Predicting Trump, the future of NATO and America's role on the global stage

How the president-elect is reshaping the future of Europe's security, one general at a time


December 2, 2016

One of the more bizarre occurrences in an already unpredictable presidential political season happened Nov. 29 in a New York City restaurant where President-elect Donald Trump sat – over frog legs – with former Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney to discuss a potential Romney appointment to the office of secretary of state.

Details of the actual job interview were scarce, but the mere fact the two men met for dinner spoke volumes about the enormous complexities and considerations the next president has to wade through before Inauguration Day.

Those complexities, it seems, include breaking bread with a man who tried to derail Trump's presidential run by calling him “dangerous,” a “bully,” “greedy,” “misogynist,” a “fraud” and a “phony.”

Not to be undone, Trump had countered hard, calling Romney a “stiff,” and a “catastrophe,” who had “choked like a dog,” on his way to defeat in the 2012 elections.

The sit-down – and the fact that Romney couldn’t have looked less mollified if he was eating actual crow – suggests the president-elect is more aware (his boisterous past statements notwithstanding) that the challenges facing America’s global role could be bigger than even he can handle.

President-elect Donald Trump, center, eats dinner with Mitt Romney, right, and Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at Jean-Georges restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, in New York. (Credit: AP)

One of these challenges, the NATO-Russia relationship, will likely dominate America’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future. How the U.S. handles this will affect not only the country’s standing on the global stage, but also its economic and financial interests for a very long time to come.

Trump ran a campaign lean on policy details, the specifics of which never went far beyond his “America first”-themed slogans. He will not be an easy president to predict. His stances on foreign policy are particularly skeletal. But he has said and indicated enough, especially on America’s relationship with NATO, to allow for a rough sketch on how he intends to move forward.

To best understand how the Trump Administration intends to deal with this alliance, especially in his first term, three important aspects have to be examined: his past statements; his current and potential picks for his national security team, and the reality on the ground as set forth by past American policy.


During the first presidential debate, Trump complained that NATO – arguably the most successful defense alliance in modern history – was not doing enough to spread its massive operating costs amongst its member states. In 2006, member countries agreed to commit a minimum of 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to spending on defense.

Of the 28 countries in the alliance, only five – the U.S., Greece, Poland, Estonia and the U.K. – have met the target. The rest, including Germany, are past due on the commitment.

NATO, Trump said, could soon be irrelevant if the other 23 countries didn’t pay their dues, and as a consequence the U.S. could very well withdraw its security umbrella.

“The 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren't paying their fair share. And that bothers me, because we should be asking – we're defending them, and they should at least be paying us what they're supposed to be paying by treaty and contract,” Trump declared.

A M1 Abrams tank fires its main gun during maneuvers. As tensions with Russia ratchet up, the role of NATO is coming under increased scrutiny. (PHOTO: DEFENSETECH)

NATO, he said, could become “obsolete, because…they do not focus on terror,” and because “we pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO. It's a lot of money to protect other people.”

Trump, who by that first debate, had been calling out the organization for months, seems to have elicited a response.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg soon announced the creation of the post of an Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence. The main duties of the office would likely be, according, to officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal, “to focus on higher-level intelligence sharing about Islamic State’s strategy and operations, rather than tactical details of specific people trying to infiltrate into Europe.”

Trump promptly took credit for this policy addition.

NATO's leadership also seems to be backing away from directly confronting or challenging Trump on the issue, and has instead called for unity.

“In these uncertain times we need strong American leadership and we need Europeans to shoulder their fair share of the burden. Going it alone is not an option,” said Stoltenberg.

These Trump pronouncements are being taken seriously enough by other members in the alliance that the British Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon, sent an urgent message to his European counterparts urging them to pay their "fair share on defense amid fears that Donald Trump will withdraw US support if they fail to do so,” according to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.

President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, get up from their seats following their meeting, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Questions still remain – even as the bluster and rhetoric of the campaign still lingers – if Trump’s threats to have the U.S. sit back in the event of an arrears-delinquent NATO member is under attack are valid.

The short answer is, nobody, at this point knows.

The United States needs NATO more than NATO needs the United States.


