Forgetting about deterrenceRemember when the Republican Party was a reliable foe of Russia’s autocratic leaders? It actually wasn’t that long ago. When President Barack Obama forged the New Start treaty with Moscow in 2010, Republican leaders opposed the treaty in part because Russia under Vladimir Putin could not be trusted with an arms control agreement.
Now the Republican nominee for president in 2016 is suggesting he may not honor U.S. commitments to NATO, which exists to counter Russian aggression. In an interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump said he would only come to the aid of Baltic states attacked by Russia if “they have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
This is not a unique position. The view that America should not necessarily honor its mutual defense agreements in NATO is popular among many foreign policy academics, particularly those in the “realist” school.
Many progressives too, like the editors of the Nation Magazine, have mused that America’s push to expand NATO is the root cause of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Pat Buchanan, the White House speechwriter (and the force who resurrected the pre-World War II mantra of “America First”), also thinks NATO’s expansion has baited the Russian bear.
Just what is the U.S. obliged to do in defense of NATO partners? Most Americans probably would not support a shooting war to defend the independence of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. But the treaty does not spell out in detail what other NATO members would be required to do in the face of an attack. Until recently at least, most Republicans understood that the best way to prevent that nightmare scenario was through deterrence. That requires publicly embracing its mutual defense obligations without spelling out precisely what that would mean.
Or it used to require that. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CBS on Thursday: “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”
Comments like that from Trump are not so surprising. But Gingrich actually understands what he is saying. Gingrich is one of the reasons NATO expanded in the 1990s to include Eastern Europe and eventually in 2004 to add seven states, those “suburbs of St. Petersburg.” He pushed for legislation to do just that when he was speaker of the House.
Here’s Gingrich in 1996: “Since its creation in 1949, NATO has been expanded on three separate occasions. In the spirit of a safer, freer and more secure world, the time has come to once again enlarge NATO’s membership. For 45 years, NATO has met its mission under the leadership of both Republicans and Democrats, evolving as circumstances on the international front have changed. This is one of those moments in history when change is necessary to meet a greater need.”
When Russian irregulars invaded Ukraine in 2014, Gingrich urged Obama to do much more. An op-ed he co-wrote with Senator Lindsey Graham asked: “When will the administration put its might where its mouth is: When Kiev is in flames? Or never?”
Keep in mind, this is what Gingrich said when Russia attacked a non-NATO member. Now he’s not sure the U.S. should defend the three Baltic nations who are in the alliance and in good standing.
Despite the outcry of many Republicans like Gingrich in 2014 that Obama was doing too little to defend Ukraine, the president in the end did deploy forces and military assets to many of the front-line states in the NATO alliance. This creates a kind of trip wire if Russia ever were to attack these countries with conventional forces.
It is an example of deterrence, a concept of statecraft that Republicans used to understand.
*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.