In an interview to The New York Times, Trump stated that he would decide whether to provide support for the Baltic states only after examining whether they have “carried out their commitments toward us”. Trump’s claims on US commitments to assist other NATO members caused a storm of comments, although they merely reflected his long held views on the United States’ role in the world.
Trump has maintained for thirty years that other nations exploit the US and this must be stopped. In 1987, he published an article in several US newspapers, arguing that the allies are overindulging in the US’ generosity in the defence sector. A year later, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he stated that Japan and Kuwait (China was then only taking its first steps toward capitalism) exploited and benefited at the US’ expense.
Many think similarly. Washington has long criticised NATO partners for their unwillingness to appropriately contribute to NATO defence spending. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the US expressed the critique several times, but such calls received due attention only after the annexation of Crimea.
Even rich countries like Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark spend less than 1.2% of their GDP on defence. Complaints on exploiting and not pulling their weight were expressed during the Cold War as well, with European states apparently being unprepared to support a land army which could hold off a Warsaw Pact assault without relying on the US nuclear shield.
More disconcerting is Gingrich’s statement that NATO member states should be “concerned regarding our commitment” to defend them because they are not contributing a “fair share” to NATO defence. Calling Estonia a suburb of St. Petersburg, Gringrich claimed he doubted whether he 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.”
Saying that Estonia is a Russian suburb is quite brutal and straightforward, but Gingrich is known for such rhetoric. Doubts on the strength of the US commitment have arisen even before, although they came more frequently from the Europeans, wondering if the US was truly prepared to risk the annihilation of Chicago to defend Copenhagen, Boston for Brussels, Atlanta for Amsterdam. There have been pacifists saying “better red than dead”, thus the US should disarm, but most believe that it is necessary to further strengthen transatlantic ties, approve of the defence doctrine and implement procedures that would ensure that the US automatically have an adequate reaction to any steps Moscow may take, thus deterring the USSR from military forays. Peace was kept, but such doubts were never truly dispelled. Statements by Gingrich and Trump only serve to strengthen them.
The Russian threat to the Baltic states has been much discussed recently, various scenarios of aggression have been proposed. I believe that they are all products of overly excited imaginations, since Russia would risk far too much and would win too little by attacking the Baltics.
The most likely scenario, however, is the following: in order to make NATO unravel, Russia attacks, hoping that NATO will not retaliate, especially if Russia shows it is prepared to use nuclear weapons in the case it is losing. Is it worth risking everything for “a suburb of St. Petersburg”? Thankfully, NATO’s consistent response to that has been “yes”. Knowing this, Moscow has to ask itself if it is worth risking St. Petersburg for one of its suburbs. The answer is “no” and it will remain “no”.
The situation in Georgia is different. It is geostrategically isolated, it is not a NATO member state and its membership is openly opposed by Germany, France and several other members. Most importantly, NATO cannot reliably ensure the safety of Georgia because Western strategic interests in Georgia are negligible, significantly smaller than Russian ones. NATO knows this, Russia understands that NATO knows this and this understanding encourages Russia to keep a firm stance. Under a conflict situation, Moscow would risk confrontation, assuming that NATO will yield when faced by the prospect of escalation.
Under such conditions, granting NATO membership to Georgia would be a present to Moscow radicals who are seeking confrontation which would force NATO to step back, would break its unity and would show that collective defence is a paper tiger. I cannot understand how those same people who are most concerned about potential aggression from Russia are arguing for doing precisely what would increase the likelihood of this aggression under the most disadvantageous circumstances where NATO would be forced to yield.
There is another key factor. Many analysts argue that Putin’s foreign policy is aggressive because this benefits his own and his government’s popularity at home. There are opinions that in this respect, Russia’s foreign policy is simply an extension of domestic policy. Putin has made it clear that granting NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine is the reddest of red lines. Membership for Georgia would be a direct challenge, one that would shake his government, if it fails to respond. His macho image would be shown to be void and so would be claim that he made other states in the world respect Russia, securing it a proper position in the international community of nations. If we were to compare Russia to a dangerous animal, why force it into the corner and make it even more dangerous and less predictable than it is?
It may be useful to remember that Russia does not see NATO as an exclusively defensive alliance. Neither Serbia, nor Iraq, nor Libya posed a threat to NATO states. Such suspicions are further reinforced by careless statements. Some time ago, Lithuanian MP Egidijus Vareiks, wrote, pointing out that Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey were already NATO members: “If we add Ukraine and Georgia, there is an opportunity to make the Black Sea into an internal lake of Europe, just the same as the Baltic. Russian capacities and threat would then decrease.” This cannot be seen as a friendly statement.
It is often said that every country has the right to pick alliances it wishes to join. Even theoretically, this is not completely true. If country A intends to join an alliance which is hostile towards country B, country B can take steps to prevent such a move, if A’s membership in the alliance posed an undeniable threat to it.
In reality, many countries have had to keep a powerful neighbour’s interests in mind. In 1921, Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom, but it remained part of the Commonwealth of Nations and London kept three ports in its hands as well as taking responsibility for Irish naval defence. The Soviet Union forced Finland to remain neutral and observe its foreign policy interests. The US tried to overthrow the Castro government in Cuba and would not allow the USSR to deploy nuclear weapons there.
In its recent summit in Warsaw, NATO once again reiterated the statement from the 2008 Bucharest summit that, in the long run, Georgia will become a NATO member. It might happen eventually, but definitely not in the coming decade, especially if no radical change occurs in Russia. But NATO can help Georgia in a variety of ways, increase its security and even strengthen its armed forces. NATO membership isn’t necessary for that.
There is no need to attach too much significance to the comments of Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich. Trump will most likely not become president and even if he does, he will probably have to think and speak differently. But it is important to keep in mind that however closely aligned may be the interests of the US and its allies, they are not identical. And it should not be thought that the US would blindly risk confrontation.
Kęstutis Girnius teaches at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science