July 12, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Ambassador Ivo Daalder on NATO, Russia, and President Trump

As the NATO summit took place in Brussels, former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder joined this week's Deep Dish podcast to discuss President Trump's relationship with the alliance and his upcoming summit with Russian Vladimir Putin.

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This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. Today we're broadcasting on Facebook Live, so I welcome our audience who is watching as well as listening. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about the NATO summit that's currently going on as well as President Trump's upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. I'm joined by ambassador Ivo Daalder, who is the President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and also the co-author of an upcoming book on U.S. foreign policy called "The Empty Throne."

Welcome, Ivo, it's good to have you here.

Ivo Daalder: Glad to be back.

Brian Hanson: So, the frame for today is we've got a NATO summit that is getting started and will happen here today and tomorrow and then on Monday, President Trump travels to Helsinki to meet with President Putin and President Trump started off the summit with fireworks as people thought that he might really harsh talk about our allies in NATO. In one of his tweets he said, "Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2%, which is low, but they're also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the United States?" So, he's laid out a really hard challenge about the costs of defense and what our allies should be doing. How should we read this? Is he accurate?

Ivo Daalder: So, a couple of things in that. First, the President has really reduced NATO to an accounting exercise and the question of the value of NATO is on how much, what country is spending on defense. But NATO isn't an accounting exercise. It's not even a country club. It's a security alliance in which we, as an ally, pledge to defend other allies and the only time that security alliance actually had to operationalize itself was on September 11, 2001 when, for the first and only time in its 69-year history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization decided to invoke what's called Article Five, that an attack against one is an attack against all and that's what it did after the attack on the U.S. World Trade Center and the Pentagon by terrorists trained from and coming from Afghanistan.

And, as a result of that attack, NATO first invoked Article Five and then, for the last 17 years, has been part and parcel of a response to that attack in Afghanistan in which tens, hundreds of thousands of NATO soldiers over the last 17 years have been deployed to provide security and protection, not for themselves in the first instance, but for the United States. And, indeed, hundreds, thousands of NATO countries have suffered casualties and deaths as a result of that conflict. That's what NATO is about, not some accounting exercise.

Brian Hanson: But in the accounting exercise, though, one of the other things NATO provides is deterrents. And I worked in the Senate back in the 1980s and we talked about burden sharing and are the allies doing enough to contribute to the defense. The Obama Administration, of course, was the administration that negotiated the 2% goal for NATO allies to contribute to defense. Does President Trump have a legitimate point, inside all of this rhetoric, is there a legitimate point about allies contributing to their defense?

Ivo Daalder: Yeah, there's a legitimate point that, by the way, every President since Harry Truman in 1952 has made, which is that Europe needs to contribute more to its defense. And, in 2014, after a long period of cuts in defense spending by Europeans in part because of the economic crisis, but really because the threat directly to Europe's security had declined significantly with the end of the Soviet Union and, indeed, the decline of Russia as a major power. 2014 changed all that. That's when Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and as a result of a push by the United States and a couple of other allies, there was an agreement reached that said two things. Those allies who spend 2% of GDP on defense should continue to do so and those who don't should move towards that 2% target within a decade, that is, 2024 and indeed in the last four years, non-U.S. NATO defense spending has gone up every single year for a total of $87 billion in increased money.

President Trump has made a big deal about this and he's right to make a big deal about it. But, he should also celebrate what has already happened and that's an important part of what this alliance should be doing in Brussels. Yes, remind people, let's stick to the agreement that we reached and, indeed, they have now reaffirmed that commitment in Brussels, but also let's push NATO forward in all variety of other ways in which the alliance is strong.

Brian Hanson: So, just to push one more piece on this. I mean, many people in the Trump Administration say, "This approach is actually working." I mean, even the Secretary General to NATO said that last year saw the biggest increase in defense spending across Europe and Canada in 25 years. Since the beginning of 2017 there are more, three times more allies who are on track to meet the 2024 deadline up from five to 16 of the NATO allies. This is messy, this is ugly, but is it working?

Ivo Daalder: Yes, there is an increase in defense spending and President Trump is one of three reasons why. The first and most important reason why is because Russia now poses a security threat. The increases started in 2014 well before Donald Trump even thought about running for President, let alone being President and those increases have gone each and every year. The second reason is European economies have recovered, so there is more money available to spend on defense. When you don't have to take care of unemployment in the same way that you used to, you can find new revenue sources for defense and then the third is that the United States has made very clear, it's important to the United States that you do this and because allies want to be good allies because they want the United States to be on their side if it ever were to be the case that they were attacked, they're going to spend more on defense. And the Secretary General, who is of course interested in a successful summit is going to give Donald Trump all the credit that he would like to have on this issue.

