Former NATO official: Allies have ‘general anxiety’ about Trump


The former No. 2 official at NATO said Tuesday that allies have a “general anxiety” about President-elect Donald Trump but that his election statements about defense spending and doing more to fight terrorism are not without merit.

“There’s just sort of a general anxiety about the unknown,” Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary-general of NATO, told the Defense Writers Group on Tuesday. “His signals remain unclear.”

Vershbow, who has also held a number of positions at the State Department, including U.S. ambassador to Russia, ended his tenure at NATO in October, just before the U.S. elections.

{mosads}During the presidential campaign, Trump made waves by saying he would look at whether NATO allies have “fulfilled their obligations to us” before deciding whether to defend them if they are attacked.

Just five of 28 members meet the goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense: the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia and Poland.

Trump also repeatedly called NATO obsolete over the course of the campaign, saying it should do more to fight terrorism.

Vershbow said NATO is “on the fringes” of the fight against terrorism but that it has the capacity to undertake efforts such as training and advising Iraqi forces, particularly in long-term stabilization of the country.

“NATO is doing far less than it’s capable of doing to export stability to this neighborhood by putting more resources behind these sorts of programs,” he said.

On spending, Vershbow stressed that the 2 percent figure is a target, not a commitment. But, he added, more countries are taking concrete steps to reach the target in the next three to four years.

More money would help increase NATO’s force size, the readiness of those forces and the ability to deploy those forces and to do so rapidly, Vershbow said.

“If the new administration continues to push in this direction, they could probably get our allies to do better,” he said. “I like to think that the questions being raised by the president-elect is an opportunity, not a threat.”

Among anxieties NATO allies have about Trump is whether he’ll roll back U.S. troop and equipment deployments currently underway to Eastern Europe, as well as the European Reassurance Initiative that funds the deployments, Vershbow said.

“Been away from Brussels a few weeks, but I think it’s fair to say there’s at least some anxiety with regards not only to the new administration, but to the new Congress, as to will the funding be there on a multiyear basis to maintain this commitment,” he said. “Allies are doing their part here, so I don’t think there’s a legitimate case to say it’s a one-sided U.S. gift.”

But, he added, his sense is Congress supports the deployments and so won’t cut funding.

Trump’s choice of retired Gen. James Mattis, who served as NATO’s supreme allied commander of transformation from 2007 to 2009, for Defense secretary was likely an encouraging sign for allies, Vershbow said.

“I think Mattis also knows that NATO has certain staying power,” said Vershbow, who added he does not personally know Mattis well. “When NATO takes a decision and sets goals for itself, allies have generally stayed the course.”

Presidential transitions can provide a good opportunity for change at NATO, Vershbow added, citing a strategic review the alliance undertook after President Obama took office.

“There’s always a burst of creativity at the beginning of any new U.S. administration that also kind of rubs off on NATO,” he said. “Early stages of new U.S. administration are often good opportunities for NATO to kind of take the next big steps in its own transformation and adaption.”

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