Trump Questions NATO: The Horror!

Trump at a NATO meeting.  Looking to go his own way?

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.”  On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.”  In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.

Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed.  This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO.  One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO.  Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.

With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998.  Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:

The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning.  But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated.  That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers.  The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests.  However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.

General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership.  Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities.  General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.

On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations.  Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.”  He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples?  General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.

The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members.  Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe.  Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion.  If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite.  Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia.  In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations.  But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia.  Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council.  Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require.  It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another.  Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary.  He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.

Policy Implications

One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states.  Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them.  It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West.  The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state.  How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship?  Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions?  Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion?  If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history?  If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union?  Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.

Again, this was written 20 years ago.  But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:

  1. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
  2. Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
  3. There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.

In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose.  They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia.  These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.

Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO.  In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box.  After all, how long should NATO last?  Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end?  Or is NATO to exist forever?

Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S.  But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.

16 thoughts on “Trump Questions NATO: The Horror!

  1. I’ve always wondered if NATO would have actually functioned in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Had it followed the whole Third Shock Army charges the Fulda Gap concept, I suspect it would. But something not posing such an obvious threat?

    Moot point, but interesting to me as I think if the US does collapse, it’ll be up to a coalition of Pacific nations to put together a Pacific NATO to keep China honest. But who should join? Trying to include any and all potential opponents of China risks taking a Pacific NATO down the same path as Europe’s, with all the difficulties in managing joint operations that entails, and the problem of making China feel directly threatened. So I’d hope to set up a bilingual Japan-Anglo Saxon alliance for simplicity, I think.

    As for NATO… reading a lot of the European press, I think the inevitable future is either the merging of NATO with a future EU military, or NATO as a political talk shop. Europeans have largely decided the US is too unstable to be trusted over the long term.


  2. In the late 1960’s as a freshly minted second lieutenant in the USAF I was stationed on the top of Cape Cod. There we daily played a game that involved a mass strike of Russian bombers coming to the US on a non-friendly state visit. My job was to control the relatively few manned fighters we had on duty to intercept those bombers as well as to unleash the Bomarc, unmanned rocket powered missiles designed to go into the middle of a bomber stream and destroy everything there with a 20-kiloton explosion.

    Two decades later I was a part of an Air National Guard Squadron that every year practiced taking itself and all of its equipment somewhere in the world to practice what might happen if such a deployment was necessary to thwart an attack by the same Russians we practiced against a decade and a half before. That same ANG squadron was the first ANG squadron to be invited to Denmark to play in a big NATO exercise called “Tactical Fighter Weaponry” when the aircraft flying in off the North Sea were ‘pretending’ to be Russians and all that while, I could see on my radar the fighters of the East German and Russian Air Forces playing their little games just 200 miles or so away.

    Now the Soviet Union is gone and still the Russian Bear and his intentions are driving a whole lot of thought and fear throughout the halls of American military planners, only now there is an active question as to whether or not NATO serves a purpose or that its cost can be justified. It seems that the real capabilities of that Russian Bear so feared three decades ago or so, is now seen as toothless and merely ‘growling’ form time to time.

    Indeed it does seem that the Russian naval threat to most everyone more than fifty miles from its coastline has little fear and despite talk and pictures of supposed fifth generation fighters, there seems little real evidence that Russia either has the money or the technological expertise to really field the latest generation of air craft. Then, too, one wonders how good their standing army really is and how combat ready? They, too failed in Afghanistan, didn’t they?

    Maybe there is more to a closer relationship with Russia and that closer relationship should involved a much smaller NATO footprint on the relationships going forward. Perhaps we as a people have more in common with the Russian than differences now that the old Soviets are dying out. Maybe.

    And maybe I’m just an old guy with memories of wearing a uniform and playing in a different social and political climate than exists now and perhaps my memory of that Bomarc symbology streaking it’s ugly imaginary path over the Atlantic on my radar display is too romantic in my memory.

    But I still happen to believe that while generational changes do take place among peoples, those characteristics of civilizations developed over tens of centuries don’t normally change over the passage of a few electronically enhanced decades. I still believe that keeping our friends as in NATO or out, close. And all the while keep our enemies ever closer.

    Today there is nothing wrong with what Regan said about verifying trust.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With the idea of keeping friends close — and enemies closer — is it time to invite Russia to join NATO?