But, let me add one piece which I think is important because the President keeps saying, as you said in the tweet, not only that the allies are delinquent, which they're not, but that they owe the United States vast sums of money, which they don't. And just to put that to rest, each country determines for itself how much and where and on what it's going to spend for defense. We determine on the basis of our security requirements in Europe, in Asia, at sea, in the air, in space, wherever we want to spend our defense dollars and that's what the Germans do, and that's what the Estonians do, and it's what the Norwegians do. Yes, it should get to 2% of GDP, but it's a national decision. If you don't in fact increase it by as much as the U.S. thinks you should increase it, it doesn't mean that we, the United States, pay more.

It's not like there's a kitty that needs to be filled and if someone doesn't fill it, somebody else does. It's just that you don't have the same capabilities you otherwise would. That's not necessarily good for the overall security, but the idea that the United States needs to pay less when the Europeans pay more, is just wrong. We're paying what we need to pay for our security, just as the Germans in defining their security will pay what they need to pay. There's no delinquency here. There's nothing to be owed to the United States. It's a question of mutual commitments to each other of which spending as well as defense are opposite sides of the same coin.

Brian Hanson: And is there a downside to President Trump making such a big deal of this issue in the context of the summit?

Ivo Daalder: The downside is that it's dividing the alliance and a divided alliance is a weaker alliance, particularly when you want to confront Russia with a strong, united stance, to say, "Don't even try anything with regard to our security or our territorial integrity or political independence," so if you keep on pushing on this area, even raise the stakes, as the President did and said, "It's not 2%, let's make it 4%," which is more than the United States pays as a percentage of GDP on defense, it just ... it's divisive. It will be regarded as not particularly useful to having a strong united alliance. Our ability to do what we need to do to deter Russia to meet the security challenges we have around the world is strengthened if we're united with our allies and it's weakened if we're divided.

Brian Hanson: So, let me push on this a little bit. How much does the division really matter, because you laid out a scenario where Russia's aggressive action in the Ukraine, Crimea, resulted in mobilization of defense spending in Europe? So, if the alliance is really against security threats, yes, people might not be happy being beaten up in public and being called names, but at the end of the day, since it is a security alliance and it's driven by a logic of providing security that everybody needs, isn't it going to function effectively because of the threat that people are responding to?

Ivo Daalder: Yes and no. So, yes on one level and a very, very important level. Day to day, the military operations, the political operations, the way in which the alliance operates is continuing as before. The North Atlantic Council, which is where the decisions get made as ambassadors, where I used to sit, is continuing to meet and continuing to decide things. The military command structure Is integrated to being strengthened. There's more training. There's exercises. There's reinforcements, more equipment is being brought to bear and, in that sense, NATO continues to evolve in a way to strengthen the essence of the alliance. But the alliance is also built on a really important intangible trust and confidence. Because, ultimately, if you're Estonia and you are unable to defend yourself against Russia, your security depends in having the confidence, the trust in your allies being willing to defend you and particularly in the trust and confidence that the United States is willing to defend you because the United States is the biggest, most important military power and this division, this debate, this haranguing of our allies is eroding trust.

It's like in the marriage. When you start eroding trust, whether it's for infidelity or whatever other reason, when you start eroding it, rebuilding that trust, rebuilding the confidence in each other, is something that takes time and often doesn't work. We've built up trust for 69 years. It's an incredibly important commodity that we have and if you erode that, it is going to take a long time to get it back.

Brian Hanson: So, with this example and just to push on the Estonia example a little bit, inside a marriage you may have other partners that you can choose. Inside the alliance, does Estonia have other choices that it could make for its security or is it stuck with the alliance, so yes, it would be better to have trust, but since it doesn't have another place to go, it's stuck and, therefore again, it's not all that consequential, some might argue.

Ivo Daalder: Well, so the Estonians, the only other option they have is to give into the Russians and to basically say if I can't rely on the protection that NATO provides, then perhaps I need to be nicer to the Russians to avoid them infringing on our independence and our sovereignty. That's not an option that we, as a NATO alliance, would want because if the Estonians conclude that, maybe the Hungarians and the Pols and the Germans and God knows what, that means Russia gets a greater degree of strength within Europe and, indeed, that's the point. Russia's goal, the Soviet goal, was to divide Europe, to divide NATO and to divide the United States from Europe. That's Putin's goal today. It's been for 10 years and if we play into that by having this kind of division that we are seeing in the last few weeks, in fact, in the last few months and even years, then we're playing into Putin's hands.

