President Donald Trump’s dismissals of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as “obsolete” and his threats to withdraw the U.S. protection from other member states represent a dramatic departure from the post-Second World War international order and a serious threat to peace in Europe, veteran journalist and Foreign Policy Initiative fellow Jamie Kirchick told members of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations in a speech on January 17.
Kirchick argued that Trump’s characterization of NATO’s other member states as taking advantage of American largesse was misguided and disrespectful, given that the only time the organization’s requirement that member states come to each other’s defense if one is attacked has been invoked is when the other NATO nations joined the United States in invading Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Trump correctly pointed out that the United States pays for a disproportionate amount of NATO’s budget, Kirchick said. But he noted that other presidents, including Obama, raised the same issues yet still saw remaining in NATO as being a worthwhile investment.
Kirchick contrasted Trump’s treatment of America’s historical allies with the his avowed respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and expressed concern that a weakening of NATO could open the door to Russian aggression against other European nations. After Kirchick’s speech, he sat down with Weld to discuss Trump’s foreign policy approach and how America’s allies and enemies will react to the new status quo.
Weld: In your speech, you expressed concern that Trump’s friendliness toward Russia and skepticism toward NATO could encourage Russian aggression toward other nations. Yet Obama’s famously chilly relationship with Putin did not stop the Russian annexation of Crimea. What impact would a new, more conciliatory approach to Russia actually have if Russia was so evidently unconcerned with American reaction under a president who took a far harder line with them?
Kirchick: I would disagree a little bit with the premise of the question. I think Obama was rather weak when it came to dealing with the Russians. Implementing the reset [Obama’s attempt to initiate friendlier relations with Russia in 2008] immediately after coming into the White House, seven months after the invasion of Georgia, was a very bad move. The reset itself was a mistake. That was done while we knew the Russians were violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. And then [the U.S. canceled] our missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, basically distancing ourselves from our allies to make nice with the Russians. So I actually think that in many ways, Obama has laid the groundwork for this.
That said, what I will say in Obama’s defense is that once the Russians did what they did in Crimea, then he sort of woke up and realized,I was wrong about this guy,” and that’s when the sanctions came in. For Trump to lift those sanctions would be to basically bless territorial aggression.
He said in an interview this weekend, “I’d like to get further cuts to nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting the sanctions.” The sanctions have nothing to do with the levels of nuclear weapons that they have; they have to do with invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. Until they give Crimea back to the Ukrainians and take their military forces out of eastern Ukraine, then those sanctions should not be lifted.
So I’ve think we’ve learned in history what happens when you appease dictators — so if Trump does what he says he’ll do — then I expect you’ll see further territorial aggression whether it’s in northern Kazakhstan, where there’s lot of ethnic Ukrainians, or in the Baltic States. The premise for why Russia did what it did in Crimea was that Russian speakers were being oppressed. Hillary Clinton said this, and she was right: that was the same logic Hitler used to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, so if that’s now the rule by which countries invade other countries, then we’re really in for some very dark times.
Weld: Trump has broken with US tradition by calling for the United States to expand its nuclear stockpiles and advocating that Japan and South Korea to have nuclear weapons to check North Korea. Since he is calling for the US and its allies to increase their nuclear stockpiles, do you think he will continue to be able to pursue his calls for Russia to reduce its arms?
Kirchick: I think your question demonstrates the complete and utter lack of consistency. He wants Russia to reduce its nukes, but he wants Japan to have them. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this, other than I think we have a burden, that Japan and South Korea are burdens on the United States, and therefore they should be let go to protect their own security. And this would completely contradict 75 years of American postwar policy, which has been to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. That’s what we’ve been committed to, that’s why we have this nuclear deal with Iran. We don’t want more countries getting nuclear weapons and now he says the complete opposite. I was actually in Japan a couple of months ago and their security has been insured by the United States since the end of World War II. That’s what we wanted; we didn’t want a militarized Japan for obvious reasons. Same in Korea; we don’t want that country to have its own independent nuclear capability because then the risk of nuclear war between North and South Korea rise exponentially. It’s the United States, the world’s most powerful country, that is guaranteeing the security of South Korea, the chances that the North Koreans are going to do something irresponsible are much, much lower. If we get out of the picture and are no longer there, and the only country resisting North Korean aggression is South Korea, that’s very tempting for the North Koreans to try something. So his idea of what he wants to do is incredibly dangerous. I don’t think it will come to fruition because there are so many other things involved, he can’t sign some piece of paper and throw away 75 years of US-Japanese-South Korean defense agreements.
