For almost 70 years, Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty has been the cornerstone of American national security policy. It requires the United States and fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — now numbering 28 — to come to each other’s mutual defense should any of them be attacked.
That provision helped to contain Soviet aggression through the Cold War years. It was invoked after our country was attacked on Sept. 11 and after ISIS struck at targets in France, and it remains critical today in warding off the territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin and Russia.
No international commitment has been more important, and Donald Trump is now prepared to throw it all away.
In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, Trump said that as president he might choose not to honor Article Five if Russian troops invaded NATO allies such as Estonia, Latvia and other European states. It would depend, he said, on whether he thought those countries had earned U.S. protection by keeping up their end of the bargain.
That’s an earth-shaking statement, with immense ramifications that Trump lacks the knowledge or curiosity to appreciate.
Imagine yourself today in Estonia, Latvia, Poland or other democracies emerging from decades of Soviet control. You’ve linked your fate to the West and the United States, counting on your NATO membership to save you from getting swallowed back up into the Russian maw, and now you’re told that the United States might — or might not — come to your aid when the crucial moment comes.
Are you now confident of American support? Or do you now look again at your proximity to Russia, at the size of your armed forces compared to those of Putin, and begin to think that maybe the Americans aren’t the stalwart friend that you thought they were, that maybe you should start being nicer to good old Vlad?
Part of this isn’t new. In earlier statements, Trump has lauded Putin (“I like him because he called me a genius. He said Trump is the real leader”) and said that he wanted to pursue the “easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia,” which sounds remarkably like the “reset button” that Republicans condemn Hillary Clinton for attempting. And in setting the 2016 Republican platform, Trump officials also insisted on the removal of a provision that called for shipping lethal arms to Ukraine, which is already trying to fight off Russian expansion.
In the Times interview, Trump called into question our commitment to Asia as well, suggesting a withdrawal even in the face of an expansionist China. “If we decide we have to defend the United States, we can always deploy” from American soil, Trump said, “and it will be a lot less expensive.”
And no, he said, as president he would not pressure Turkish leader Recep Erdogan to honor democratic values and the rule of law in cracking down on his opposition. “When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger,” Trump said.
Try to imagine the Republican outcry if Barack Obama had suggested abandoning our allies in the face of Russian invasion, or if he had said that the United States is such a bad role model that it lacks the standing to advance democratic values among its friends.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com