Trump at NATO: How Manchester delayed alliance's reckoning with Russia

The terrorist attack allowed President Trump to divert the focus from Russia. But security experts say Putin's Russia and ISIS are both illiberal adversaries of the West that must be confronted with an information war.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Trump reacts as he speaks beside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the start of the NATO summit at their new headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017.

The horrendous terrorist attack in Manchester this week gave a tragic assist to President Trump’s hopes of escaping, with a nine-day overseas trip, Washington’s focus on all things Russian.

But at a deeper level, some longtime experts on Western security say, allowing Mr. Trump to downplay the Russian challenge and instead divert the focus at the NATO meeting to hard power for battling Islamist extremism underscored a broader Western weakness.

In these experts’ view, the diversion represents a failure to recognize that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and groups like the Islamic State are both adversaries of the Western liberal order – two peas in the same anti-Western pod, so to speak.

And in that vein, they say, it dangerously puts off the day when the US and Europe realize they must fight an information war and deploy the same type of 21st-century warfare that their “illiberal” adversaries employ.

In a brief speech to America’s European allies assembled at NATO headquarters Thursday, Trump called for a moment of silence for the Manchester victims and cited the attack as a display of the “evil” the 28-nation transatlantic Alliance must do more to confront through a stepped-up counterterrorism effort.

He then issued a stern rebuke to his stone-faced colleagues for not paying their “fair share” and relying on US taxpayers to provide their defense – thus segueing abruptly from Manchester to his preferred dual themes for his NATO debut: counterterrorism and burden-sharing.

Russia, on the other hand, got only one mention, falling behind “terrorism and immigration” on Trump’s list of the defense challenges the Alliance must give “great focus” in coming years.

Trump’s scolding of America’s European allies over insufficient defense spending may have been what grabbed quick headlines, both in Europe and the US. But in the end it may be the near-absence of Russia from Trump’s contribution to the NATO leaders’ meeting that more deeply marks US-Europe relations in the future.

The downplaying of Russian mischief may have been music to Mr. Putin’s ears, but it was disquieting first and foremost to NATO’s eastern members, including the Baltic states – some of whom noted their concerns, albeit in diplomatic terms, after the meeting.

It was troubling as well to other European leaders who worry about Russian efforts to undermine the West’s democratic institutions and keep a roiled West distracted.

Questions left unanswered

And it left unanswered lingering questions in Europe about Trump’s approach to Russia and how firmly he intends to confront Russian aggressions, both covert and blatant, as in eastern Ukraine.

European leaders came into their meeting with Trump Thursday “wanting to know how much will this administration be distracted by domestic issues at home,” including probes into Russian influence in the US election, says Julianne Smith, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

They wanted to know not just how much Trump resents weak European defense budgets – a complaint Europeans have heard from a long line of US administrations (President Obama called them “free-riders”) – but “when is [Trump] going to start his engine and get to work” on the issues on the transatlantic agenda, Ms. Smith says.

The Europeans had “tremendous insecurity and doubt” about American leadership and commitment to the partnership going into Trump’s European trip, she says. But she adds that the doubts were only likely to deepen at Friday’s G7 meeting in Sicily, where US partners will be kept guessing about US policy on issues ranging from climate change and trade to international sanctions on Russia – all issues that senior administration officials say the president will deliberate after his trip.

For some in Europe, the awakening to the challenges posed by Russia has been slow – but has accelerated recently as Russia appears to have shifted its focus from expanding its influence in its near-neighborhood to undermining Western political institutions.

“Just a few years ago Russia characterized its activism as primarily focused on safeguarding Russian-speakers in its surrounding areas, and that gave many Europeans the sense that they were off the hook,” says Alexander Mattelaer, director of the European Affairs program at the Egmont Royal Institute in Brussels. “But its more recent aggressive actions and especially the way it seemingly acted to influence the domestic political outcome in the United States has completely changed that.”

Restoring alliance's relevance

The unintended consequence of Russia’s actions is that it may have done more than anyone else to give NATO new relevance across Europe.

“In many ways, Russia through its various actions has contributed to the revival and reinvigoration of the Alliance,” Dr. Mattelaer says. “No one asks anymore, ‘What is NATO’s purpose in a post-cold-war Europe?’ ” he adds.

Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underscored to journalists Thursday that NATO’s European members have halted a long-term slide in military spending and registered an overall increase in defense budgets last year.

Renewed Russian aggression has had a significant impact among NATO’s easternmost members in particular – former Soviet states that share a border with Russia – motivating them to bolster military budgets. Some have reached, or next year will reach, the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military that Trump made his mantra in NATO discussions.

“If you go to the Eastern European countries, it’s the threat posed by Russia that is at the top of the agenda,” Mattelaer says. But he adds that Russia’s aggression in its various forms has also managed to take the wind out of the sails of Europeans who long assailed the North Atlantic Alliance as a tool of American hegemony and militarism.

Indeed, some say Russia in its new Putin-driven form is the impetus behind just about everything the Alliance does, including in its defense of open and democratic societies.

“The defense issues, the discussions of how different kinds of contributions count, and the burden-sharing debate, it’s really all about Russia,” says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels. “The question about spending more on hardware – again, it’s ultimately all about Russia.”

Some leaders may have been put off by Trump’s foot-stomping on European defense spending – what Mr. Stoltenberg diplomatically referred to as the US president’s “clear blunt message” – but it may be that kind of stark plain-speaking that ultimately pushes NATO to develop stronger responses to challenges, including Russia, Dr. Lesser says.

“You could argue that the rhetorical style of the new president is not the most agreeable for European ears,” he says. “But Trump’s style has placed the issues of burden-sharing and counterterrorism at the top of NATO’s agenda in a way that is different and maybe more compelling.”

Analog defense in a digital age

The problem some experts see is that while higher military spending, new hardware, and additional troops for NATO missions are all well and good, they may be false reassurances in an age of cyber-threats and internet manipulation.

“We’re still stuck with an analog concept of defense in a highly digital age,” says Julian Lindley-French, a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft and vice president of the Atlantic Treaty Association in Brussels.

The Europeans may have only recently awakened from decades of sleepy dependence on the US military, but Dr. Lindley-French says NATO – the West’s defense alliance – has to awaken to the fact that it is losing battles on the 21st-century battlefield.

“This is an issue that is relevant to both Manchester – the terrorist threat – and to Russia and the threats it poses,” he says.

Describing ISIS and Russia as “illiberal actors” that view Western liberal societies as their adversary, Lindley-French says both have become expert at an “artificial form of soft power” – use of social media, propaganda, false information, and manipulation of information – that will become increasingly influential.

Citing evidence of Russia’s “success” at “keeping us off balance at a low cost to them,” Lindley-French says the US and Europe would do well to settle the differences causing friction within the Alliance so they can unite to confront the new-era challenges already rattling their societies.

“We are now in a kind of continuous warfare,” he says, warning that Russia is “fast mastering the escalation of this new warfare.”

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