Trump’s actions have bostered NATO, checked Russia
By F. CHARLES PARKER IV | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: December 1, 2017
The general story line of President Donald Trump’s approach to Europe I get from watching mainstream media has two central threads. The first is that the president is reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. The second is that he has long had little use for NATO and freely gave a tongue lashing to NATO allies for failing to meet an agreed spending target of 2 percent of GDP on defense, while refusing to support explicitly Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In fact, the actions of the administration speak volumes in terms of increased U.S. commitment to the alliance and, in turn, a reassertion of U.S. leadership.
In October 2013 the Obama administration withdrew the last U.S. heavy forces from Europe. The backdrop to this was a steady decline in U.S. overall defense spending (going from well over 5 percent of GDP in 2008 to around 3.6 percent in 2016). Although the Obama administration pressed NATO allies to increase defense spending to meet the 2 percent of GDP target, the clear signal of declining U.S. commitment reduced U.S. ability to exercise leadership of the alliance.
When Putin began his Crimean adventure in early 2014, he was aware that there was no U.S. armor in Europe. He knew that NATO works when the U.S. leads. Without U.S. armor, there could be no meaningful NATO ground response to the Crimean annexation or the Russian-led violence in eastern Ukraine. One option at the time could have been to generate a large NATO training exercise, including armor, in Poland. However, without American participation, allies would not contribute heavy forces to an operation the Russians would surely consider provocative.
This is not to argue that such an exercise would have been the best option. The point is that it was not an option and Putin knew it. Not having the capability to make it an option influenced the strategic situation to NATO’s disadvantage.
The Russian annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine forced the Obama administration to react. In what was supposed to be a one-year, one-billion-dollar action, the administration’s 2015 budget included nearly $1 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). The investment was for, among other things, U.S. presence and prepositioned equipment. The U.S. Army began periodic rotations of armored and airborne brigades. In 2016 the administration’s 2017 budget request was for $3.4 billion for ERI and provided for a rotational armored brigade to be on the ground in Europe continuously. In the summer of 2016, two years too late, NATO conducted a large training exercise in Poland with substantial U.S. participation.
Given the several days of media coverage decrying Trump’s “refusal” to endorse Article 5 during his first meeting at NATO, the continuation of ERI seemed in doubt. But buried under the press coverage was the Trump administration’s defense budget request for 2018 that increased funding for ERI to $4.8 billion that maintained a commitment to a permanent rotational presence throughout Europe to include “continuous head-to-toe presence of a U.S. Armored Brigade Combat Team” (ABCT). It also deferred ongoing footprint reductions. The request increased ERI funds for the Army from $1.06 billion in the 2017 budget to $1.72 billion in 2018. This included building a division-sized set of prepositioned equipment that included two modernized ABCTs.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noticed the budget during Trump’s famous NATO meeting in which he is supposed to have refused to support Article 5. The secretary-general, in response to a question about Trump and Article 5, said the U.S. budget increases funding for U.S. military presence by 40 percent. He noted that after many years of decline we now see for the first time in many years an increase, “so this is a commitment to our collective defense from the United States not only in words but also in deeds.”
Picking up on the theme of deeds over words, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a July 2017 speech in Germany that the Trump administration had reaffirmed the importance of the alliance and had committed $4.8 billion in the 2018 defense budget to expand ERI. He said: “Beyond any words in the newspapers, you can judge America by such actions.”
Trump continued on July 6 in Poland and said: “I would point out the United States demonstrated, not merely with words, but with its actions, that we stand behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment.”
In August 2017, the administration signaled the increased importance of NATO by appointing a prestigious new ambassador, former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, well respected on both sides of the aisle. The administration sent an additional message not to be lost by the Russians by renaming ERI the European Deterrence Initiative.
Recently the House version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act called for $4.6 billion to be shifted from contingency accounts and dedicated to deterring Russia in Europe. The bill calls for consideration of investments in increased permanently stationed and continued rotational forces. An Army War College study that got some press during the summer of 2017 concluded that permanent stationing is cheaper over the long term than rotational deployments. Permanent stationing sends a far stronger message of commitment than rotational. Raising the prospect of more permanent stationing is a signal that Putin will have understood.
It is true that Trump appears reluctant to verbally assault Putin. It is also true that his administration has not hesitated to take very real actions that increase the U.S. commitment to NATO, increase U.S. ability to lead the alliance and build a very real deterrent to further Russian military aggression in Europe.
F. Charles Parker IV is a retired Army colonel who lives in Belgium. He was the head of Arms Control Coordination on the International Staff at NATO for 16 years and is the author of “Vietnam: Strategy for a Stalemate.”