      1. Withdrawing from NATO cold turkey is immoral in my opinion, as Europe has been demilitarized for decades, exposing it to hostile powers. However, with negotiations and a transitionary period it could be discussed. I agree with you Mr Astore on this. I also agree the attitude towards Russia should be more inclusive. But we should not include them in NATO (as long as they are unreliable, corrupt and authoritarian). The resource curse that exists is many African and Middle Eastern nations exists in Russia too. As long as there is free money due to oil and gas export there is no reason to make the government accountable or democratic.

        In addition, I argue that Russia does not even want to be in NATO. In the Putin Interviews Putin said he suggested to Bill Clinton to let Russia enter NATO, but that Clinton refused. I am not sure how serious he was. We have to remember that the Soviets rationalized the dire situation of their citizens and the dictatorial fashion of governing by claiming the West was trying to overthrow and destroy their countries. This then justified the malign conduct of the Party. Kennan wrote about this in Article X (1947). What the Donald does to Mexicans, scapegoating them, the Party did to us Westerners. When we argue that Putin’s state is a mere continuation in lots of ways of the USSR, we could say this scapegoating happens to this day. When Europeans went to the 2018 world cup, ordinary Russians were amazed that foreigners were actually friendly! We can also see how he doesnt want peace. War makes money for him and his fellow oligarches and serves a purpose. If Russia were to become demilitarized (which would happen to a large extent when the hostility towards the West would evaporate) then disapproval rates of Putin would skyrocket.

        I think everybody here knows it but I think nevertheless it is worth repeating: all the problems (eg excessive forward deployement/imperial overreach) of the U.S. can only be tackled if campaign finance reform is enacted. Check the recent interview of Joe Rogan with Lawrence Lessig. The first hour is the most important.


      2. Yeah, WJAstore, your idea, whether in jest or sincere, I read many years ago by a qualified journalist like yourself. A long time has passed.
        Of course we’ll have to change the name ie NATO, but the present ‘UN’ (in my book) has turned into a far greater killer, and it should be open to all nations!
        The nonsense that now collapsed Empires get special rights is absurd; ‘Security Council’. They haven’t given me or millions of others “security”. Britain & Blair used it to illegally invade Iraq….simply by not asking. I’m still a believer in the UN, terrible as they are, but maybe a renamed ‘Nato’ could be an answer. And teach these “capitalists” what competition is all about. UN is a dictatorship today, far from what it’s founding fathers imagined.
        Yeah, a “2 party system” – for world peace! Sounds insane, but I’m sure China, with kidnapped executives and now Iranian newscasters in jail would agree with me. UN no longer works. They’ve said nothing!
        Of course we’ll have to fire all Nato executives: they “think” like UN. but the structure is there! A savings!
        One last note: GB & France don’t know how to keep their societies alive without plunder & colonisation. Blair tried in Iraq: spent a fortune in invasion & got no oil. Sarkcozy ditto in Libya, though I think he stole (successfully) more than idiot Blair.
        HaHa! Now get to work you “freedom riders”!


      3. I remember when the “wall” in Berlin was being built. I also remember another deployment for exercise when I was on the Black Sea in Turkey. I was an augmentee for an Air National Guard squadron that had lost it’s intelligence officer. My quarters were in a motel in a coastal town some distance west of Istanbul. One night while I was writing a fictional piece to print and disburse to the troops in my squadron took a break and went outside to look out over the sea. There only a mile or so off shore were two, well lighted shapes moving slowly across the fairly calm water. They were Russian trawlers fishing for American radio signals and I was very impressed by the fact that there were two of them THERE that I could see plus that they were so close inshore. Our radio transmitters were only three miles away. Oh, and that piece I was writing was for COMSEC training since I had heard enough of the units comm transmissions to know that they had NO idea how what they said could be heard by anyone and how then it could be used to kill them.

        That was in 1988 and a lot has happened including the reduction of the Russian military capability to a bunch of nuclear missiles and a more traditional standing army of marching soldiers, a LOT of artillery and a bunch of suspect tanks. There’s no guarantee today that the Russian submarines if they submerge, will surface again; when they deploy their aircraft carrier it needs to be accompanied by a tug boat and several freighters with spare parts and repair crews; and I think Russia probably understands (along with most of the rest of the intelligent, mentally stable world) that nuclear missiles’ launch is merely the first step in suicide.

        So what’s left? A pretty big and powerful striking force of traditional, post WWII military nature that remains a threat to whoever is within easy deployment reach. It doesn’t take a lot of an author’s fictional capacity to make up a story where on night the Russian Bear decides to take control of some western European area due to “instabilities” or some such gobbledegook excuse. The questions for military planners remain much as they have always been.: How fast could it happen? What is the response?

