Mark Hertling: Donald Trump's recent statements on NATO are irresponsible and dangerous
Comments quickly take on more seismic consequences when directed to our friends and allies in Europe, he says
Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Donald Trump’s statements suggesting his administration would place fiscal conditions on defending NATO allies are irresponsible and dangerous. And they have already sent a disruptive signal to many of our allied governments and militaries, while emboldening a paranoid, expanding and opportunistic Russia.
I’m not alone in believing this.
When asked by reporters from The New York Times if the three Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – and other NATO allies – could depend on the United States defending them if Russia attacked (as Russia has done in non-NATO countries like Georgia and Ukraine), Mr. Trump responded with a question: “Have they fulfilled their obligation to us?” Then, “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”
His words drew a quick and blistering response from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (and anything “quick” coming from NATO is an achievement!), from several European leaders, from U.S. diplomats in Europe and our State Department, from the Clinton campaign and from many experts in the Republican foreign policy establishment.
Following the Times interview, Paul Manafort said Trump had been misquoted – until he was shown a copy of the interview’s transcript. Eric Trump attempted to clarify his father’s statements, but only confused the issue more, when he said there were some countries who “don’t pay anything.” Sen. Mitch McConnell suggested he would “chalk it up as a rookie mistake.”
Yet Thursday night, in his acceptance speech, Mr. Trump doubled down. While he did not specifically place conditions on NATO member nations in his speech, he did restate his belief that “NATO is obsolete because it (does) not properly cover terror, and also, that many member countries (are) not paying their fair share. As usual, the United States has been picking up the cost.”
It is, of course, the tradition that active, serving, uniformed members of the military – especially senior officers – do not openly take sides during campaigns. The reason? One of the candidates will eventually become commander in chief and reside at the top of the military hierarchy; in the tradition of civilian control of the military, we will all need to be unwavering in following our new president’s orders.
Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published a short note in the current issue of Joint Force Quarterly, an academic journal widely read by senior military officers, echoing this principle. The Marine chairman warned serving members of the military to take care in speaking out in favor of or against presidential candidates, and “guard against allowing our institution to become politicized, or even perceived as being politicized, by how we conduct ourselves during engagements with the media, the public, or in open or social forums.”
But as a retired senior officer, I am now a private citizen and can speak out on the feasibility, practicality or dangers related to political statements and their effects on our military and our alliances. Additionally, having served 12 years of my military career in Europe, and working with the governments and militaries of our allies and engaging with various entities of the Russian Federation, I can confirm that Donald Trump’s statements suggesting his administration would place fiscal conditions on defending NATO allies are irresponsible and dangerous.
Having served in Europe; having attended multiple NATO exercises, ministerial and conferences; and having worked with NATO member countries I can say it is certainly true there have been many discussions about burden-sharing, the percentage of GDP that many countries pay toward defense, and type and size of force contributions to NATO missions and headquarters.
But these diplomatic conversations become irrelevant – as well as singularly frightening – if any signatory country openly declares they will not abide by their responsibilities under NATO Article V (that article dealing with the defense of any signatory by all signatories if that country is attacked). Mutual trust and defense in time of attack or crisis is the benchmark for NATO, and immediate action to defend threatened sovereignty is key to the alliance.
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These irresponsible and overt statements – meant as political bluster for consumption by some in the domestic audience in the United States – quickly take on more seismic consequences when directed to our friends and allies in Europe and around the world. And they certainly might contribute to nefarious action by our adversaries, especially the current occupants of the Kremlin. Mr. Trump seems to either not know, or not care, that words are important in international diplomacy, and so far he doesn’t seem willing to understand these “rookie mistakes” can result in catastrophic results and won’t contribute much to making America respected, trusted or safer.
But there is more that only we soldiers or those who understand the unique relationship with Europe know.
Europe has been wracked by major wars that have killed millions in each of the past three centuries. Since NATO was created almost 70 years ago, there has not been a major conflict on the European landmass.
When the United States was attacked by terrorists on 9/11, for the first time in its history, NATO declared Article V procedures. It was telling that the country who always believed we would force others to declare Article V was the first beneficiary from our friends in Europe.
True, the majority of the 28 NATO countries do not make the 2% goal of GDP spending on defense. But most have contributed forces to the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have personally trained and fought with soldiers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Croatia and others – and I have attended memorial services for soldiers from those countries who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
There was no monetary precondition set for our NATO allies in ISAF in the fights we asked them to join, but they did so willingly. That’s what you do when you’re in an alliance. As Winston Churchill said, “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them.” Mr. Trump should remember that when he is thinking of the bottom line.