Soapbox

Trump threatens NATO allies, emboldens Putin

An Estonian soldier participates in a NATO troop exercise in May.
An Estonian soldier participates in a NATO troop exercise in May. For The Washington Post

Donald Trump is clearly a master at unsettling his adversaries. It may be an effective strategy in business, or even politics, but is irresponsibly dangerous when it comes to international security – especially when your adversaries are your allies.

His recent comments questioning America’s commitment to our 28 allies in NATO threaten decades of close security cooperation with Europe. NATO is the most successful military alliance in history, built on a foundation of mutual defense. Its bedrock is Article 5, which commits every member nation to come to the aid of an ally under attack. Ironically – the only Article 5 response in history came after 9/11 when our allies assured they were ready to defend us.

NATO is widely recognized for its success in preventing military conflict in Europe since World War II, containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, ensuring civilian control of the military in every member state, supporting democratic development and highly effective military and humanitarian operations around the world. These successes come, in large part, from America’s leadership and unwavering commitment. We have consistently supported the expansion of NATO to spread these benefits and enlarge NATO’s zone of stability. Peace is always cheaper than war.

Now, Trump is proposing some new considerations that jeopardize NATO’s most important deterrent – the certainty that it will respond to any attack against its territory with overwhelming force and a ferocity guaranteed to stun the enemy.

His position is even more inappropriate when it comes to Estonia, one of three Baltic countries that were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union and regained their independence at the end of the Cold War. Since joining NATO in 2004, Estonia has been a model member. It contributes the required 2 percent of GDP to national defense, deployed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, opened its military bases for international exercises and participated in numerous peacekeeping missions. It has also been a staunch supporter of the U.S. in virtually every international forum.

In addition, Estonia and several smaller allies have tailored their own defense planning and spending to meet their NATO commitments. They have foregone military spending that might actually improve their own self-defense capabilities in favor of contributions that increase NATO’s overall effectiveness. It is NATO’s commitment back to these nations that makes this workable.

There is no doubt that if Trump did evaluate Estonia’s contributions to the alliance, he would quickly conclude it merits U.S. support. But should this be in question at all, especially in a crisis situation?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a textbook example of why Trump’s remarks are so reckless. Putin’s Russia has already invaded two of its neighbors and he has routinely threatened the Baltic states. NATO’s 3 million soldiers keep him in check. Our allies – but more important – our potential adversaries must know that NATO and the U.S. cannot be tested. Ambiguity and uncertainty are dangerous.

As with any organization, NATO has room for improvement. Roles can be shifted, budgets trimmed, deployments more precisely defined, but NATO’s overall mission is sound, even noble, and deserves our support.

Jeffrey Levine was U.S. ambassador to Estonia from 2012 to 2015 and is now working for Teleport.org, an Estonian technology firm. He can be contacted at ambassadorjefflevine@gmail.com.

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