        I have read a comment here about the “traditional” fear of Russian tanks rushing through the Fulda Gap into Western Germany. Indeed there were many military scenarios developed exactly like that and they were always dramatic and usually had a nuclear exchange figured in some place. I do not believe that anyone REALLY thinks a nuclear exchange is a good idea…anyone who is rational anyway. But I also find it difficult to grasp the idea that Putin would want to march into Western Europe when he gets everything he wants or needs just by standing still and building pipelines. Maybe

        But we have seen some of what Russia and Putin thinks with the annexation of the Crimea. It was quick, slick and with little to no response from the rest of the “civilized” world.

        So what’s next? My personal feeling is that if Putin gets up tomorrow morning and is feeling unusually feisty, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are there for easy pickings. The gamble would be, “What would NATO do? What would the United States do?”

        Now, I could be wrong, but it seems to me from some old history course I took a while ago (lessee….wasn’t it junior year in college? Oh NO! It was fourth GRADE!), I read this same sort of story having happened.

        So “invite” Russia to join NATO? Ah, um, ah….well, lessee: NATO is a military alliance pretty much isn’t it? And it was formed because of the perceived threat of Soviet Russia. And wasn’t it formed in the days before cruise missiles and nuclear arsenals? And wasn’t it formed to as a shield against the Soviet’s conventional military capability which was perceived as a threat to the stability of those western European nations’ integrity?

        So, what has changed? So isn’t today there the same sort of conventional Russian military threat? And doesn’t today, NATO still present a very real conventional response to Russian territory grabbing?

        Maybe the Russian bear is now pink. Maybe Putin will turn into a great humanitarian if only NATO isn’t always threatening him. Maybe.

        But while others smarter and more “modern” in their thinking than I ponder all of this, I believe that it is exceedingly useful for those of us who do not live in Russia to make it very clear to the Russian bear that if he takes a step too far there is a very real, and very powerful stroke that will make his nose very bloody very fast and in a way that very well might make him very unstable. While I don’t believe in the concept of mutual destruction, I have seen little evidence that suggests Russia respects real power less now than it ever has in the past and the point seems to be made in Ukraine.

        So let’s be real close buddies with Putin and his boys (and girls). Let’s invite them to a lot of parties and chat with them a whole lot. Let’s exchange a lot of stuff with them and perhaps drink a lot of their vodka.

        But I don’t think showing them where all our tanks are located is a good idea.


  3. Couldn’t agree more with your final suggestion of greater inclusiveness as opposed to confrontation. I’m not a military so admittedly cannot judge about historical military necessities, although the revelations about operation Gladio almost 30 years ago, have made me seriously wonder about that too.

    Having, however, witnessed over the last 20 years NATO’s scrambling to hang on to its privileges, I find the final part of this quote to be correct: “It’s either out of area or out of business.” This refusal to ever go ‘out of business’ in spite of changed geopolitics has led to an endless stream of rationales supposed to ‘prove’ NATO’s continuing raison d’être. Including ludicrous ones, such as crediting itself for European unity as opposed to the civilian unification efforts, from the Benelux all the way to the EU.
    Not to mention preposterous claims to conflict prevention, peace and prosperity!
    I cannot honestly blame Russia for getting nervous when getting increasingly encircled by ‘peaceful’ NATO armies.
    What if Russia/China stationed its military just across the border in Mexico and Canada?

    NATO is a – lucrative – business, and not only at its top. A young lady who worked for an NGO in Kabul and had studied Farsi and therefore could easily communicate with local staff, moved to a much better paid (desk) job in ISAF. There she discovered that after an average 9-5 office job in NATO she could retire at 45 yrs of age with solid retirement benefits while still being young enough to have a financially well-padded life and a different career.
    I can only guess what the financial and career benefits are for all the generals and politicians who want to keep NATO alive at any price. Not to mention power over life and death.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love it all Pamela; keep going! Your 45*yo’s ‘retirement’ comes as no surprise. (*In a ‘normal’ working career our 40’s was always considered our “prime earning years”.) Still young & healthy, our bosses losses from training costs was over: we knew what we were doing. The next 10 years was high profit for the bosses – but us also. Very “free market”.
      But NATO & Western governments are fed by taxpayers money. Your example shows how corrupt & “Socialist” it really is. But it’s a ‘socialism’ only for ‘them’ – the elites. Using taxpayers money to find some new Boogieman.
      Tomorrow is another “Gilets Jaunes” march in Paris….and elsewhere. Who knows? But last week the MSM claims they’re actually “anti-Semitic” be cause they hate Macron’s boss Rothschild & Co. and….dig this one: “homophobic”! Because most – not all – of the marchers are young families wanting a better future for their children. (They can’t say much negative about “racist” because it’s so inclusive.) Ha!
      This movement may prove to me how corrupted this “political correctness” has more than a motive of being “nice”. The above paragraph says it partially: It’s who THEY want you to support or not. “Vive Les Gilets Jaunes!” I say.


