Dr. Matthew Crosston, vice chairman: “Modern Diplomacy”, editor-in-Chief: “Journal of Rising Powers: A Global South Policy Initiative”, lead columnist: “Iconoclast”.
President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had a brief visit at the White House on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, which was followed by all of the typical press conferences and media interviews expressing new found agreement and harmony. It is yet another example in the Presidency of Donald Trump where explicitly bold and brash campaign trail criticism ended up not just softened but utterly reversed.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was often quoted referring to NATO as ‘obsolete’ and irritated with what he considered to be an unfair financial burden placed on the United States for the defense of NATO members. In essence, even after his inauguration, Trump has been heard to say if NATO members want the power of the America to answer their defense call, then maybe they need to rethink their own levels of defense investment, spending, and contributions. Many wondered openly if this was connected to Trump’s supposedly cozy relationship with Russia or if he truly thought the international organization was too inefficient to be worth the effort. All of that now seems to be on the back-burner, as Stoltenberg made the rounds on American television after the White House meeting to emphasize how much he and Trump agree on the all-important issues of defense spending and counter-terrorism. Trump, for his part, is stating he now sees the importance of NATO and believes its ‘adaptation’ is necessary and progressing. This is said, however, in the immediate aftermath when Trump decided to attack a Syrian airbase with little to no conversation or dialogue with NATO partners. Indeed, considering this attack, which involved the launch of 59 tomahawk cruise missiles to an air base known as a hub for holding Syrian chemical weapons and was also a central location for Syrian-Russian military command, but ended with literally zero Russian casualties, it might be fair to surmise that Trump had more pre-attack communication with the Russians than with his supposed NATO allies. This why it is so important to define the reality of the US-NATO relationship and where the proper definition of terms needs to be made more explicit: how exactly is NATO ‘adapting’ and is that adaptation truly positive for the organization, for Europe, and for the future of Syria?
First, there needs to be more serious debate about the expansion of NATO eastward toward the borders of Russia. In Western media venues, this expansion is almost universally depicted as a reaction to Russian military aggression. But this is playing somewhat fast and loose with reality, as NATO eastern-expansion began in earnest as far back as the late 1990s. To have responsible members of the media now characterizing NATO overtures in Poland, the Baltics, and Ukraine as something Russia forced because of its behavior in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea is simply laughable.
Second, the stage needs to be opened up to new arguments as to just what ‘adaptation’ should mean. The organization itself has now spent nearly a generation in limbo: with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has struggled to reinvent its mission and rebrand its image. If there is no menacing ideological enemy at the eastern edge of Western Europe, then why is NATO needed at all? Over 25 years there have been many attempts to ‘adapt’ NATO purpose, even briefly entertaining the idea of inviting Russia itself. This idea, which quite frankly was abandoned too quickly back in the late 1990s, withered on the vine mainly because NATO was, and still is, stubbornly clinging to its original purpose as essentially a blocking mechanism against the projection of Soviet/Russian power. That has been the only real ‘adaptation’ of NATO in 26 years: switching out the word ‘Soviet’ for the word ‘Russian’ and just continuing on with no real change. While no disturbing new threat emerged on Europe’s doorstep, this was arguably the easiest path of adaptation. But that may no longer be the case and future meetings between the US President and NATO Secretary General should be more intelligent.
Third, it is possible to already see, from Obama to Trump, a potentially significant degradation in the communication-camaraderie factor between the US and NATO. During the Obama administration, there were many questions about whether Obama would take action in Syria, through NATO or with NATO cooperation, without first going through the legal requirement of formal Congressional approval. The controversy then was the worry that Obama might consider the technically legal but diplomatically slippery maneuver of Syrian intervention without Congressional oversight by working through NATO as the tip of the American spear. While this concern is certainly legitimate, it might now seem infantile compared to the Trump tomahawk bombing that just took place, where there does not seem to be any evidence of extended communication between the American military and NATO headquarters at all. Is this a symbol of how Trump intends to operate in Syria, in which case there does not seem to be a role for NATO allies? Or was this a singular incident forced on account of the accusation of Assad once more using chemical weapons against his own people? It is too early to say for certain, but these initial steps do not indicate any real-term respect from Trump to NATO, despite what he might say formally in a press conference with Stoltenberg.
More primary from a counter-terrorism perspective in this discussion is the innovation brought by DAESH (terrorist organization, prohibited in Russia) across the European landscape recently. If there is any real lasting legacy to be taken from DAESH (Islamic State) strategy, it might be the fact that it has successfully ‘reset’ the terrorist landscape and cleansed radicalist groups from what I have always termed ‘9/11 envy.’ What is often missed because of the horror and atrocity of 9/11 is how much it was a peer-pressure inducing over-success. The actual collapse of the Twin Towers in New York I believe set the bar so high for subsequent planning operations that it de facto paralyzed Al Qaeda for the next decade: after knocking down the center of the global economy, both symbolically and literally, how could anyone go back to being happy with small-level suicide vests, bus IEDs, and random nightclub shootings? Things that would have been a success before 9/11 were now unmitigated signs of decay and regress post-9/11. This reality, because of DAESH and its insidious virtual propaganda cyber campaigns all over Western Europe, is no longer in play. DAESH has made it clear that any action, any sacrifice, any casualty, is a victory. And this is what presents NATO with its first real opportunity to adapt in a way that can increase its relevance and perpetuate its reason for being far into the future: NATO is missing an important global security opportunity by continuing to focus on so-called Russian military aggression while doing nothing at all over the ever-increasing death toll across Europe from terrorist acts.
Stoltenberg and Trump are both correct when they say a strong trans-Atlantic alliance is necessary for both Europe and the United States. But that strong alliance should be focused on the very real and constantly growing terrorist threat operating all over Western European streets, fueled by a cyber campaign that is difficult to stop and even harder to infiltrate to determine where the next attacks may be. These are the REAL threats to the defense of Europe. If the alliance continues to focus on problematic relations with Russia instead, characterizing it as the true threat to Europe, as if we are all still back in 1965, then NATO adaptation will be nothing but a fraud. If the current President of the United States continues to say all the right things in press conferences but then basically nullifies those words through unilateral military action, then the world will know what the true relevance of NATO is. And, unfortunately in this case, innocent Europeans will continue to die. But those deaths, it should be noted again, will not be at the hands of Russia. So, yes, President Trump, Secretary General Stoltenberg, by all means, please do ‘reboot’ NATO. But this time reboot NATO without being diplomatically lazy, for it is incredibly dangerous to rely on the easy old enemy while a real new enemy tries to make Europe burn.