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"Trump does not believe in NATO, he has even sought to divide it"

Discussion between Nicholas Burns and Soli Özel

INTERVIEW - 4 April 2019

This week, NATO will celebrate its 70th anniversary in Washington, DC. The turbulence in transatlantic relations, Washington’s recurrent claim that the European allies do not carry their fair share of the burden, and the leaked news according to which President Trump was considering withdrawing the United States from the Alliance, intensified the concerns about the future of NATO. The European Union is taking steps to bolster its “strategic autonomy”, in order to prepare for the day the guarantee of the American security umbrella might disappear.
 
The American President has the power to make the decision to withdraw, but neither the US Congress nor the American public support such a move. Many observers argue that Trump’s shake-up, combined with deteriorating relations with Russia and developments in Ukraine sharpen NATO’s resolve. The Europeans are spending more on defense, combat ready battalions have been deployed in Baltic countries and in Poland, the deployment of additional US troops has been pledged by Washington, and two new commands have been established to enhance the security of maritime connections between North America and Europe, as well as to improve the mobility of forces within Europe.
 
To discuss the future of the Alliance, Soli Özel, Institut Montaigne’s Visiting Fellow in international relations met with former US Permanent Representative to NATO, Nicholas Burns, who recently co-authored a report entitled
NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis with Ambassador Douglas Lute. The authors highlight the absence of American leadership as one of the main causes of NATO’s current troubles, and identify 10 challenges for the future that need to be addressed. It is interesting that one of the challenges they identify and see as detrimental to the health and coherence of the organization is the rising number of member states that experience difficulty in "upholding NATO’s democratic values." 

SOLI ÖZEL

Good morning Ambassador Burns, thank you for taking the time to tell me about your recent report, NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis. This report that you, as a former US Ambassador to NATO co-authored with another former US Ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, is very timely. It includes, in addition to the usual articles of faith about the purpose and importance of the organization, a number of significant suggestions. You are highly critical of the Trump administration and the way it deals with the organization. You put your faith in Congress and the American public. Do you think Congress can really make up for the absence of the Executive? And how long will the American public continue to support NATO?

NICHOLAS BURNS

First, I don’t think that Congress could completely make up for the Executive. There is nothing to replace the words and actions of the President of the United States in our system. Yet Congress can still play a useful role. It is worth noting that our President does not believe in NATO: he has not led NATO, he has sought to divide NATO, and he did not stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is the first American President in 70 years who isn’t a strong leader of NATO.

This is the first American President in 70 years who isn’t a strong leader of NATO.

Congress, on the other hand, has remained completely united— both Democrats and Republicans— in its support to NATO. It has the ability to block the Executive, and that to assert strong and independent positions, which it did on the topic of NATO. Congress passed resolutions supporting America’s commitment to Article 5, and to sanction Russia for its interference in our elections, the latter being opposed to the President’s wishes.

SOLI ÖZEL

You also write about Congress’s power of appropriation.

NICHOLAS BURNS

This is correct. Congress has control over appropriations. Congress can challenge the President and try to maintain his commitment to established policies in support of NATO. It is also remarkable to see recent public opinion polls that show the public’s high levels of support to NATO. Why is that? I think NATO is seen by a vast majority - 65% according to one poll - to be the vehicle that unites us with our closest democratic allies.
 
Second, there is a strong perception in the United States that Putin has been actively, and even aggressively, opposing the United States. By meddling in our elections, or launching cyber campaigns, for instance. The public knows what Russia did in Georgia and in Ukraine, it is aware of the threat Russia poses to the Baltic states. Russia is still perceived by the American public as an aggressor that needs to be contained. NATO is the only vehicle to do that.

SOLI ÖZEL

The United States’ resources are more limited today than they were before. I am not speaking from a "declinist" point of view. The challenge coming from Asia is far more important for the future than the European challenges that gave shape to NATO in the first place. How would you maintain strong relations with the United States’ allies, and transform them to form a Western block able to face these new challenges? Speaking of, is there still such a thing as a "Western Block"? This is part of the debate as well, isn’t it?

NICHOLAS BURNS

It is evident that, in the next three or four decades, the single greatest challenge will be limiting China’s ambitions in East Asia and in the Indian Ocean. President Obama was right to say, back in 2011, that we need to rebalance toward Asia. Having said that, the United States is a global power. We cannot just focus on one task. We have to undertake many. Maintaining our commitment to NATO is vital for us. Europe is still our largest trading partner. Europe is the largest investor in our economy. Europe has the largest number of American allies in the world. So it is not as if the United States could only work in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific—we have to be active in both regions. I think that NATO is going to be a priority for Congress and the American public in the next 10-15 years.

Having said that, we ask of European allies that they assume more responsibility. The key country is Germany, which has a weak military force, and which spends only 1.2% of its GDP in defense. So it is likely that Republicans and Democrats alike will significantly pressure their European allies to raise their defense budgets and to share more of the responsibility with us.

Europe is still our largest trading partner. Europe is the largest investor in our economy.

You’re asking me whether there is still a "West". There is. It is a set of ideas, of democratic beliefs. The West encompasses Japan and India. The problem with the West right now, is that it has no leader. And if you and I had had this conversation anytime between 1945 and now we would have said that Truman is the leader of the West, or that Kennedy or Reagan is the leader of the West. Trump is not the leader of the West. He rejects that role.

SOLI ÖZEL

This is a point you particularly emphasize in your report.

