The NATO Summit Wasn’t a Victory for Trump—It Was a Victory for Militarism

Major media outlets are so focused on Russiagate they are missing the dangerous international military buildup taking place.

Branko Marcetic

(From L to R, first row) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May attend the opening ceremony at the 2018 NATO Summit at NATO headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

For most major media out­lets, the events of the past week have yield­ed a straight­for­ward nar­ra­tive: Don­ald Trump, at the behest of his pup­pet-mas­ter in the Krem­lin, tried and failed to destroy the NATO alliance and bring down the post-war lib­er­al world order, the lat­est in a series of trea­so­nous actions that will cul­mi­nate in his meet­ing with Vladimir Putin in Helsin­ki on Monday.

Lost in this coverage are any voices of skepticism over what the further expansion of NATO and a large military build-up might mean for already tense relations with Russia.

But there is anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion. Instead of view­ing events through the prism of the murky Rus­si­a­gate” scan­dal, or accord­ing to whether or not Trump man­aged to score some kind of win,” the press must grap­ple with the real result of the NATO sum­mit: The West­ern world con­tin­ues to hur­tle toward an ever scari­er mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with the coun­try that holds the world’s largest nuclear arse­nal.

As the dust set­tles from the tumul­tuous NATO sum­mit, its actu­al out­come is unclear. Trump first announced that he had secured promis­es of major mil­i­tary spend­ing increas­es from the oth­er 28 NATO mem­ber states, only for the lead­ers of the same mem­ber states to then pub­licly deny they had agreed to any such thing. “[The com­mu­niqué] reaf­firms a com­mit­ment to 2 per­cent [of GDP] in 2024. That is all,” said French Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron, refer­ring to the con­tents of an agree­ment first made by NATO coun­tries in 2014.

Most pun­dits alter­nat­ed between mock­ing Trump for tak­ing cred­it for some­thing that would have hap­pened regard­less, or declar­ing the whole episode proof that Trump is in the pock­et of the Krem­lin. Can we just admit that Trump is cap­tured by the Rus­sians?” asked the Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, cit­ing Trump’s skep­ti­cal rhetoric toward NATO.

It is true that NATO mem­bers had already com­mit­ted dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to raise their defense spend­ing to 2 per­cent of GDP, an already over-the-top fig­ure that explains why only five coun­tries have man­aged to meet this goal thus far. But there is evi­dence that Trump’s intem­per­ate demands have placed renewed pres­sure to ratch­et up mil­i­tary spend­ing. Accord­ing to For­eign Pol­i­cy — hard­ly a bas­tion of anti-estab­lish­ment think­ing — cur­rent and for­mer Euro­pean offi­cials have said that Trump’s threats to go it alone” at a closed-door meet­ing dur­ing the sum­mit pushed NATO mem­bers to pledge more mil­i­tary spend­ing. NATO Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Jens Stoltenberg said at the post-sum­mit press con­fer­ence that Trump’s mes­sage is hav­ing an impact,” and that because of him, Cana­da and the Euro­pean states will spend an added $266 bil­lion between now and 2024.

Could Stoltenberg sim­ply be but­ter­ing up Trump? Absolute­ly. But Euro­pean offi­cials like Macron also have rea­son to save face by pub­licly play­ing down the idea they were bul­lied by Trump.

There’s also the case of Ger­many, which has faced sus­tained pres­sure from Trump to raise its mil­i­tary spend­ing. Last year, Trump report­ed­ly hand­ed Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel a mocked-up invoice for $374 bil­lion for NATO, and Ger­many was one of eight coun­tries Trump sent per­son­al let­ters to in June demand­ing high­er pay­ments. Days before the sum­mit, Merkel’s gov­ern­ment deliv­ered a bud­get that put $4.6 bil­lion extra toward the mil­i­tary, revis­ing an ear­li­er bud­get that focused more on domes­tic spend­ing. Cana­da like­wise announced a 70 per­cent increase in its defense bud­get over the next ten years a month before the sum­mit.