But merely talking like this, he’s changing the discourse. A year ago, most Republicans were pretty anti-Russia, maybe 90 percent. But just in the course of a year, and I wrote a piece about this in the Washington Post last week, simply by talking the way he has, the numbers of Republicans who have shifted their attitudes on Vladimir Putin, it’s changed dramatically, it’s like 40 percent of Republicans have a positive view of Vladimir Putin. And that’s because leadership comes from the top. People listen to leaders and what might sound crazy to me and Kali, if people hear it enough times- I’ve had people come up to me who I thought were rock-solid anti-Putin types, and they’re like ‘ah, maybe Trump has a point, maybe we can cooperate on Islamic terrorism,’ and that’s the effect that this has on the discourse, on the policy communities, when the President of the United States says these things over and over again, then people start to take them seriously.
Weld: The Republican leadership still contains many prominent figures who are strongly dedicated to opposing Putin, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Do you think they will continue to stand up against taking a softer approach to Russia?
Kirchick: John McCain is now saying he’s going to vote in favor of Rex Tillerson [Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, whom McCain has criticized for his connections with Putin]. I think a week ago he said the chances of that happening were “when pigs fly.” So I’m not very optimistic. I just don’t think there are the numbers. Lindsey Graham, thank God for him, he’s the only one left with a brain in his head. No, I’m not optimistic.
Weld: Trump has advocated a more hands off approach to North Korea. How do you think President Trump will respond to continued provocations by North Korea?
Kirchick: I’m not really sure he understands the nature of Chinese-North Korean relationships. The Chinese are quite happy with the status quo. They have no concerns for human rights; they don’t care that North Korea is basically a giant prison camp. They don’t want a united Korean peninsula because they fear it would be an American ally and they don’t want that. So they’re happy to keep this situation prolonged forever. So when he says things like “oh, it’s the Chinese’s problem,” no, if you leave it to China it’s just going to embolden the North Koreans, probably, that’s not going to help solve the problem. Unless you have the US as a counterbalance in the region, then the Chinese are just going to expand their influence.
Weld: Trump and his cabinet nominees have taken a hard line against is China, with Trump proposing a trade war during the campaign and Tillerson’s declaration during his confirmation hearings that the United States will stand up to China’s expansion in the South China Sea. How do you think Trump’s approach to China will play out in practice?
Kirchick: I don’t know what it is he wants from the Chinese. It’s not really clear. I don’t understand what the goal is. It seems like a lot of screaming and yelling about currency manipulation. … There’s this sense that China — we know it’s an emerging power. He senses within the American people, there’s a latent xenophobia when it comes to China. There’s a fear of China. He really exploited that and [has] taken advantage of it. But we have to have a productive relationship with China; that’s unavoidable. Soon it will be the biggest economy in the world; it’s not like Russia, which is a declining country in every respect. That doesn’t mean it can’t be dangerous; it’s very dangerous. But we have to have a productive relationship with China. That doesn’t mean we have to be weak when it comes to dealing with our interests in the region or sacrifice our values or our allies, absolutely not. But I think we are stronger in our dealings with China when we have strong alliances.
If you really wanted to take on the Chinese, you’d bolster our alliances with South Korea, with Japan, with Taiwan, basically all the countries in Asia. Even Vietnam, [which] we went to war with 40 years ago, they’re eager to have closer relationships with America because they all fear Chinese influence. So if Trump really had a strategic understanding of the region, he would understand it’s really not in America’s benefit to be alienating the Japanese and the South Koreans. We should be drawing them closer so we can confront China together. He would support [the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership], and that’s a real strategic instrument we could be using to our advantage and he obviously doesn’t because he opposes any sort of trade deal. I don’t think he knows anything about it.
I was shocked during the election. No one asked him, not a single journalist, “Okay, you hate NAFTA clearly. What about NAFTA don’t you like? There’s thousands of pages in this trade agreement, certainly you can mention subsection 3, clause A?” No one bothered to ask him these questions. … He never got to that level of substance. I find that incredible that after 18 months of running for president, no one bothered.
