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.
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.