Then there are the actu­al results of the sum­mit, which, for all the com­plaints of sab­o­tage by Trump, result­ed in the announce­ment of sev­er­al new mil­i­tary com­mit­ments. The com­mu­niqué pledged, among oth­er things, a NATO Readi­ness Ini­tia­tive, made up of an addi­tion­al 30 major naval com­bat­ants, 30 heavy or medi­um manœu­vre bat­tal­ions, and 30 kinet­ic air squadrons, with enabling forces, at 30 days’ readi­ness or less,” as well as an enhanced exer­cise pro­gram” for mar­itime warfight­ing skills.” The com­mu­niqué also affirmed that NATO will ful­ly imple­ment” the ter­ror­ist-fight­ing action plan it agreed to last year, and embraced a new mem­ber in Mace­do­nia— the lat­est East­ern Euro­pean state to join the alliance, an act fur­ther iso­lat­ing Russia.

Mean­while, Cana­da is set to head a new train­ing mis­sion in Iraq, while the Unit­ed King­dom announced it will send 440 more troops to Afghanistan. It is no won­der that for­mer mil­i­tary offi­cials told For­eign Pol­i­cy that, from their per­spec­tive, there were some impor­tant wins that were over­shad­owed by the noise.”

Nonethe­less, U.S. out­lets have claimed in the after­math that the pro­ceed­ings could help Putin,” who was the big win­ner of the NATO sum­mit.” Such cov­er­age focus­es on Trump’s alleged­ly con­temp­tu­ous rhetoric towards NATO, empha­siz­ing Trump’s per­son­al behav­ior rather than tan­gi­ble out­comes — a trend in report­ing on Trump since his inauguration.

In what could be the surest sign that these con­cerns are overblown, nom­i­nal­ly anti-Trump neo­con­ser­v­a­tives are tak­ing Trump’s side. Trump isn’t wrong to expect more from Ger­many,” wrote Eli Lake, warn­ing that if you care about NATO,” you have to be wor­ried about Germany’s mil­i­tary decline. David French of the Nation­al Review, after dis­pens­ing with the oblig­a­tory crit­i­cisms of Trump’s rhetoric, wrote that Trump was absolute­ly, pos­i­tive­ly right to be upset at the state of the Ger­man mil­i­tary.” The Week­ly Stan­dard like­wise crit­i­cized Trump’s fool­ish and unhelp­ful” rhetoric before affirm­ing that despite the deep para­noia, Trump’s crit­i­cisms are not entire­ly mis­tak­en,” and that Euro­pean states need­ed to build up their mil­i­taries to con­front Russ­ian expansionism.”

If help­ing ensure a more mil­i­tar­i­ly aggres­sive NATO is a win” for Trump, it is cer­tain­ly not a win for glob­al sta­bil­i­ty and peace. Lost in this cov­er­age are any voic­es of skep­ti­cism over what the fur­ther expan­sion of NATO and a large mil­i­tary build-up might mean for already tense rela­tions with Russia.

A Poi­son in the Antidote

This increas­ing­ly mil­i­taris­tic atmos­phere is epit­o­mized by the bipar­ti­san ral­ly­ing around NATO in reac­tion to Trump’s crit­i­cisms of the alliance. This trend dates to least Jan­u­ary 2017 when Trump, in keep­ing with his habit of co-opt­ing left-wing talk­ings points, labelled NATO obso­lete.”

The state­ment swift­ly elicit­ed wide­spread shock and hor­ror, much of it from lib­er­al sources warn­ing the remarks could end the U.S. posi­tion as the world’s sole super­pow­er,” lead to the col­lapse of the Euro­pean Union, increase the risk of mil­i­tary esca­la­tion and war in Europe,” and con­sti­tute a direct assault on the lib­er­al order” that’s been in place since 1945. More than a few com­men­ta­tors sug­gest­ed that the remarks were a reflec­tion of Trump’s unseem­ly mind meld with the pow­ers-that-be in Russia.

