Donald Trump has not succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the US foreign policy and security establishment with his coarse rhetoric and oversimplified world views. On the record fifty prominent foreign policy and national security experts, many of whom worked under President George W. Bush have issued a public letter pledging not to vote for him. The roaster included heavy weights like former CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, Eric Edelman who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff — both Homeland Security Secretaries under President Bush, and Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state.
One particular issue that struck a chord among the geopolitical experts is when Donald Trump said that the U.S. would defend NATO countries “if they fulfilled their obligations to us [the United States].” Such a pay-for-play attitude regarding US commitments towards NATO, the alliance which has been the center piece of US security establishment over the last half a century, is simply mind boggling.
Let American Cowboys be the guide
On his way to Make America Great Again, Mr. Trump wants to portray strength, courage, and power. Therefore, my advice to him is that in international relations, don’t think like a businessman, please think like a cowboy, the ultimate symbol of American ethical courage and strength. Believe me!
The Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership lists ten core principles. Here they are: 1) Live each day with courage, 2) Take pride in your work, 3) Always finish what you start, 4) Do what has to be done, 5) Be tough, but fair, 6) When you make a promise, keep it, 7) Ride for the brand, 8) Talk less and say more, 9) Remember that some things aren’t for sale, and 10) Know where to draw the line.
Those exact principles may not be in the NATO charter, but they are at the heart of any alliance, especially the one trying to keep twenty eight independent states safer and in sync.
Mr. Trump, when the US makes a promise, we need to keep it. We need to ride for the brand NATO, and know where to draw the line. US promise is explicit in the Article 5 of NATO, which is “collective defense”. Riding for the brand means sticking together and keeping NATO united. The battle lines in NATO are clearly drawn, and NATO’s resolve with Russia has to be as straightforward, unequivocal as one of the cowboys in the original Magnificent Seven who said, “we deal in lead friend.” When one NATO member is attacked, the world’s most successful alliance must be ready to respond militarily, without questioning each other monetary commitments and abilities, as Mr. Trump may have hinted.
America must lead from the front a NATO with diverse objectives
Not that Russia is the only threat that give NATO relevance. NATO can be meaningful in counter-narcotic operations, resolving regional conflicts, terrorism, addressing climate change, and other modern threats, many of which are yet unforeseen. But if NATO has to go back to its founding mission, i.e., to confront the Russian agenda, so be it.
Meanwhile, the U.S. should do what it always does on the big international questions : lead from the front. Find ways to engage Russia — in space, in conflict zones, on the environment, and anywhere else Russia would warrant it.
The U.S. must be the bedrock NATO member with the unwavering commitment to the alliance towards peace and stability.
Mr. Trump, if you have been to the Bolshoi ballet, ridden the Trans-Siberian, or read Turgenev, you would know it is hard to bash Russia. The Russian culture, the history and the people are remarkable. However, the current day’s Russia is not the Russia we hoped for, nor what the Russian people deserve. But it is the Russia we have for now, and we have to learn how to live with. It’s not an option for NATO just to take the long view and wait for the next generation of Russian leadership to emerge. The present challenges are too real. Therefore, NATO has to be flexible, engaged, united and ready.
The specter of Soviet Union still hangs over Russia
It’s too bad the former Soviet Union constitutes so much of the current Russian government’s geopolitical DNA. The worldview of an encircled, embattled Russia aligns with an ideology that we had hoped was discredited and discarded.
Russia has real challenges and we have to acknowledge that some of Mr. Putin’s bombast, like those of Mr. Trump’s, are catered towards respective domestic consumption. That is why, deep down, I am still optimistic about Russia, even under Mr. Putin.
Yes, Russia faces population decline, economic stagnation, and rampant nationalism that its leaders use as a crutch to maintain social cohesion. But Russia has a talented, well-educated population, links to markets east and west, sophisticated space and manufacturing platforms, and a history of overcoming challenges, sometimes in huge revolutionary steps. I’ve seen the talent up close. American Embassies attract good local employees worldwide, so did we in Russia. In fact, the best, most humorous, and most talented local recruits I have ever met were the Russians, including one who holds a lifetime Moscow metro pass as a Chernobyl first responder.
Just as Mr. Trump has been a great recruiter for Democrats, energizing and bringing in Hispanics to the party, Mr. Putin has energized the NATO alliance, as member states and peripheral states are galvanized to meet an ambitious and expansionist Putin. However, that is not enough of a silver lining. What NATO wants is not a strong adversary with which to test its resolve and abilities. NATO states want a stable Europe and a Russia that contributes its talent to the global framework.
Upcoming American presidential election and NATO
Mr. Trump’s “rookie mistakes” on the foreign policy front may prompt NATO states into rethinking their contributions towards the alliance, but one would hope, it would not open up any second guessing as to the utility of “the world’s most successful alliance.”
International relations are like playing poker. No one sees all the cards around geopolitics, or regional politics for that matter. It is likely that the eventual outcomes of all the harsh and incoherent rhetoric coming out of the Trump camp will remain unknown for quite some time. As the cowboys say, “if you think you’ve seen the future, you ain’t been there”. But here is a guess. Current polls and statistical odds favor a Hillary Clinton Presidency. If that were to happen, NATO will be stronger, although some of the members may continue to be a bit wary of one another.
On the other hand, if Mr. Trump is elected, one would hope, the modern history of the United States, the Republican party, our allies, the press, and Trump’s own on-the-job experience would move him towards the center and back to our unconditional commitments towards NATO, perhaps with some new accounting on the margins.
What would be the Russia strategy? Whenever power is concentrated in the hands of a few, as is the case for Russia, our predictive abilities suffer, as we deal with many wildcards and fewer reliable partners. Russia will continue looking for seams in the NATO alliance under a Clinton presidency, capitalizing on the turmoil Trump has created, and make a concerted effort to weaken NATO, possibly with Trump complicity, if presented with a Trump administration.
I am a firm believer in the adage “democracies self-correct”. America has a loud, raucous and effective democracy, and our democratic traditions will likely move even Mr. Trump’s pendulum back to the center and towards a strong NATO, if he is elected President.