  4. Regarding that awful threat, Russia, this from Dave Lindorff at his blog This Can’t Be Happening

    After mentioning that US military spending is now about 1/3 of total worldwide military spending, Lindorff writes, “Russia’s military spending, which declined last year, is lower than for tiny Saudi Arabia, which can’t even control tiny neighboring Yemen without vast assistance and military aid from the United States.”


    1. I’ve estimated the potential military budget for an independent Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon + Washington + Idaho + British Columbia + adjacent counties in Montana, Wyoming, and California) at about $35 billion if we were to maintain the current US per capita military spending of $2,000+ per year (total population would be just about 17 million, with

      Just our region alone could muster a military budget more than 1/3 the size of Russia’s.

      My father was very fortunate during the Vietnam War to have been sent to Hawai’i to do electronic intelligence work (listening for radio transmissions) looking for Soviet submarines. The USSR kept nuclear-armed submarines on-station just a few miles from Hawai’i, and routinely sent them just off the Golden Gate Bridge outside San Francisco. If there ever had been a war, the US would have been blasted half to hell before its people knew what hit it, regardless of its massive military (this may still be true – it’s less than 5 minutes from Delaware Bay by supersonic cruise missile to the White House)

      Russia today, by contrast, is lucky to deploy half a dozen bombers to Venezuela or its single mid-sized carrier group to, well, anywhere. Really, if Putin didn’t have a couple hundred ICBMs pointed at the US missile fields in Montana, North Dakota, and Colorado-Kansas, Russia would pose precisely zero threat to the US.

      Different story in Europe, but note how despite all the hysteria about Russia potentially occupying all of Ukraine or Georgia, Putin prefers to create an unstable frozen conflict with limited direct Russian military involvement. Invasions and occupations are dangerous and generally futile in the long run. As Afghanistan proved for the USSR, Iraq for the USA, Lebanon for Israel, Yemen for Saudi Arabia, Kashmir for India…


      1. You’re right about invasions and occupations being dangerous and often futile, AT. Yet, sadly, they are also opportunities for some to make lots of money. And endless war, obviously, helps to justify more and more military spending, because this year we’re going to turn that corner and win! And if not this year, then next year — or the year after — or …


        1. Yeah, I’m writing my 2041 plotline under the assumption that private military contracting ends up replacing state military deployments precisely because states want to occupy, but the cost is just too damn high. So, outsource it!


  5. I always have a bit of laugh when ever I here about the USA sending a brigade of marines or army to some Baltic state for maneuvers. There still seems to be the erroneous conclusion that any conflict will be limited to conventional weapons. Back in the early 1950’s there was the ability to recall the bombers in the event of some mistake in threat evaluation. Today, there is no time to recall the missiles or self destruct them.

    These so-called missile defenses are equally bogus. If you install 30 anti-missile missiles, whats to stop the Russians from launching 60 missiles or vice versa.

    Europe was at one time very alive with anti-war or peace demonstrations. It made sense the collective memory of a Europe destroyed from the Volga all the way to English Channel was there, even if the younger generation did not experience it.

    The fools and shills in the McMega-Media constantly set off alarms about Russian or less so Chinese aggression. Exactly, why the Russians would want to invade Ukraine, the Baltic States, etc., and take on all the problems entailed in an occupation is never factored in. Exactly, what would the Russians gain by invading anywhere?? They have everything they need now, it is only a question of managing it better.

    You really never hear the Russians or Chinese talking about “regime change” like the USA does.


  6. N.A.T.O = Needless American Terrorist Operations

    When the United States “government,” as thug enforcer for the Global Corporate Oligarchy, declares the entire Earth (and outer space, too) as its “area of operations” the phrase “out of area” seems even more vapid and meaningless than the usual Orwellian drivel emanating from the constipated bowels of Oceania (i.e., Washington DC, London, and Brussels).


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