What Trump Risks in Europe

A Professor's Perspective on Current Events

General Wesley Clark U.S. Military (Ret.)
By General Wesley Clark U.S. Military (Ret.)

With President Trump soon to land in Europe for the NATO summit meeting, many of our closest allies are concerned. They have seen Trump disrupt the recent G-7 meeting, been hectored by him publicly on their own levels of defense spending, and watched as the U.S. President, apparently the chosen favorite of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 2016 election meddling, acts chummy with Putin and other dictators.

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Some in Europe are asking, can NATO survive? Some in the United States are asking, should it? I want to add my voice to the chorus arguing that it must.

When the Cold War ended, many in Europe questioned whether NATO should be terminated. They reasoned that if the Soviet Union no longer existed, and if its alliance of satellite countries no longer existed, then NATO had outlived its purpose.

But NATO proved its value by ending Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and supporting the U.S. efforts post-9/11 in Afghanistan, and by its ability to strengthen Europe’s teamwork with the United States on issues of terrorism and cybersecurity.

More fundamentally, NATO has provided an assurance of security which has enabled the fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe to survive and their economies to grow. As the then-foreign minister of Bulgaria, Nadezhda Mihaylova, explained some 20 years ago, “Today Russia is weak, but soon Russia will be strong again, and before then Bulgaria must be in NATO.” We listened.

What Trump risks in Europe

U.S. President Donald Trump touches the back of British Prime Minister Theresa May during a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters during a NATO summit of heads of state and government in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (Matt Dunham/AP)

In 2002, President George W. Bush wisely led NATO to invite Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia to join Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as new members of the North Atlantic alliance. In the years since, Albania and Montenegro have also joined.

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Today Russia, under Putin, is surging back to regain control over its old empire, to weaken the European Union, to have NATO relax its security umbrella for Eastern Europe, to displace American leadership in the Mideast, to build a long-term and powerful presence through Iran and into the Persian Gulf, and to drive the United States back across the Atlantic.

Russian military hardware and Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria show that Russia is indeed “back,” and an active threat to our friends and allies.

This is a terrible time for an American President, putatively the head of NATO, to weaken the alliance.

Since 1949, NATO has anchored the U.S. presence in Europe, serving as the vital transatlantic bond upon which good governance, strong economies and enlarging international cooperation have been built.

European statesmen see all this at risk in the upcoming summit. They don’t believe it is a matter of money — after all, each country has its own domestic spending priorities, including the U.S. Instead, they see Trump, wittingly or unwittingly, playing Putin’s game, and they ask what it means for them.

What if he humiliates them publicly? What if he then goes off and makes unilateral concessions to Putin that undercut allied policies? They are right to be concerned.

Perhaps Trump, with his America First slogan, is simply reflecting those decades-old questions about the value of NATO. Perhaps he actually believes that by roughing up our allies, he will win ultimately concessions from Putin.

But as our President should be learning from the ongoing struggle to denuclearize North Korea, smiling summit photos with potential adversaries and unilateral concessions do not necessarily translate into congenial policies. Nations have their interests and their values, and ours are far more closely aligned with Europe’s than with Russia’s. Trump’s words and actions at the NATO summit should reflect that.

For more with General Clark, check out American Military History: From Colonials to Counterinsurgents Wondrium!