Former NATO Official: Trump's Comments Offer an Opportunity

By Vivienne Machi
Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow

Photo: NATO

The former second in command at NATO said Dec. 20 that the questions raised by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump regarding the alliance are "an opportunity, not a threat" to reduce the gap in burden-sharing among the organization's members.

There remains some anxiety in Brussels, where the alliance is headquartered, as to what a new administration and a new Congress may do with NATO funding, said Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at a breakfast with reporters in Washington, D.C. Vershbow retired as NATO deputy secretary general in October after four years.  

Trump caused a ripple among foreign policy and defense experts this summer, when as a presidential candidate he suggested in an article by the New York Times that the United States should only defend its Baltic allies against a Russian invasion if those countries "fulfilled their obligations to us." He has since clarified that he supports NATO, but his comments have led many to question how much his administration might continue to contribute to the alliance.

In 2014, member-nations agreed to set a goal of dedicating 2 percent of country GDP to defense spending. Currently only five countries achieve that goal: The United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece and Poland. 

Vershbow called the 2 percent of GDP spending target "the minimum" of what should be invested to achieve the alliance's readiness goals. A second target, that 20 percent of defense spending be dedicated to research and development and acquisition, has been met by more countries, he noted. 

"I think if the new administration continues to push in this direction, they could probably get our allies to do better," he said.

While spending levels could be uneven among the member-nations, with the United States bearing the brunt of the burden, many allies are stepping up where it counts, he said.

There is a consensus among all of the NATO heads of state to increase troops' presence on the eastern flank of Europe, where Russia has become increasingly aggressive toward the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, he noted.

"This is a case where the U.S. can be quite pleased at the level of burden-sharing on behalf of the Europeans," he said. The United Kingdom, Germany and Canada agreed to be the lead nations for battalions in the Baltic region, and other countries are stepping up to complement and reinforce those battalions, he added. 

"Others have made pledges to beef up the southern flank, the brigade headquarters in Romania, and enhance Naval activities in the Black Sea, so allies are doing their part here," he continued. "I think they have good reason to say, 'we're doing our part, and we hope the U.S. will continue its part,'" he said. 

In the meantime, European allies are awaiting his cabinet confirmation hearings — particularly his picks for secretary of defense, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, and secretary of state, ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, Vershbow said. They are also waiting to see what defense spending levels will be like under the new Congress, he added.

Allies should find Trump's pick for defense secretary reassuring, Vershbow said. Gen. Mattis formerly served as NATO's supreme allied commander transformation. 

"I think that experience, as well as his combat experience — again, with NATO in Afghanistan — is probably seen as an encouraging sign by allies, as somebody who knows NATO," he said. "He knows … when NATO takes a decision and sets goals for itself, allies have generally stayed the course."

The organization's mission sets have evolved over the past two decades, he said. The number of U.S. troops stationed in Europe has been "substantially reduced" since 9/11, when the alliance reoriented toward a more expeditionary operational mission set.

Even with recent decisions to boost troop numbers in areas like Poland to deter Russian aggression, "there will still be less than half of the numbers there were in 1997," he said.

NATO is working to rebuild its capability for collective defense and rapid reinforcement since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, while remaining ready for expeditionary operations such as Afghanistan, he noted.

"We need more forces, heavier forces, still need greater deployability, higher readiness, ability to move at a shorter notice, all of which costs money," he said.

Vershbow noted that there is always a "burst of creativity" at the beginning of a new U.S. administration that seems to rub off on the alliance. 

"Early stages of U.S. administrations are often good opportunities for NATO to take the next big steps in its own transformation and adaptation," he said.

Topics: International, Defense Department, Global Defense Market

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.