The new US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has already gone off-message on his first day on the job. Given his boss’ inflammatory and borderline dangerous campaign rhetoric, that’s a small reason for hope in a week filled with disturbing news.
This past Monday, Mattis called NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a clear gesture of outreach. According to a readout of the conversation, the two men “agreed on the fundamental and enduring value of NATO for the security of both Europe and North America.” During his Senate confirmation hearing, as well, Mattis called NATO “the most successful military alliance in modern world history.” He added, “If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it.”
Mattis’ words offer a refreshing contrast with those of Trump, who has denigrating NATO since the beginning of his campaign – with the notable exception of Theresa May’s visit to Washington on Friday, when he seemed to signal a softening of his stance. But that does not erase the fact that in July, Trump shook European allies by casting doubt on Article 5, saying that he would defend the Baltic states against a potential Russian invasion only if he decided those countries have “fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Several days before he assumed the presidency, in an interview with The Times and Bild, Trump called NATO “obsolete.” His inauguration speech similarly demonstrated his disdain for alliances like NATO, trumpeting an “America First” foreign policy: “We defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own, and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
Despite the inflammatory pageantry of Trump’s flip-flopping rhetoric, we can take solace in the fact that a few members of his cabinet seem not just capable of mollifying his views, but actually stand up to him. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, echoed Mattis’ words by expressing firm support for the alliance during his own confirmation hearing, telling the Senate that the NATO treaty’s collective defense “commitment is inviolable and the US is going to stand behind that commitment.” It’s worth noting, of course, that Mattis and Tillerson are two of the very few members of Trump’s cabinet who are seen as relatively balanced and who boast more bipartisan support for their nominations.
So the two men’s support for NATO is a bright spot in a string of dark weeks. This is because, despite Trump’s efforts to denigrate the alliance, the US still needs NATO.
First, NATO continues to play a critical role in fulfilling two major goals of post-1945 US foreign policy: preserving peace in Europe and acting as a bulwark against Russian aggression. Over six-plus decades of existence, the alliance helped prevent the Cold War from overheating, provided critical assistance to new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, and stepped in to bring peace to the Balkans in the 1990s. Although these achievements might not matter to the likes of Trump and his cronies, they should at least acknowledge the critical involvement of NATO forces in the post-9/11 fight against terrorism. In the aftermath of Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, more than 1,000 non-American troops have perished fighting by the sides of US soldiers in Afghanistan, most of them hailing from NATO member states. If Trump really intends to mount a global fight against terrorism, which seems to be one of the few foreign policy issues that interest him, then he will have to acknowledge that Washington won’t be able to go it alone. To have any efficacy, NATO and its members would have to form a crucial foundation for that fight.
Of course, there is no denying that the alliance has room for improvement. First, as Trump and a long line of other US officials have pointed out, most NATO members have not lived up to their financial commitments by spending 2% of their GDP on defense. Even Stoltenberg has recognized the issue, urging NATO member states to beef up their defense budgets. Additionally, it’s fair to say that the alliance has expanded too far and too fast, counterproductively fueling tensions with Russia and bringing in states that are not fit for membership.
For instance, take the US Senate’s recent vote to advance Montenegro’s bid to join NATO to the floor. While some have supported the move as a way to “send a message of strength,” senators and NATO leadership should probably have thought twice before supporting the accession of a strategically insignificant state with some serious skeletons in its closet.
Only a few months ago, Montenegro’s parliamentary elections ended inconclusively amid claims of hacking of media and party websites, violence at voting stations, and an alleged coup attempt by Serbians on Moscow’s payroll. Though the Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, stepped down, he’s likely to remain in power behind the scenes as he has for the past 25-plus years. This is bad news for the Balkan state, which has been struggling with rampant issues of corruption, rule of law, and organized crime. And Djukanovic has played no small part in enabling his country’s dysfunctional system of governance. For instance, he had the dubious distinction of being named the Organized Crime and Corruption Project’s “man of the year” in 2015. The project alleged that he was involved in numerous misdeeds, including a tobacco smuggling scheme during the 1990s. Given the sordid history of Montenegro’s strongman, and the country’s failure to make progress on improving corruption and rule of law, NATO should have thought much more carefully about whether a bigger alliance is really better.
So yes, Trump and other critics are right to point out NATO’s weaknesses, not least some members’ overdependence on the US security budget and a membership roster that has grown too quickly. But we should acknowledge the critical role that NATO has played in preserving peace over the past 65+ years and avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
For now, at least, we can take solace in the fact that two members of Trump’s cabinet have made strong arguments for a continued US commitment to NATO. But the reservations expressed by Trump and some of his entourage still give serious cause for concern. Their sentiments suggest not only an end to US support for the military alliance, but to a longstanding liberal, internationalist order in which Washington plays a leading role upholding peace, democracy, and rule of law. We should take this as a warning sign and hope that the voices of reason prevail over the next four years.
*David Meijer is a senior security analyst based in Amsterdam specialized in trans-national contraband.