In early 1992, a highly classified document detailing America’s long view on global security was leaked to the New York Times. The document, known as the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), was authored by the then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, and his deputy Scooter Libby. Indeed, the contents of the document have since come to be known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

Both men, it should also be noted, would later earn the unflattering label of “neocons” as they were largely responsible for dragging the U.S. into a maelstrom in Iraq, and in the process destabilizing a whole region to such an extent it, and the whole world, has never fully recovered from.

The reaction to the DPG’s publication was so swift, so intense, and so negative it had to be revised to assuage critics who accused the then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney of trying to move the country’s military posture in a dangerously unilateral direction.

The 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which was leaked to the New York Times, laid out a broad vision for the United State's world domination (Photo: GWU archives)

In spite of the revisions, that DPG’s main tenets of treating coalitions as “ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted,” would animate much of the U.S.’s embrace of pre-emptive interventions in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

It can also be argued the core values in that DPG have never been entirely abandoned, including by the current administration.

According to that DPG, one of the overarching strategic aims of the United States is “precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor.” On NATO, the goals are clear: to preserve the alliance “as the primary instrument of Western defense and security, as well as the channel for U.S. influence and participation in European security affairs.”

Further, the DPG says, the United States will seek to “prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO, particularly the alliance’s integrated command structure.”

In other words, no unified European army.

That also means, contrary to Trump’s recent pronouncements, the United States intends to continue using NATO as its main vehicle for safeguarding its national interests in a region it simply can’t afford to lose control over.


Despite being under civilian control, the military-industrial complex very often has a mind of its own, as the president-elect will likely find out in the coming days. Much like his predecessor did when he tried, and failed, to close the controversial military prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Trump may find himself solving the problem by simply ignoring it.

The contradictions inherent in Trump’s attitude towards NATO were captured in a 2015 Meet the Press interview in which he said he didn’t care one way or other if Ukraine was allowed to become part of the treaty. He expressed the same sentiments in a New York Times interview in July in which he said, in essence at least, that “in a deal, you always have to be prepared to walk.”

Suggesting, perhaps, his past statements of purpose were part of a negotiation tactic.

At this point, it is hard to tell if Trump intends to follow through with his campaign rhetoric – the constant bashing of NATO, the demeaning of top Pentagon officers (he said he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals do), and the cozying up to Russia.


At some point he even suggested he would fire some of these generals because, he charged, the current administration had “reduced them to rubble,” and that subsequently “they had become an embarrassment to the country.”

While this tone might suggest he may try to push his NATO reforms through over the heads of the Pentagon brass, the kind of pushback he might receive in return is not yet clear.

To compound the confusion, Trump seems to be surrounding himself with people from the same general class he has been lambasting all along. For example, his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, is a former Army lieutenant general.

The man who will be heading the Department of Defense is Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis. As his nickname suggests, Mattis is not a man known for his subtleties. (He is arguably one of the most quoted generals of recent times, and his ‘Mattisms’ have taken a life of their own. He is widely quoted as saying, for example, "be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.")

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) and Vice President-elect Mike Pence (R) greet retired Marine General James Mattis for a meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016. © Mike Segar / Reuters

Mattis, incidentally, also served from 2007 to 2010 as NATO’s supreme allied commander of transformation, focusing on improving the military effectiveness of allies.

The question then becomes: will Trump's tough talk work in convincing American allies he will walk and take the U.S. with it if they don’t pay up?

Again, the short answer, as with most things Trump, is maybe. His recent appointments (and potential appointments) to his security team seem to prove that very point.

This sort of uncertainty, Trump’s detractors might suggest, plays right into the hands of Vladimir Putin, the president of a country whose military might is precisely the core reason for NATO’s very existence.


“There is an unanimity of concern about Trump’s position on NATO, combined with his bromance with Putin, because this upsets the whole world of Europe if the U.S. suddenly turns it’s back on NATO and begins to play footsie with Putin,” David Axelrod, former chief adviser to President Obama recently said at the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago.

Trump’s dealings with Russia still remain opaque and there are even suggestions the Kremlin may have played a role in ensuring his victory in the presidential elections. Whether this turns out to be true or not, Trump’s effusive praise of Putin has certainly not gone unnoticed in Moscow and may signal a rapprochement between the two countries.

