Intentional Chaos: Trump and the Global NATO Alliance

As the world gears up for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit this week in Brussels and Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for July 16, there is uncertainty and anxiety across the world about the outcomes of these encounters. Will Trump swing his wrecking ball at NATO allies? Can he engage in serious negotiations with his Russian counterpart to extend the New START Treaty and save the increasingly endangered Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement, which ended the Cold War?

Contrary to popular opinion, NATO needs to be recognized as an imperial military alliance that includes a first-strike nuclear war fighting doctrine. Consistent with what Zbigniew Brzezinski later described as the geopolitical requirements for US domination of Eurasia, and thus the world, NATO’s first secretary general explained that the alliance’s purpose was to keep Germany down, Russia out and the US in. With the negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the more publicly articulated rationale for the alliance — defending Western Europe against Soviet communism — had disappeared.

Rather than being retired and becoming a subject for historians of the Cold War, NATO was repurposed. Contrary to the 1991 US-Russia agreement that permitted German reunification on West German terms in exchange for the commitment not to move NATO a centimeter closer to Moscow, President Clinton launched NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders. Then, with Russia at its military nadir and European integration moving forward, the 2010 Lisbon NATO summit transformed the alliance’s primary mission to focusing on “out-of-area operations”: Securing the free flow of minerals and money to the Global North became the NATO’s focus.

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revitalization of autocratic — if corrupt — order in Russia, the Maidan protests and coup in Ukraine, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s primary mission changed once again. Preparing for a possible great power war with Russia or China became the alliance’s priority. Beginning in 2016, NATO forces were dispatched to Poland and the Baltics, massive military exercises followed there, in the Black and Baltic Seas, and even in ostensibly neutral nations like Sweden. And NATO’s military ties with its “major non-alliance partner” Japan were deepened.

If we understand NATO to be an expression and instrument of US foreign and military policies, we need to pay close attention to the ambitions and policies of those who now set its policies.

The Trump Doctrine and Uncertainty in Brussels

Donald Trump, whose reign is increasingly and properly seen in the tradition of European fascism and early Nazi rule, was recently described in the pages of The New York Times as “trying to remake America … into a selfish, dishonest country, with no close friends, totally unpredictable, free of any commitment to enduring values, ready to stab any ally in the back … if it doesn’t do our bidding and much more comfortable with mafia-like dictators than elected democrats.”

As we have seen from his insults to the leaders of the G7, his efforts to topple the Merkel government in Germany and the repeated shocks to Japan, Trump has made it clear that “America First” means that if the US is to have allies, they must accept their roles as the vassal states Brzezinski thought they should be, and that US commitments cannot be trusted.

John Feffer of Foreign Policy In Focus wrote that the “Trump doctrine” is not unilateralism but “unileaderism” which “strikes a chord with a segment of the American public. It’s not just the Russians who crave an ‘iron fist’ leader,” Feffer writes. “Tump’s tactics run afoul of the basic laws of geopolitics: identifying long term goals, developing corresponding strategies, and cultivating key allies to achieve those goals. The allies that Trump has cultivated — Poland, Hungary, Russia, North Korea, the Philippines — don’t advance any particular national security interests. They reflect only the personal preferences of Trump himself.”

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine polled White House staff to learn how those who are developing and implementing Trump’s foreign and military policies would name the Trump doctrine. The two most telling responses were: “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage,” and “We’re America, Bitch!”

This leads to uncertainty about how Trump, with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at his side, will wield his “unileaderism” wrecking ball at the NATO summit. How will Trump reconcile his relationship with Putin with the agenda of the NATO summit, which will address, among other issues, the security threat posed by Russia? Even before the summit, Trump is demanding massive and unwanted increases in European military spending, saying that the current arrangements with the European allies are “no longer sustainable.”

The answer lies in the imperial systems built over generations. In his new book The World as It Is, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes explains one of the challenges facing any US president: From special operations warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the delivery of warplanes around the world, the institutions of the national security state operate “on their own momentum — rooted in a vast complex of deployments, alliances, international agreements and budget decisions that could have been made a month, a year or decades ago…. Every agency has its own interests, which don’t change with the presidency.”

