In a notorious interview with the Times of London and the German paper Bild, America’s new president, Donald Trump, opined that NATO is obsolete, that disintegration of the European Union would make no difference to the United States, and that he will start off trusting Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel equally. It should come as no surprise that Trump’s airing of such views provoked anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic.
Speaking in his characteristic scattershot style, however, Trump also said he respected Merkel, he appreciated NATO, and his trust of either Putin or Merkel could dissipate rapidly. Thus it was that Trump raised vexing questions about himself.
Is he really in thrall to Putin the war criminal? Does Trump have some sinister reason for praising Putin as a strong leader and passing over in silence Putin’s propensity for having meddlesome journalists, dissidents, and turncoat spooks gunned down or poisoned with potions prepared by his special services?
Or does Trump’s praise of Putin reflect a neophyte’s susceptibility to the views of courtiers such as his strategic adviser Steve Bannon, promoter of alt-right nationalism, or national security advisor, Mike Flynn, who took money from Putin’s TV propaganda arm, Russia Today, and was seated next to Putin at a banquet celebrating the success of that international enterprise?
To frame the question in a cruder way: Should we look on Trump as Putin’s puppet or merely as a feckless con man from Queens who is woefully out of his depth on the great stage of history?
Concern about a suspect relationship between Trump and Putin’s regime cannot be dismissed as pure paranoia — even if there is no compromising video of Trump cavorting in a Moscow hotel with sex workers employed by Putin’s security services. The FBI and US intelligence agencies had been looking into transactions between Trump associates and Putin’s people well before receiving the dossier on Trump’s Kremlin ties assembled by a retired officer of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6.
And there is something yet more worrisome. The Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, noted for his exceptional sources in Israel’s intelligence services, reported in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth that in a recent meeting between American and Israeli intelligence officers, the Americans warned their Israeli counterparts not to disclose sensitive sources and methods to the Trump White House or security council. The Israelis were told there is a danger Trump’s people might pass such items to Russia’s security services, and the Russians, wishing to make Iran as dependent on Moscow as Syria has become, would deliver Israel’s most closely guarded secrets to Iran.
Nevertheless, Trump’s ignorance represents a greater danger than any covert obligation to the Kremlin.
There is, after all, a rational case to be made that presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush indulged in geopolitical hubris when, disregarding Russian anxieties about a vulnerable periphery as well as verbal assurances originally offered by George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, they permitted NATO to expand from Germany’s eastern to Russia’s western border. At the end of the Cold War, Russia should have been brought into a Eurasian partnership with the NATO allies.
Hence it makes sense for a new US president to seek to resolve dangerous tensions with a nuclear-armed Russia. But there is no justification for Trump’s denigration of NATO and America’s allies.
Someone, perhaps Defense Secretary James Mattis, ought to explain to Trump what has made Article 5 of the NATO treaty — the pledge that an attack on one alliance member will be considered an attack on all — the key to keeping the peace in Europe. Stalin and his successors understood that Article 5 was an absolute commitment; that once Warsaw Pact troops marched westward, there would be no parliamentary debates in Western capitols, no dithering by presidents or prime ministers; there would be immediate military retaliation.
This has been the secret of Western solidarity and the primary reason Mattis could say in his confirmation hearing that NATO might be the most successful military alliance in history. Success meant never having to use NATO armed forces in Europe.
When Trump mindlessly hints that he might refuse to defend NATO allies who don’t meet a voluntary pledge to spend 2 percent of their budgets on their militaries, he undermines Article 5. If he were sitting on Putin’s lap and mouthing words from the Kremlin Godfather, his performance might be understandable. But if these impulses are his own, they suggest a perverse worldview that endangers America, its allies, and world peace.Alan Berger is a former Boston Globe editorial writer.