Without Nato, Europe can’t survive as anything other than a purely geographic entity. This is as true now as it was during the Cold War.
Actually, the past tense is misplaced here. The Cold War never ended. It just took a 10-year break, only to come back, this time with red-hot edges.
An expansionist Russia ruled by history’s only fusion of secret police and organised crime constitutes what’s called a clear and present danger. Putin has declared that rebuilding the Soviet Union (whose demise he called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”) is his life’s mission – presumably in addition to multiplying his billions in offshore havens.
Lest we refuse to take him at his word, in 2014 Russia annexed vast tracts of Ukrainian territory, killing 13,000 Ukrainians in the process and running up the score even further by downing a certain airliner. In response, Western countries introduced sanctions, turned G8 into G7 and beefed up their military presence in Europe.
In response to their response, Putin recently announced a change to Russia’s war doctrine. The country may now use a nuclear first strike with low-yield theatre weapons. Doctrine or no doctrine, no one ever doubted the Russians were capable of that anyway, but now it’s official. Russia’s threat is at present as deadly as it ever was, perhaps even more so.
Therefore Nato’s role is as vital as it has ever been. And vital to Nato is Article 5 of its charter, saying that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Without all 30 members being fully committed to Article 5, the whole charter is for all intents and purposes null and void.
Now, while Europe can’t survive without Nato, Nato can’t survive without the US. It depends on a wholehearted American commitment – which, under President Trump, has been lukewarm at best.
I’ve written enough about Trump’s obvious admiration for Putin, accompanied by a demonstrable refusal to see Russia as a threat, despite all evidence. I’m not going to probe into the possible reasons for this attachment. Suffice it to say it exists.
Hence Trump has been making anti-Nato noises since even before assuming the presidency. His vitriol is usually aimed at European countries, especially Germany, for failing to meet their funding pledges.
That point is fair: whenever European countries feel the need to reduce public spending, their scissors go to the defence budget first. However, even though America contributes disproportionately to the Nato budget, she also derives numerous economic benefits inherent in her position as the Leader of the Free World.
Still, Europe should contribute more to its own protection, and somewhat begrudgingly it’s beginning to do so. If some countries still fall short of the agreed level of contributions (two per cent of GDP), America should try to influence them, not throw its toys out of the pram.
Yet that’s what Trump would do, given half the chance. With his transactional, bean-counting view of life, he clearly feels that the balance still isn’t in America’s favour. He may or may not be right, but geopolitics, unlike, say, property development, can’t be all about dollars and cents.
One can’t avoid the impression that Trump sees Nato as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Take if it pays; leave if it doesn’t.
As to Article 5, he has dropped countless hints that he sees it as an ad hoc arrangement, not an ironclad commitment. This encourages Putin who has designs on all former Soviet republics, but especially the Baltics, Estonia in particular.
Enter Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, one of Trump’s closest political allies and his mouthpiece, activated to say outright what the president can only intimate. In a recent speech, Gingrich proved that he takes on board not only Trump’s ideas but also his demotic style:
“Estonia is in the suburbs of St Petersburg. The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”
If former professors of history sound like that, what can one expect from mere property developers? But never mind the style, feel the message. And it’s eerily reminiscent of another one, delivered by Neville Chamberlain on 27 September, 1938:
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The subsequent events, largely set off by this statement, ought to have taught mankind a useful lesson, but they didn’t. History never does.
Now, Estonia is 98 miles from St Petersburg. If such proximity makes her ineligible for Nato protection, then the Finns can’t sleep peacefully either: they are even closer. But then of course Gingrich was a professor of history, not geography.
Within his own discipline, what does he suppose the Russians did to the Ukraine? The answer is, they committed, and are continuing to commit, an act of unprovoked military aggression.
If that’s what lies in store for Estonia, both Gingrich and Trump seem to be relaxed about that. After all, rather than being a sovereign country and a fellow Nato member, Estonia is a mere suburb of St Petersburg.
If you doubt that Gingrich is enunciating Trump’s thoughts, the president’s actions have their own eloquence. Ever since Russia was booted out of the G8, he has been trying his best to have her reinstated, and to have all sanctions lifted.
Only staunch resistance on the part of Congress has stopped Trump from fully consummating his love affair with Putin. Yet he keeps trying.
A few days ago the president announced plans to withdraw 9,500 US troops from Germany, about a quarter of the total contingent. Some of the top US generals have pointed out that this would greatly jeopardise the Nato capability to respond to Russian aggression. I hope Trump managed to contain a QED smile.
Considering that 22 Republican congressmen are opposed to the action, it may not go ahead. But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought sends a signal to Putin, which isn’t dissimilar to the one Chamberlain sent to Hitler.