NICHOLAS BURNS

Merkel is the leader of the West, albeit temporarily. Merkel’s government may not spend enough on defense, but it upholds core values, for instance by stopping Putin and imposing sanctions after Crimea. And until an American President comes along and says, "I believe in democracy and our values" and takes on the mantle, Merkel will continue to occupy that position. 

SOLI ÖZEL

You say in the report that "the West is an amalgam of ideas, values and principles", but you concede the fact that the latter are regressing. Both among members - and you cite countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, asserting that they are dangerously backsliding - and in the United States. Indeed, in the United States, some things were taken for granted, in a liberal democratic order that can no longer be as secure. So you recommend that NATO, which cannot expel its members, issue a yearly report on the state of democracy in each member country, so as to put moral pressure on members. Is this a tenable position? Especially given the fact that member countries from different regions do not necessarily agree on what counts as the fundamental challenges?

NICHOLAS BURNS

All of us signed the Washington Treaty. Soon, there will be 30 of us, when North Macedonia joins the Alliance. The Washington Treaty is very specific. Its second sentence says: "(The parties) are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law". We’ve had authoritarian experiences in the past , like the Greek colonels in 1967-74, Turkish military dictatorships, or Portuguese dictatorships, but we’ve never had a time when three very important governments have turned authoritarian. This situation is weakening the Alliance from within. NATO does not have a procedure to expel such members, but it should develop a process to judge all members yearly, based on democratic criteria. If we don’t do that, the weakened democratic core of NATO will be very dangerous. This is what we propose in the report.

If we don’t do that, the weakened democratic core of NATO will be very dangerous.

There are very few takers though. Ambassador Lute and I interviewed more than 60 European and American leaders. Most of them said: "hey, you're right, but this would weaken the Alliance militarily." To which we responded: "but doing nothing will weaken it politically. We have to do something."

SOLI ÖZEL

To the best of my recollection, you were one of the first voices to issue warnings about Brexit, to caution the British elite about the referendum before the vote was taken. Your advice was not heeded. Neither was President Obama’s. We are speaking on the 13th of March, so we have exactly 16 days before the clock stops, and Britain seems to be in a perfect mess. What are the implications of a "no deal" or "with a deal" Brexit for the Western alliance?

NICHOLAS BURNS

If we were sitting here 10 years ago and having a similar conversation, we would have said that the two strongest and most sustainable and solid democracies in the West are probably Britain and the United States. Both are now undergoing existential crises. The US, because of Trumpism, and the UK, because of Brexit. Frankly, the Prime Minister failed. She should resign and a new government, or even a national unity coalition, should form. This really is an existential crisis. Britain should take an extension and think this matter through. Perhaps there will be a new election. That might lead to a second referendum, which many are asking for. My hope is that Britain will remain in the EU.   
 
I understand those who say: "how can we tell those 52% who voted to leave that we are sorry, but that we do not like their decision?" Another way of looking at this is that in June 2016, the British people were not in a position to fully understand the implications of the decision. Now, they can see the terrible implications for the health and future of their country and its future generations. This is the reason why I think there should be a second vote. 

SOLI ÖZEL

Finally, Russia. You suggest in your report that there is no hope for better relations between NATO and Russia, so long as the Putin generation is in power. And you say "this decade and beyond." Is there really no way for the West and Russia to find a modus operandi? Does diplomacy have no other option than sitting it out or toughening up? 

NICHOLAS BURNS

There are diplomatic options. We have to keep our lines open to Moscow. Because there are problems such as Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, counterterrorism, narcotics and INF. There are many issues we should discuss with them.

SOLI ÖZEL

You talk about the INF Treaty, but the US withdrew from the INF treaty.

NICHOLAS BURNS

Yes, we did. Putin broke, violated the terms of the 1987 agreement. So, Putin was the aggressor. The US made a tactical mistake in leaving first. That is what we argue in the report. So we - Ankara, Paris, and Washington - have to keep our lines open to Moscow. But on the big issues, such as the future of Eastern Europe, the future of NATO, whether or not the people of Eastern Europe should fear future Russian adventurism, we are facing several problems.

There are over 100 million people in the former Warsaw Pact countries, and their security depends on us adopting strong positions to contain Putin.

This generation of Russian rulers—Putin, Lavrov and others— were trained as Soviet leaders. They will never accept the full independence of Estonia or Latvia. This is what we mean by the Soviet-trained generation. Until they literally leave the Kremlin and some younger people who were not trained to be bitter about the collapse of the Soviet Union finally lead Russia, our policy should be to contain Russia in Eastern Europe. There are over 100 million people in the former Warsaw Pact countries, and their security depends on us adopting strong positions to contain Putin.

SOLI ÖZEL

It seems to me that the Trump administration is working with NATO members in the same way that Secretary Rumsfeld did during the build-up to the Iraq War, i.e. based on a divide between the Old and New Europe. Why? What do they expect to gain from it?

NICHOLAS BURNS

I recognize this as someone who was there. This is a really interesting, important issue. I don’t think the Trump administration is working along the same lines as Secretary Rumsfeld and the Bush 43 administration did. We saw the Eastern Europeans, back in 2003, as more supportive of the Iraq War than the Western Europeans. This is what led Rumsfeld to make the famous distinction between Old Europe and New Europe. Trump’s categorization is very different. Trump is siding with the anti-democratic populists in Hungary and Poland, and with Salvini in Italy, against the true democratic leaders, such as Macron, Merkel, May, and Trudeau. It is very different from the Rumsfeld divide between the Old and New Europe. This is about Trump supporting anti-democratic leaders. And that is truly against NATO’s interests.

SOLI ÖZEL

Ambassador Burns, thank you for your time and for sharing your views with us.

 

Copyright : BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP

 

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