These same talk­ing points were res­ur­rect­ed over the past weeks, when Trump’s hos­til­i­ty to NATO elicit­ed apoc­a­lyp­tic pre­dic­tions, often from lib­er­al cir­cles. Dan Shapiro, Obama’s ambas­sador to Israel, warned that most dam­ag­ing is that [Trump’s] rhetoric is build­ing up hos­til­i­ty to NATO among his sup­port­ers.” The Wash­ing­ton Post edi­to­r­i­al board charged that Trump is poi­son­ing NATO.” Vox, arguably the flag­ship news out­let for mod­ern Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism, pub­lished a piece explain­ing why you should give a shit about NATO,” and why Trump is wrong to call it obso­lete.” The New York Times even ran sev­er­al non-edi­to­r­i­al, report­ed pieces defend­ing the impor­tance of NATO and advanc­ing the idea of Rus­sia as an expan­sion­ist aggres­sor that needs to be rebuffed with mil­i­tary might.

This rush to defend NATO and affirm its impor­tance pushed any crit­i­cisms of the alliance out of the sphere of legit­i­ma­cy. As much as Trump’s ver­bal attacks on intel­li­gence agen­cies have served to reha­bil­i­tate their stand­ing among a pre­vi­ous­ly more skep­ti­cal pub­lic, his attacks on NATO have insu­lat­ed the alliance from critique.

This is too bad, because there are legit­i­mate crit­i­cisms to be made of NATO, includ­ing that it’s a rel­ic of a bygone time. In 1998, William J. Per­ry and Ash Carter — sec­re­taries of defense for Bill Clin­ton and Oba­ma, respec­tive­ly — argued that its found­ing pur­pose of deter­ring attack from the War­saw Pact has been ful­filled.” As late as 2001, with the Cold War long over, there was seri­ous dis­cus­sion about NATO’s seem­ing­ly pur­pose­less exis­tence. It was only after the Sep­tem­ber 11 attacks that NATO, in its own words, turned tragedy into oppor­tu­ni­ty” by tran­si­tion­ing to a focus on terrorism.

NATO stopped being a bul­wark against Russ­ian expan­sion­ism and turned into an instru­ment of the flawed, mil­i­tary-based war on ter­ror” of the Bush and Oba­ma years, a role that’s remained key to cen­trist-lib­er­al defens­es of the alliance’s rel­e­vance today. NATO forces have been heav­i­ly involved in Afghanistan near­ly from the start of that nev­er-end­ing war. The alliance’s oth­er high-pro­file 21st cen­tu­ry suc­cess” was the 2011 bomb­ing of Libya and sub­se­quent ouster of dic­ta­tor Muam­mar Gaddafi, a for­eign pol­i­cy blun­der sec­ond only to the Iraq War, and one whose rever­ber­a­tions can still be felt.

The trou­ble is, the idea of end­ing NATO is now being ren­dered unthink­able by estab­lish­ment opin­ion-mak­ers who view Trump as some kind of anti-lodestar. As Nation edi­tor Kat­ri­na van­den Heuv­el recent­ly put it, Trump is so cru­el, is so odi­ous, that what he says taints the pos­si­bil­i­ty often of real debate,” mak­ing it impos­si­ble to cri­tique NATO at the same time that Trump does.

All Roads Lead to War

Lurk­ing behind all of this is the stead­fast and wide­ly held belief that Trump has been com­pro­mised by the Krem­lin — that he is quite lit­er­al­ly an agent” or an asset” being direct­ly manip­u­lat­ed by Putin.

This sen­sa­tion­al and evi­dence-less claim has long been thrown around, as when for­mer Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence James Clap­per (who once com­mit­ted per­jury to pro­tect the NSA from pub­lic scruti­ny) charged that Putin was han­dling Trump like an asset” because he had thanked him over the phone for a CIA tip-off about a poten­tial ter­ror­ist attack in Russia.