Brian Hanson: And what do you see is the fault lines along that division? You've written a bit about that there are new divisions happening in Europe. What are those fault lines?

Ivo Daalder: Well, they're a number of different ... so, one fault line is President Trump and his accounting sense of what an alliance is about, which no one else in the alliance shares, although there's a kernel of truth as there always is. The second division is an important division, is a political one and we are seeing within Europe and, indeed, within North America, a split between an increasingly nationalist, increasingly anti-immigration, increasingly economically protectionist or nationalist, and pro-Russian and illiberal order emerging, led by people like Viktor Orban in Hungary or Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or now in Italy, Matteo Salvini and the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and, indeed, Donald Trump of the United States and it's that alliance of sort of the nationalists against the more globalists, as the President would call it, the more internationalists.

The liberal democracy upholding folks in Germany, Merkel, May, to some extent in Britain, although she suffers from this problem, too. Macron in France and, of course, Trudeau in Canada that is splitting the alliance in this way. By the way, on one side getting closer to Russia, on the other side, getting closer to in opposition to Russia.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. And since you've raised Russia, let's go there because immediately after this summit, Trump is headed to Helsinki. Monday he'll be meeting with Vladimir Putin, which provides a juxtaposition, right? The showdown with the allies that he's having right now in Brussels and then his interaction with Putin. What do you expect and what are you concerned about from that meeting?

Ivo Daalder: I'm concerned by what I expect. Here's what I hope. I hope that out of Brussels you have a united NATO, which you did with now this declaration that has been agreed to, that the disagreements we heard on day one give way to backslapping and wonderful pictures on day two, that the President comes to Helsinki with a united NATO behind his back and says, "Vladimir, I want to work with you, but we have real differences. We have difference over Ukraine. We have differences over Syria. We have differences over arms control and we're not going to wipe away those differences. We're going to have to deal with those differences and, by the way, I've got all of Europe behind me in dealing with this, so let's figure out how you are going to get out of Ukraine, how you are going to finally adhere to the ceasefire that you agreed in Syria and become a positive force in stabilizing Syria. Let's figure out a way in which we can move forward on arms control and abandon all the activities that are violating the arms control agreements that we signed."

That would be a very positive way in which to enter the summit. Whether it will result in agreement is TBD, but at least it sets us up with a dialog that the Europeans and others can continue on as well. That's the hope.

Brian Hanson: And what do you expect might happen? What's the fear?

Ivo Daalder: Well, the fear is that, as the President already indicated, this is going to be an easier meeting than the meeting in NATO that, in fact, the divisions that we are seeing today within NATO lead Trump to say, "I need a success. I didn't have a success in NATO, now I need a win," and maybe the win is to start agreeing to some things that he may not think are important, but Putin thinks are very important and the Europeans think are very important. And the example, of course, is what happened just last month when we had a terrible blowup with allies in the G7 and then the President went to Singapore and agreed to some steps that weren't well received by some of our allies, in this case, South Korea and Japan.

Brian Hanson: This was discontinuing the exercises for military, the provocative, yeah, right-

Ivo Daalder: The provocative war games. So, just consider Vladimir Putin having learned as a smart KGB analyst that he is, so he thinks that if I say that something is provocative, he may give in to me. So, there's three things that the Russians think are most provocative. Number one is NATO enlargement, the fact that NATO is bringing in more allies and he said, "You know, it's very provocative, Donald. Why don't you agree not to do that anymore?" Number two is the forward deployment of NATO troops, including U.S. troops in the Baltic States in Eastern Europe and he said, "Donald, it'd be great if you would stop doing that. In fact, it's a violation of an agreement we signed in 1997. Pull them back." And number three would be, "Your missile defense system in Poland and Romania, which you say is about Iran, really is about us. It's very provocative, please move it away," and Trump saying, "I get it. I don't know what missile defense is doing in Poland and Romania, I think he's right that being forward deployed is provocative. I think that enlargement is overblown."

And he could in one or all of these say, "I agree with you." These are major, major decisions that we have made within the NATO context and that we usually don't allow the Russians to tell us what it is that we are supposed to do and at the very least, you would want to discuss with your NATO allies before you agree with it. The precedent of Singapore is that the President is perfectly capable of agreeing to take steps and that, although reversible, it may be in the end are deeply divisive within the alliance.

Brian Hanson: And I would think would go to the point you made earlier about trust. If the President is willing to-

Ivo Daalder: Absolutely.

Brian Hanson: -take away those things that are providing your security, Estonia, I mean that's having troops there, provides us security, so there's a lot at stake for those countries.

