by James Kirchick
Once again, Donald Trump has unsettled America’s allies and brought joy to its adversaries.
In an interview last week with the New York Times, the Republican Party presidential nominee reiterated his shoddy understanding of how international alliances and deterrence strategy work. Asked if the United States would come to the defense of its NATO allies – in particular, the Baltic States – were they to be attacked by Russia, Trump responded, “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.”
The answer to that question should have been a simple “Yes.” According to Article V of the NATO charter, each member state has a treaty obligation to defend its fellow members in case of attack. The entire conceit of NATO – a highly successful one considering how none of its members have ever been conventionally invaded in its over six-decade history – rests on the power of deterrence. Accordingly, and contrary to Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin should know damn well what the President of the United States would do if Russia tried attacking a NATO ally: American forces would defend NATO territory to the hilt.
The Times interview demonstrated once again that Trump’s understanding of the world is crassly transactional. In their formulation of foreign policy, every president throughout American history have taken values into consideration alongside interests. Trump, however, has no time for concepts like promoting freedom and resisting tyranny in our world. Like the Russian president he so evidently admires, he views international affairs as a zero sum game, in which America’s bank balance is the only consideration.
But even going on his own purely pecuniary metric, Trump displays a stunning ignorance. Pressed by the Times about whether he would honor America’s obligations under the NATO treaty, Trump responded like the global racketeer he so admires in the Kremlin. “You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make,” he responded. “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”
Trump is always vague, but when he spoke of “obligations,” he presumably meant that NATO should only defend those countries that meet the recommended (but not required) threshold of spending 2% of their GDP on defense. In a follow-up interview with CBS News, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich specifically called out Estonia as some sort of freeloader not worth defending. “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,” he said. “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.”
Unlike most Trump surrogates, Gingrich ought to know better than to spout such nonsense. He is a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and well-versed in world affairs; indeed, he presided over the first round of post-Cold War NATO expansion in the 1990s. So it was telling that he would single out Estonia, of all places, as a country unworthy of our support. Estonia is one of only a handful of NATO members to meet the 2% hurdle. Indeed, Estonia has decided to increase its defense spending over the coming years, not only as a necessary precaution against potential Russian aggression, but as a symbolic statement of its commitment to NATO collective security.
Estonia is one of America’s closest allies in Europe, having dispatched soldiers to fight alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. After regaining independence in 1991, its rapid transition from Soviet satrapy to forward-thinking, technologically advanced, Western-style democracy has been an amazing success story, topping Freedom House’s list of post-communist developing democracies. Having traveled to Estonia many times, I can state confidently that one would be hard-pressed to find a country more welcoming of Americans.
At this point, I know it’s worthless to expect Trump supporters to have anything like a basic appreciation for facts, much less a moral conscience. If Newt Gingrich were capable of feeling shame, he would retract his dangerous slander of this true American friend and ally.
James Kirchick is an American journalist, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative and writes for The Daily Beast, Tablet Magazine and VOA. You can follow him on Twitter @jkirchick.