NATO’s Missing Modern Mission
“England, in 1803 created a new civil service position. It called for a man to stand on the cliffs of Dover with a spyglass and ring a bell if he saw Napoleon coming. They didn't eliminate that job until 1945. In our own country, there are only two government programs that we have totally wiped out and abolished: the government stopped making rum on the Virgin Islands, and we've stopped breeding horses for the cavalry.” - Ronald Reagan
At the beginning of the Cold War, in response to the global threat of totalitarian communism, several Western European nations plus the United States and Canada signed a North Atlantic Treaty. It was a pledge of mutual defense—a mirror image of the Warsaw Pact between the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. During the Reagan administration, this NATO alliance fulfilled its purpose as allied nations worked together to deploy conventional and nuclear defenses along the border between Western and Eastern Europe to resist Soviet expansion. Miraculously, none of the Articles of the North Atlantic Treaty were invoked during the Cold War conflict. Soviet communism collapsed of its own weight after failing to keep up with the West during an arms race. The war was won without a shot. Mission accomplished.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, the reason for the existence of a North Atlantic Treaty evaporated with it. But, unsurprisingly, the entangling alliance lived on. In fact, NATO was just getting started. Since the end of the Cold War, the articles of the treaty have been invoked several times, serving as a pretense for allied involvement in a series of dubious wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Yet another war might have started in 2014 if Western nations had been successful in bringing Ukraine into the NATO alliance back in 2008.
No one has clearly articulated the post-Cold-War mission of NATO. Judging by its operations, the organization primarily serves as an arm of U. S. policy in the War on Terror. So why does Europe continue funding NATO? The short answer is: they fear Russian territorial expansion and prefer American defenses to their own. America capitalizes on this fear. For the cost of a few state-of-the-art missile-defense systems sprinkled throughout Eastern Europe, the United States convinces European nations to cough up 2% of their GDP to fund its global hegemony. And as the contributions from some Western nations have declined, more Eastern European nations have joined the alliance and picked up the slack. Basically, American foreign policy is like a game of Monopoly, and NATO is its biggest cash cow.
Russians don’t play Monopoly; they play chess. The disconnect between the American and Russian approaches to foreign policy was evident in 1994, when Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to create a “Partnership for Peace.” Yeltsin understood America to be agreeing to a stalemate between NATO and Russian interests. America continued to build hotels all over the game-board with one less obstacle in the way.
The foreign policy game we play determines how we interpret our own actions and those of our opponents. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO nations have supported anti-Russian separatist revolutions, opposed pro-Russian separatist movements, financed pro-Western Russian Presidents, financed anti-Russian Ukrainian Presidents, and stationed forces within 100 miles of Moscow. Does the West interpret any of this activity as “aggressive” or “meddling”? Of course not. Every expansion of Western influence is seen as a victory for freedom and a defeat for tyranny. That is how Monopoly is played.
America’s Attitude Toward Tyranny
“Western diplomats, politicians, and media are highly selective about tyranny … Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who locks up many more journalists than does Mr. Putin, who kills his own people when they demonstrate against him, and who has described democracy as a tram which you ride as far as you can get on it before getting off, has for many years enjoyed the warm endorsement of the West. His country’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus, which has many parallels to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, goes unpunished. Turkey remains a member of NATO, wooed by the E.U.” - Peter Hitchens
Foreign tyranny does not necessarily pose a threat to national security. In fact, it can often be preferable to available alternatives (anarchy, civil war, theocracy, etc.). That is why the United States will ally with some dictators, tolerate others, and reserves military action for those it finds threatening. America’s posture toward autocrats typically depends upon the existence and degree of shared national interest.
Vladimir Putin is an exception to this general rule. Russia’s national interests largely align with the West’s, as Democrats once understood. NATO nations are well served, for instance, when they find common ground with Russia in the fight against radical Islam. Unfortunately, however, renewed Cold War animosity is pushing Russia into an alliance with China, deepening a problematic East/West divide. This is largely the fault of establishment Republicans who have been monomaniacally committed to neoconservative foreign policy (the same policy which helped Reagan win the Cold War). But even Democrats have jumped on board, having decided that it is now politically convenient to treat Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical foe.
Treating Russia like a geopolitical enemy requires willful blindness to available facts, the most important of which is that Russia’s interests are now palpably nationalist rather than expansionist. Putin takes an interest in Russian-identifying populations on Russia’s border for the same reason he supports the Russian Orthodox Church and encourages pro-natalist economic policies; he wants to prevent a demographic decline which threatens his nation with self-imposed extinction. Despite this rather obvious fact, many American intelligence experts stubbornly see Russia through the lens of the Cold War. When America goes halfway around the world to promote Ukrainian independence from Russia, these experts assume that the United States is expanding the cause of freedom. But when Russia intervenes on its border to promote independence for the Russian-speaking province of Crimea, those same experts assume that Putin is asserting imperial dominance and trying to rebuild the Soviet Union.