Ivo Daalder: It's like you were out for the night and you didn't come back and you were out with someone else and it really goes to the heart of the essence of the relationship that you are willing to sell out your allies in order to have an improvement of relations with what they regard and we should regard as our adversary.

Brian Hanson: So, do we have a sense ... do you have a sense of what President Trump and his Administration's strategy toward Russia is? What does he want to achieve with the Russian relationship? You made a point on another Deep Dish episode that, in some ways, this Administration has actually been stronger against Russia in some of the policies that it's pursued than the Obama Administration had been. As you put all these pieces together, the concerns that you just talked about, the actions that they've taken in the past, is there a strategy emerging here?

Ivo Daalder: So, I think there's an Administration strategy. Clearly, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor have a very strong view with regard to Russia. They see it as an adversary, as a strong strategic competitor that needs to be deterred, defended against and put in its place. That is where the U.S. Congress is. It's where the NATO Alliance is. It's frankly where most people are. Where's Donald Trump? That is the question. Is he with that fundamental set of arguments and is trying to figure out way to maneuver in order to get a better deal? Or, is in fact he not convinced that any of that is true? And nothing that we have heard or seen from President Trump since the time he ran for President suggests that he sees Russia as an adversary, as a threat to the United States and its security interests. What he wants is a win and always wants a win, because it's all about winning. Donald Trump's essence is about winning and that's what a real estate businessman does and if he doesn't get a win in Brussels, he needs one in Helsinki.

And a win can be anything that he describes as a win. It could be a good agreement or it could be a bad agreement, depending on how you look at it. We don't know. That's part of the problem. You talk to very senior Administration officials. Europeans talk to people in the White House or the State Department. They say, "I can tell you what my view is that we should do. I can tell you what I'm recommending the President to do, but I can't tell you what the President will do because he is his own man."

Brian Hanson: So, given that, and we'll see what happens obviously in Helsinki and we don't know. You've laid out a positive scenario and a concerning scenario. President Trump certainly has been consistent with his critique of the allies and the alliance and as this continues and his Administration continues and as you talked about earlier, there is the challenging, the trust that underlines this relationship. Let's just say it continues along this very rocky road to the end of the Trump Administration, either at the end of this four-year term or another four years after that, an eight-year term, how much long-term damage can be done to the alliance? Can it be put back together again at the end of a Trump Administration? Would that likely happen and does it have an implication for the long-term security of the United States?

Ivo Daalder: I think the longer this lasts, the worse the damage is going to be and the more difficult it will be to, in one form or another, get it back into place and I think if you think in one term or two terms, maybe after one term the damage done will be very, very significant, but the capacity to rebuild trust may still be there. But, I don't think that if there is a re-election of Donald Trump that the Europeans will no longer say, "Oh, it's just Donald Trump," they'll say, "Listen, this is the American public. This is the country that has elected its President. Let's take that as a sign that on this issue, as on other issues, we happen to fundamentally disagree and we can no longer rely on America, not just the American President, but on America to be with us." So, I do think that the election is, for many Europeans and many of our allies, the key point for deciding on whether trust and confidence can or cannot be rebuilt.

Brian Hanson: And as we close, while people are watching the events of the next few days, the NATO summit followed by the Putin-Trump summit, what do you think is the most important under-played, under-emphasized aspect of what we're going to see that people ought to keep in mind. What's not getting enough attention which is going to be determinant of how important and what impact this has?

Ivo Daalder: I mentioned it a little before. I think the thing that people are not paying enough attention to is this emerging alliance of what I might call illiberal, democratically elected leaders within the western alliance, who are in the main, pretty close to Russia and that is Italy, it's Hungary, it's Turkey and, I'm afraid it includes the United States under Donald Trump who believe that an anti-immigrant, very nationalistic, both economic and in other ways and in many ways illiberal approach that looks at Russia as a partner, rather than as a challenge, is dividing the West, because on the other side are those who have a commitment to liberal democracy, to openness in terms of immigration and economic matters and a non-nationalist, but multilateral kind of disposition and that that division, which is very different than the division we have about 2% and those kinds of issues is, perhaps more lasting than we realize and we are seeing it emerging right now.

Brian Hanson: Great, terrific. Well, Ivo, thanks so much for joining us to day and helping us follow the events unfolding and giving a framework to understand not only day-by-day, tweet-by-tweet, but the broader context in which to see this set of events. And, thank you, our Facebook Live audience and those listening to joining us this week. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you like the show, please let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts and if you think you know someone who would like this episode or benefit from hearing it, please tap the share button on your app and send it to them as well.

If you have questions about anything you heard today or if you want to know about upcoming episodes in advance, submit questions for upcoming guests, or to join our Facebook group, please go to our Facebook group at Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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