But the alle­ga­tion has increas­ing­ly made the rounds in respectable, main­stream opin­ion over the past week or so, from Stephen Colbert’s show to Chris Hayes’ pro­gram on MSNBC. Jonathan Chait has, in his col­umn for New York mag­a­zine, recent­ly advanced the idea that Trump has been an intel­li­gence asset for the Krem­lin since 1987, and that Putin installed” him in the White House after he rose to polit­i­cal pop­u­lar­i­ty in 2015.

Yet, these claims rarely deal with the actu­al actions tak­en by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, which have been marked­ly aggres­sive towards Rus­sia. The admin­is­tra­tion forced RT, the state-fund­ed Russ­ian news chan­nel, to reg­is­ter as a for­eign agent, which met retal­i­a­tion from the Krem­lin. It expelled more Russ­ian diplo­mats over the Skipral poi­son­ing than Oba­ma did in response to the alleged Krem­lin inter­fer­ence in the election.

Trump not only bombed Syr­ia, a Russ­ian ally, but shot down a Syr­i­an war­plane, lead­ing Rus­sia to issue a strict and wor­ry­ing threat to the US in response. Trump’s tar­iffs are huge­ly dam­ag­ing to Russ­ian trade — and inspired Rus­sia to respond tit for tat with its own tar­iffs. The admin­is­tra­tion has repeat­ed­ly widened anti-Russ­ian sanc­tions. Most alarm­ing­ly, Trump approved the send­ing of weapons to Ukraine, an esca­la­tion of the U.S. role in that con­flict that Oba­ma resist­ed for years, and which was cheered on by the Wash­ing­ton Post edi­to­r­i­al board.

It’s true that such sto­ries are also some­times paired with con­tra­dic­to­ry rhetoric from Trump, or even reports of reluc­tance from the pres­i­dent. But even if one grants the extra­or­di­nary idea that Trump is indeed com­pro­mised by Putin, this track record seems to sug­gest such com­pro­mise hasn’t had much of an impact.

Mean­while, the upcom­ing Trump-Putin sum­mit has been the sub­ject of much con­spir­a­ciz­ing. Yet the meet­ing is entire­ly rou­tine, giv­en that Rus­sia is a UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­ber and well-stocked nuclear pow­er, and that the two will dis­cuss reduc­ing their nuclear stock­piles. Trump, fur­ther­more, has tak­en much longer to have such a meet­ing than pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents: Bush and Oba­ma both met Putin with­in the first six months of their presidencies.

For all these rea­sons, diplo­mats on both sides say that rela­tions between the two coun­tries are low­er than they’ve ever been in recent mem­o­ry. Mean­while, Russ­ian jour­nal­ists are at best skep­ti­cal and at worst embar­rassed at the major­i­ty of cur­rent U.S. media cov­er­age involv­ing Rus­sia and Putin.

The reflex­ive need to cheer on the oppo­site of what­ev­er Trump is doing in any giv­en sit­u­a­tion, cou­pled with the all-encom­pass­ing nature of the obses­sion over Rus­si­a­gate,” has cre­at­ed a sti­fling media land­scape that leaves lit­tle-to-no room for voic­es crit­i­ciz­ing the increas­ing­ly aggres­sive pos­tur­ing toward Rus­sia by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and its Euro­pean allies. For much of the main­stream press, the spec­trum of per­mit­ted opin­ion seems to include only cheer­ing on mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia, or crit­i­ciz­ing Trump for not being suf­fi­cient­ly sup­port­ive of such a con­fronta­tion. To stop the world from hurtling towards a wor­ry­ing mil­i­tary stand­off, U.S. soci­ety must engage in rig­or­ous debate about pol­i­cy towards Rus­sia. But the media first must per­mit it to take place.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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