Donald Trump toys with NATO defense pact — the one that rallied around America after 9/11

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A core NATO principle is the concept of collective defense, as defined by Article 5 of the 1949 treaty establishing the alliance. The provision is simple: An attack on one is an attack on all.

This mutual defense pact has made NATO the most successful military alliance in history. It held back the Soviet menace during the Cold War and deterred aggression against (or within) Europe after two catastrophic world wars. In seven decades, Article 5 has been invoked only once: on America’s behalf after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

That’s why it was so disconcerting to hear President Donald Trump, while attending a NATO summit in London this week, flirt with ignoring Article 5 simply because a member nation doesn’t spend enough money on its military.

Article 5 could be existential lifeline 

It’s a very interesting question, isn’t it?” Trump said, responding to a reporter’s query about pledging to follow the NATO treaty in the event of an attack.

He later clarified that he wasn’t signaling anything, but Trump’s words still had to be music to Vladimir Putin’s ears. The Russian leader ordered his military to seize Crimea from Ukraine (not a NATO member) in 2014 and has sponsored a clandestine civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region ever since. Putin’s military jets and warships play havoc with those of Baltic NATO members. And he has stoked fear by forwardly deploying nuclear-capable attack missiles.

For NATO members such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Article 5 is an existential lifeline.

OPPOSING VIEW:NATO allies just want the United States to subsidize defense

Trump’s one-note NATO policy since even before he took office — he hammered this issue all week and again on Wednesday — is that members need to “pay up.” By that he means meet their pledge to spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense. Not surprisingly, most of the nine NATO members in compliance are among those closest to Russia.

Trump is right to push for greater financial commitment from NATO members, and he can rightly claim their increased defense spending as a foreign policy achievement. But he takes it a step too far when he mischaracterizes the expenditures as money for the United States. “They actually, in theory, owe us that money,” Trump said Tuesday. Actually, these nations are only pledging to spend more on their own defense.

‘Brain death of NATO’

NATO leaders are starting to push back. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a meeting with Trump, argued that his nation has “consistently stepped up (and) sent our troops into harm’s way.” And French President Emmanuel Macron said that Trump’s monotonous message, along with his gyrating policies in Syria, have resulted in “the brain death of NATO.”

Trump’s response this week was to call Trudeau “two-faced” and Macron “nasty,” before blowing off a final news conference Wednesday for all the leaders and going home. 

So much for leadership and unity.

NATO has provided Europe decades of political and economic stability. The achievement comes at rock-bottom prices compared with cost of wars.

Trifling with the alliance’s core principle of collective defense only makes matters worse. If 20th century history teaches anything, it’s that conflicts in Europe inevitably pull in the United States.

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