter and defeat adversaries before they feel emboldened to strike against the U.S. homeland.

NATO is constantly in a process of transformation and adaptation to new conditions and the alliance should welcome Trump’s questioning of its rationale and capabilities. Complacency weakens NATO and can provoke new aggression both against and within Europe.

If a new war erupted, the ultimate cost to the U.S. would be far greater than the current investment in American security because Washington simply could not isolate itself while its military, political and economic interests were being crippled. 

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is "Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks" (Jamestown, 2016).