Trump, Putin and NATO


Trump, Putin and NATO

NATO, in which the core pledge is a common defense against coordinated attack, successfully kept Europe more or less peaceful since the Second World War.
Richard P. Swanson, Esq.
Written by: By Richard Swanson, NYCLA President-Elect
Published On: Feb 16, 2024
Category: News & Insights

This blog post is not, strictly speaking, about law.  It is, however, about government, and contracts, in this case a treaty that has served us well for 75 years now.  I thought I had lost the capacity to be surprised, much less shocked, by any outrage perpetrated by former President Trump.  And yet his comments about our treaty commitments to NATO made over the past weekend reached a new low. 

NATO, for those of you who need reminding, was a crowning achievement of the post-WW II period, when the Western allies banded together to support each other through the Cold War.  Along with the Marshall Plan, it resulted in the economic rejuvenation of Western Europe, including the successful integration of a democratic West Germany into our sphere, which has to be counted as one of the most extraordinary changes in a single nation’s politics and character in an astoundingly short period of time.  Whatever may divide us, across the North Atlantic we have far more in common, in our democratic governments and shared liberal (with a small L) values.  NATO, in which the core pledge is a common defense against coordinated attack, successfully kept Europe more or less peaceful since the Second World War.  Sure, there was that thing in the Balkans in the 1990s, but nuclear Armageddon?  Nope.  No tank assault by Russia or the other Warsaw Pact countries either.  After 40 years the contrast between the relative prosperity of the West and the much less economically successful East resulted in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and with it Communist governments and the creation of new democratic states such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Along with that came the successful incorporation of East Germany into its bigger Western sibling, and the growth of NATO to incorporate new democracies including countries like the Baltics.  Hard to imagine a greater long-term foreign policy and democratic success.  It is at the heart of the Pax Americana.

And yet former President Trump wants to abandon our support for any country in the NATO alliance which “defaults” on its fair share of common defense (currently recommended at 2% of each country’s GDP), and even went so far as to encourage Putin to attack any such country.  I know, I know, he says outrageous things for the shock value, but this goes to the heart of our position in the world.  

First, what is his bromance with Putin?  Maybe the Steele dossier had some problems, but Trump’s admiration for someone who is clearly an enemy of the West is inexplicable.  Ukraine is an emerging democracy, and wants closer economic and political ties with the West.  Isn’t that something we should be encouraging given NATO’s long history and objectives?

Second, think about how Germany, France and other countries central to the NATO alliance are reacting.  They can no longer realistically count on America’s support of them, militarily or economically.  Emmanuel Macron in France is talking about separating France and other European democracies from the United States in NATO’s common military structures, somewhat like de Gaulle did in the 1960s when he removed France from the common NATO command for a time.  Olaf Scholz in Germany is being forced to consider the same thing.  We have no interest which could possibly be advanced by pushing Germany towards Russia and the East, yet that is a direct consequence of loose talk like Trump’s.  We have benefitted immeasurably for a long time by leading the West, but now former President Trump, and isolationist forces in the Republican Party generally whom Trump has encouraged, are leading us in a different direction.

Our ossified and divided politics only makes things worse.  We can’t pass a Ukraine/Israel aid package without border provisions.  Oh wait, we don’t actually want that either. We can’t pass a budget, much less deal with our unsustainable fiscal path which needs to be addressed over a decade at least.  If you were a Western European leader, would you trust us to be a firm and constant ally at this point?  Relations stabilized with our Western allies in the first two years of the Biden Administration; the future remains unclear.   

This has broader implications for the balance of our role in the world as well.  How do we protect against the rise of China as an economic and political power, with a very different system?  How can we maintain influence in the Middle East?  The primacy of our role has persisted for 75 years but it isn’t guaranteed to continue.  The best way for it to continue is to remember that we have a population of roughly 350 million, and allied with the 550 million in the EU with whom we share common values, and adding in 30 million in Canada and 120 million in Mexico for good measure, we have more than a billion people who share common interests, almost as large as China and with a considerably larger GDP.  We need to stick together, based on mutual respect and those shared values and interests, not drive ourselves apart.  We are, without a doubt, the essential leader in that common endeavor. 

Sure, there are some NATO countries who have tried to cheat on the 2% of GDP defense commitment.  Germany, unfortunately, is among them.  But quiet diplomacy, and the fear of Russia, were already bringing about changes in that regard.  So why go public with what former President Trump had to say, other than for the sheer shock value?  Why encourage Putin to engage in even more retrograde behavior?

I’m not so pessimistic as to think that all is lost.  Our economy continues to chug along, and is clearly the best performing in the developed world, despite what many Republicans want you to believe.  Unemployment is low, job growth is strong, inflation is moderating and economic growth continues.  Our currency remains the world’s reserve, with all the primacy and privilege that entails.  And the flip side of our border debate is that we still remain the country where more people want to move than any other, for the economic opportunities and political advantages we afford.  Why would we ever want to jeopardize that?


                                                                                     Richard P. Swanson

                                                                                     President-Elect, NYCLA



The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of NYCLA, its affiliates, its officers, or its Board.