How should we understand NATO’s “out-of-area” operations and its globalization? Although they had precedents in the 1990s with the participation of seven NATO nations joining the US in its 1991 Gulf War, the no-fly zone and bombing of Bosnia and the 1994 creation of the Mediterranean Dialog, out-of-area operations began in full force with the 1998 Kosovo War against Serbia. As Michael J. Glennon wrote at the time, the US and NATO “with little discussion and less fanfare … effectively abandoned the old UN Charter rules that strictly limit international intervention in local conflicts … in favor of a vague new system that is much more tolerant of military intervention but has few hard and fast rules.”

In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, the administration of George W. Bush invoked NATO’s Article 5 of the NATO alliance, which made it the responsibility of all Alliance members to consider 9/11 an attack against their country, and to join the US in responding.

In his recent definitive history of the CIA and its war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Steve Coll writes that in addition to destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban, “A secondary aim for the US in invoking Article 5, was to prove that the compact of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization … had meaning, and that N.A.T.O. could operate if necessary outside its defensive perimeter in the West.”

By 2002, the Bush administration concluded that, “There are no more threats to NATO from within Europe, but from a nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” Consequently, the administration pressed for the creation of a NATO “expeditionary force, a strike force, that can move fast.” And, by late 2003, with Kabul and other key Afghan population centers thought to be secure from enemy combatants, the UN authorized the gradual expansion of NATO’s mission. By 2006, with the Taliban again on the offensive, the entire country was a theater for NATO operations.

In 2011, driven by Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, we witnessed NATO’s catastrophic war on Libya, and the rest is history.

NATO: The Global Alliance

How global is NATO? It spans the planet, providing the US with military allies, military bases for wars and military interventions from the Middle East and Africa to Latin America and East Asia, as well as ensuring markets for weapons sales and providing access to cutting edge technologies. In each case, deep geopolitical and military calculations have been involved in the invitations and decisions to collaborate with NATO. Not surprisingly, given its size and the competing ambitions of its elites — as we see today in Turkey’s flirtations with Russia and the pressure Trump claims to be placing on Pakistan — NATO partnerships come with inevitable contradictions.

In Europe, prospective future members of the alliance are members of the “Partnership for Peace” program. Countries in this program, which are first in line for full NATO membership and which are already deeply engaged with NATO militarily include Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia and Ireland.

The Europe-Atlantic Partnership Council is a forum for dialogue and consultation, and provides the overall political framework for cooperation between NATO member states and 21 partner countries, and for a time included Russian participation.

Established in 2004, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative engages four Gulf states to counter weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, training and education, participation in NATO exercises, promotion of military interoperability and disaster preparedness.

The Mediterranean Dialogue, established shortly after the first Gulf War, provides a framework for US and European military and diplomatic influence with seven Middle East and North African nations. The rationale for its creation, consultations and joint military exercises was “the understanding that security in the Mediterranean is vital to assure the security of Europe.”

And Partners Across the Globe, established at the 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, brings together a disparate group of middle and lesser powers in the Asia-Pacific the Middle East and Latin America to extend NATO’s reach and capabilities. Global partners have fought in Afghanistan, joined anti-piracy campaigns, and collaborated in anti-terrorism, intelligence sharing and cyber defense efforts.

Colombia is NATO’s newest Global Partner and the first Global Partner in Latin America. It had earlier sent troops for training in Germany and Italy and dispatched troops to the Horn of Africa. By 2013, it had agreed “to cooperate in intelligence sharing, military-training exercises,” and in so-called humanitarian interventions.

Additionally, the United States recognizes 15 nations and Taiwan as Major Non-NATO Allies. While this status does not in all cases include mutual defense pacts, it provides military collaborations and financial support not available to other non-NATO states.

NATO’s expansion and the partnerships created in the post-Cold War era reinforce US and European ambitions and interests in the Global South. NATO’s expansion has included deployment of a multinational force in Romania to counter Russia along its eastern flank and to check a growing Russian presence in the Black Sea. Last year, NATO jets “confronted a plane carrying Russia’s defense minister in neutral airspace over the Baltic Sea.” This, of course, does not absolve Russia of its military provocations, which together with those of NATO and the US risk accidents and miscalculations that could escalate beyond control.

Where does this leave us? With untethered Trump now focused on his tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin, which will likely overshadow the NATO summit, the centrifugal forces within the global alliance are at play, and anything seems possible.