America's misplaced suspicion of Russian motives is reciprocated, of course. Russian analysts are bewildered by America’s seemingly incoherent policy decisions in the Middle East (e.g. toppling a Sunni regime in Iraq then attempting to topple a Shia regime in Syria), and they assume we must have nefarious reasons for destabilizing the nations near their border. This is not an entirely unreasonable suspicion on their part, given the prevailing Cold War mindset of American intelligence agents. After all, during the Cold War, America’s military maneuvers in the Middle East really were proxy battles against the USSR. Moreover, our justifications for intervention back then used much of the same “freedom” rhetoric we now use to justify our wars against terrorism.
However plausible Russia’s suspicions may be, they have misread America's motives. American Presidents really do want to oppose tyranny and promote freedom around the world. This fact does not change simply because the U. S. has spies in the Kremlin or has meddled in Russian elections. On the flip side, however plausible Americans' suspicions of Russia may be, they have misread Russian motives. Russians have abandoned dreams of communist empire and have embraced a robust Russian nationalism. This fact does not change because the Kremlin has spies in the U.S., meddles in American elections, or commits acts of tyranny against journalists and dissenters.
It is time for the United States to abandon Cold War antagonism and start treating Vladimir Putin like other tyrannical foreign leaders. If we take off our ideological blinders and make an effort to understand Russia’s post-Soviet national interest, we may find that it sometimes aligns with our with our own. Perhaps the honest friendship Thomas Jefferson sought with all nations is impossible with Russia; but surely peace and commerce are within our grasp.
Trump’s Russian Reset Redux
"Gov. Romney, I'm glad you recognize al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.” - Barack Obama
in 2009, on the heels of Russian military action in Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Obama administration attempted to “reset” relations with Russia. Obama began by rolling back plans to build more missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, and later told Russian President Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” for similar actions after his reelection. When Russians meddled in U. S. affairs throughout 2015, the Obama administration recognized that such shenanigans were commonplace and assured Americans that their electoral process was secure. Hillary Clinton similarly went on record claiming that insinuations that American elections could be rigged was a “horrifying” threat to American democracy.
Then Trump won.
The Democrats promptly scrambled to the other side of the issue, waxing lyrical about the threat Russia poses to the United States. Establishment Republicans were more than happy to watch Democrats justify the last three decades of neoconservative rhetoric and throw Obama’s foreign policy legacy under the bus. Democrats were similarly pleased to team up with Republicans who would throw shade at President Trump, as many neoconservatives were eager to do. Thus the political establishments of both parties joined forces in an unstable alliance of political convenience.
The last time America’s political establishment was unified to this degree, the War in Iraq was launched. It is no accident that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were elected opposing the old Bush-era, neoconservative foreign policy consensus. Both candidates were also critical of America’s Cold War posture toward Russia, and the American People were not troubled by that stance in the slightest. Americans tend to be skeptical of Russia—especially those who lived through the Cold War—but this skepticism is not the same thing as ideological antagonism. Americans are not wedded to the idea that Russia remains a geopolitical foe.
Republican voters may not have been pleased with Barack Obama’s softness toward Russia, but that was because they interpreted his softness as part of an overall weakness on foreign policy. Democrat voters are certainly not pleased with Trump’s posture toward Russia either, but that is because they interpret his softness as evidence of collusion. When the collusion narrative finally dies, Democrats will likely interpret Trump’s stance on Russia as evidence of his “authoritarian” soft spot for dictators, and continue to be displeased. However, despite partisan reasons for retaining anti-Russian animosity, the American People are largely ready for a change.
President Trump is bringing real change to the Republican Party by charting a new course on Russia at a high political cost to himself. It is difficult to estimate how much Trump would stand to gain by reverting to the neoconservative line on Russia. It is surely substantial. He would immediately regain the trust of the establishment GOP, including those staffing his own intelligence agencies. The proverbial heads of “never Trump” icons like George Will and Bill Kristol would swivel so fast they might get whiplash. The national media would saturate the airwaves with images of an angry face-off between Trump and Putin, reversing the prevailing public perception of their friendly relationship. Democrats would be stuck complaining that Trump’s antagonism toward Russia is dangerous, while trying to convince Americans that his belligerence is an elaborate distraction from the collusion for which they never provided evidence. The foreign policy status quo would be restored, and the Mueller investigation would lose most of its bite.
Despite everything, it appears that President Trump is unwilling to sacrifice his particular “America First” vision even for his own political self-interest. At a recent summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, President Trump put it this way,
“Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia affords the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world. I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace, than to risk peace in pursuit of politics. As President I will always put [first] what is best for America, and what is best for the American People.”
President Trump is a political risk-taker. Against the advice of Republican analysts, he badgered European allies to increase their NATO funding. Despite appearances, he continues to voice criticism of unfriendly behavior of past administrations toward Russia. And in the face of near-universal condemnation from Republicans in Washington, Trump backed down only slightly on the issue of election meddling—retaining a populist skepticism toward the findings of his own executive agencies.
Trump is being a leader on foreign policy. He knows the foreign policy game, and understands why it is bad strategy to court the antagonism of other major players—especially unfriendly ones. If America is going to play foreign policy Monopoly, it should play it Trump's way: to win.