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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

NATO, the US & an Awkward Pause

A turbulent relationship is about to have a bad year.


According to Henry Kissinger, the one time he met Harry Truman the former president told him, “If a president knows what he wants, no bureaucrat can stop him. The president has to know when to stop taking advice.” Which, if we’re going to be honest, doesn’t bode well for either of the geriatric gas-bags currently pumping for the position. Biden clearly takes too much advice, and Trump not enough.

If you hang on long enough through President Biden’s exercises in windy, interactive fiction, the man will – eventually – get to some simple statement like “America backs you 100%.” But good luck defining just who he’s talking about or how he plans on paying for it.

Trump, on the other hand, is also tricky to figure out despite his infantile bluntness. Last Saturday, he started caterwauling at a rally about NATO freeloaders that ended up with the man encouraging Vladimir Putin to invade any NATO ally that isn’t paying its way. It’s entirely possible that NATO could be Trump ’24 “Mexican Wall” reboot where he gets the crowd joyously indignant by hectoring foreign freeloaders. Just something to say; like a romantic Valentine’s promise you have no intention of keeping. Ahhh, who among us…?

Whether Trump is serious or not hardly matters because by sowing doubt about NATO’s resolve he is inviting rivals to test the alliance’s strength. He is inviting conflict at a moment when conflict is the go-to. Understand that Congress can stop the president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO, but what it cannot do is stop the commander-in-chief from withdrawing troops from Europe. Nor can Congress force the president to honor NATO’s Article Five: the “An attack on one is an attack on all” clause, and practically, the only clause that matters.

For Trump this isn’t a matter of budget; he is perfectly capable and willing to spend the money. It’s a matter of responsibility; he doesn’t want any obligation that he can’t dominate. He does dominate the US House, currently doing its best to put NATO on its back feet. This is ill-advised. The aid package contains about $60bn for Ukraine. Some $20bn is simply to replenish US stockpiles drawn down from earlier deliveries of kit; $13.8bn for Ukraine to buy US munitions – call it store credit for the US arms manufacturers; and $7.85bn to sustain the Ukrainian government. Save that last bit, most of the money that we are “giving” to Ukraine is actually going into the US economy. Without aid, the 4717 reckons that the Russian will be in Kyiv in the summer of 2025.

That doesn’t mean that the Ukrainians will go down peacefully – this has another Afghanistan written all over it. It will destabilize Europe at precisely the time we need allies to contain China economically. And markets, not the military, is what won the Cold War.

All of which is coming at a tricky time for Kyiv, which is running out of munitions. Other issues are beyond NATO help, like simple manpower and that shake-up in the top ranks of the military. On the bright side, Ukraine has largely dominated the Battle of the Black Sea and was thought to be the world’s number two navy – without having a navy itself. No mean feat.

For its part, Russian is using the old-school manpower tactic of emptying out is prisons for forced labor to build entrenchments overnight with an option to shoot anyone not giving 100% for Mother Russia. A tad vulgar, but you can’t argue with the results.


And markets, not the military, is what won the Cold War.


Ukraine, though, isn’t about Ukraine anymore. Estonian intelligence has warned that Russia is drawing up plans for a wider war with NATO within the decade – including doubling the number of troops along its borders with Finland, Estonia & Latvia. The Estonians – being on the front line as they are – may very well be alarmists, but how many alarm bells do we need after the war has started?  As if to confirm the intel, the Russian Interior ministry brought charges against Estonia’s Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, for pushing to have Soviet-era monuments to the Red Army removed. Moscow called it “desecrating a historical memory” and, well, you’re damned right it was.

Besides, the Baltic States were where the Pentagon thought Moscow was going to invade and we had pretty much decided they tried, it would be fait accompli Moscow would have been able to achieve in three days, before NATO forces could have practically done much about it.

The question is “how much spare capacity in munition and manpower has Russia actually got?” Unfortunately, plenty. The country technically hasn’t mobilized, but it has all the cannon-fodder it will ever need. Moscow is currently spending about $4bn in Iran for drones, as well as kit from North Korean, and parts from China (that’s where they learned how to make a hyper-sonic glider.) Unlike the US, Russia only buying arms while it ramps up domestic production – and it’s getting there – which does suggest a wider war is at least being planned.


…adult children who live with their parents, sulking and complaining but assuming that someone else will do the laundry


The maddening thing about Trump is that while his weird invitation for Russia to invade are the words of a man unhinged, he also has something of a point. NATO has been getting a free ride under the US security umbrella which is the only thing keeping Putin from picking off the Baltic states and dominating Europe. As Richard Vinen – a British writer – recently put it recently in Unherd: “Our [Europe’s] relationship with the United States has, in the last few decades, become an unhealthy one. We are like adult children who live with their parents, sulking and complaining but assuming that someone else will do the laundry. If Trump wins it will feel as if Dad has had a sex change and Mum has shacked up with a member of the Hell’s Angels. Perhaps we will finally decide it is time to get a flat of our own.”

Every US president for a generation has complained about Europes lackluster approach to self-defense, but it was Putin who lit the fire under their feet. European defense spending started to tick up in 2015, the year after the Russian “grey” invasion of Ukraine. But only just. Trump had a fair point when, in 2017, still only four of 29 NATO members hit their 2% GDP military spending obligations. By 2020 that number had risen to nine, and has has continued to climb; in 2023, 11 members had hit the target and this year it looks like more that 16 will (although new members Finland and Sweden already were). Europe would do well to up that number to 3%, closer to the 3.5% the US spends. This might keep the US in the alliances through a critical time, and if not, they’ll wish they’d spent more if Russia decides to tear the place up.


In reality, though, there was always some more to NATO that the dues. If not, why didn’t cut and run in the nineties? Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, said that the entire purpose of the club was less “collective security” which the US didn’t need, and more to “Keep Russia out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

So with the America sniffing about getting out, and Russia sniffing about coming back in, Europe must act fast to deter Russia – faster and with more coordination than it did in the 1930’s to deter Nazi Germany. Europe hasn’t had to modernize at scale since World War II – for the allies to reach anything like what is needed, they need to pool resources and integrate defenses; that includes its two nuclear powers: Britain and France. Despite its reputation as “cheese eating surrender monkeys” France’s army has been preparing for a “degraded” conflict, which relies less on hi-tech satellites that Moscow plans to shoot out of the air. Ironically, this puts France as the more prepared for the likely war to come than the Brits.

Of course there is no good way to tell what Putin is thinking about this. Like Stalin before him, it’s is doubtful that the man has the mental framework to process an alliance for the “collective security.”  He simply can’t understand a voluntary legal and moral framework. Trump has retranslated the alliance from the common good into a protection racket - “if you don’t pay for protection, you don’t get any” – a concept he fully understands. Which shouldn’t be taken as a Trump greenlight to Putin. The “grey” invasion started under Obama, it was Trump who started arming Ukraine, and the full-tilt invasion came under Biden. Draw whatever conclusions you want from that time-line.

No matter who wins the White House, or what they think of NATO, the best thing that Europe can do is turn itself into a colossal, stand-alone headache for the Kremlin. But alliances go both ways, so if the US leaves Europe to its fate, the region will have no incentive to help Washington contain China.


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