In the often zero-sum game of international politics, any advances Russia makes in pushing back against the gradual encirclement of that country by NATO will be seen as a rebalancing in its favor of the world order at a level not seen perhaps, since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly 30 years ago.

Again, Trump’s security picks (with the possible exception of Flynn, his national security adviser) send mixed signals about the role he sees for NATO in its standoff with Russia.

He has suggested, for example, that the United States and Russia are natural allies against Islamic radicalism. The generals he has surrounded himself with have spent the last few years honing their fighting skills in the deserts of the Middle East.

NATO has warned Russia to stop bombing civilians in Syria - but Putin says he's targeting ISIS. (Photo illustration: Getty Images)

This is a fight the Americans –and the British – have carried out mostly on their own, under the grandiosely named, but now largely collapsed, “Coalition of the Willing,” which, at some point, included countries like the Solomon Islands and Palau which don’t even have standing armies.

In an ironic twist, the Solomon Islands was apparently unaware of its own membership in the coalition and quickly disassociated itself from the group.

That the U.S. is carrying out this fight largely outside the auspices of an organization that revolves around the famous Article 5 which declares “collective defence (sic) means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies,” must surely rankle those in the Pentagon. American generals have had to bear the brunt of leading and burying their own, even as NATO sits almost dormant on the sidelines of a war that has gone for the better part of a decade.

Perhaps this is the anger Trump is counting on to affect change in the alliance’s priorities. Infuriatingly, his picks to lead this fight don’t point in that immediate direction and this could an indicator of a an ignorance within Trump's inner circle of what NATO is all about.

His picks for the diplomatic corps are largely in the same mold as those in the state department.

“He is now considering at least three more candidates for secretary of state. Mitt Romney, Petraeus, and Bob Corker. All of them are internationalists. All of them believe in international institutions. Their policy is much different than the one that Trump articulated. All these are strong supporters of NATO. It’s kind of hard, and it speaks of just how little he knows or thought about this stuff,” Axelrod added during the meeting in Chicago.

Talk of Romney as a serious candidate for the job of America’s chief diplomat would suggest a continuance of the status quo, albeit with caveats. His criticism of the alliance, while more nuanced, points not to a dismantling or weakening of the alliance, but rather to a strengthening.

In 2012 while running against Obama, he – much like Trump – warned NATO members not to “shortchange defense.” In that speech, he quoted former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who had earlier said that doing so would lead to a “collective military irrelevance” for the group and turn it into “an alliance in name only.”

More than anything else, Romney charged, the lack of American leadership on the global stage was to blame.

And then there is David Petraeus, a former general who is also in the running for the post of secretary of state.

If appointed, and if he can get through a senate confirmation process that would very likely dredge up his criminal handling of classified material that led to his resignation, a Petraeus appointment would close the circle on appointing general to key posts in the Trump administration.


Trump appointments mean that whatever line that had previously existed between the civilian appointees, the state, and defense departments would be so blurred there wouldn’t be any practical distinction between the two.

Former General David Petraeus is on a shortlist of potential secretary of state picks. The former NATO supreme commander is sure the alliance will meet its treaty obligations. ( Photo: Susan Walsh/APS)

However, these appointments don't signal as much of a radical shift in NATO relations as Trump's incendiary language suggests.

In November, Petraeus was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying he was "absolutely confident the core NATO commitment would be adhered to and that he is not worried about Trump's hints of wanting to take a step back from NATO.”

The acrimonious relationship between Trump and Romney, and his (Trump's) belief that American generals serving under Obama have been effectively neutered, is now a matter of record. And yet, these are the same people he is actively considering as key principals and caretakers of America’s global role.

Trump may well surprise the world and pick as secretary of state someone who is not as mild towards NATO as the current names suggest. That will upend this conversation. One thing remains almost certain: because of Trump, NATO’s core structure is due for a makeover.

Whatever appointments Trump makes will likely unnerve America’s foes and allies alike but it could very well be good news for an organization whose reputation has been battered by Trump for so long and is in need of a change.

The belief in international institutions that the men on the shortlist bring could very well sway Trump in to cutting a deal those allies – for their own protection – can’t refuse.




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