Weld: In your speech before the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations, you mentioned that one of the things that Trump has done that you respected was taking a call from the President of Taiwan and signaling that the US will more openly support Taiwan. How might Trump continue to support the island?
Kirchick: Well I think the phone call was fine. Everything that Trump does, I try to be fair. I’m pausing and I say, “is this something that Jeb Bush would do or John Kasich would do,” and if it is, then I might disagree with it, but it’s not unprecedented, it’s not crazy. And the phone call was something that I could see standard issue Republicans doing. So I thought a lot of the reaction was kind of knee jerk or typical beltway establishment hyperventilating. I think he pursues the bipartisan tradition on Taiwan then he’ll be fine. I think he would be inclined to do that because of his antagonism towards the Chinese, continuing the defense sales. I don’t think we should be pushing them for independence or anything. I think with Taiwan the status quo is just fine, I don’t see the need to declare independence. I don’t see what gains anybody. But again, that’s a very delicate issue. I could see him saying something or tweeting something that’s not screened by his advisors and causing a lot of problems.
Weld: As a reporter yourself, how does the media determine what is a legitimate criticism of Trump that needs to be followed further and what is just knee-jerk?
Kirchick: I think that standard I mentioned earlier, could you see any other Republican Presidential candidate, if they had become president, doing something? For instance, he asked the political-appointed ambassadors to resign on January 20th, and again, the media went crazy over that. These were all fundraisers for Obama, they’re not real State Department career-foreign service people. I really worry that we’re going to get lost with these sort of silly scandals that are headline grabbing and we’re going to miss the real sort of systemic assaults on the independence of different branches of government, on checks and balances, on separation of powers, because those stories don’t really capture the imagination in the same way that his tweeting does or whatever stupid thing he says, or Melania’s speech being plagiarized. I think some liberals have recognized that they’ve cried wolf for the past thirty years in that every Republican nominee, they’ve called a racist or a fascist or a Nazi. And then when a real fascistic guy came along, no one wanted to listen to them. It’s the boy who cried wolf, no one wanted to listen to him anymore. I think the smarter people on the left have understood this but a lot of them haven’t.
Weld: After the election, outlets on both the right and the left were calling for a libertarian-liberal coalition to oppose Trump. Do you think any such coalition will ever come together?
Kirchick: As far as the libertarians go, I think that they have been revealed as being without any influence, just lacking the numbers that they thought. . . and that’s true for both the capital-L Libertarians but also for people in general who are free market. You had a Republican candidate who basically ran as a big government candidate. He repudiated Republican party orthodoxy on entitlement spending. I guess he’ll be cutting taxes, but on the other libertarian issues like individual rights, secrecy, separation of powers, powers of the executive, he’s obviously not a libertarian. As their candidate went, Gary Johnson was a clown. This was a year when you would have thought a third party alternative would have done well, and who do they nominate? A pot head. So I thought the libertarians were shown to be really kind of, they really blew an opportunity.
As for a broader coalition, I’m a little worried because it seems like some of the “Never Trump” Republicans have already kind of fallen into line, and it’s sort of this vicious circle, because you have people on the left making these wild accusations, and the people on the right, instead of criticizing Trump, they’re being tempted into repudiating these silly left-wing criticisms like Trump’s being a Nazi. Meanwhile Trump is going to get away with murder, because everyone is going to be arguing with each other. So I think the political moment really cries out for that responsible, centrist political figure who can unite all of us who oppose Trump, and I just don’t see who that person is. It’s not going to be Keith Ellison. Maybe it could be Chuck Schumer, I don’t know.
I saw what John Lewis is doing. Lots of Democrats are refusing to go the inauguration and calling him illegitimate. And Chuck Schumer basically is like, “well I’m not encouraging them but it’s their right.” I am second to none in my hatred of Donald Trump. He is President of the United States. He should be afforded that minimum amount of respect and the minute you start saying he’s illegitimate you play into the hands of the people who want to portray this country as a banana republic, so I don’t support that line of protest.
Weld: Much of the recent news cycle has been dominated by the publication of a dossier put together by a British former intelligence agent that alleges, with no real proof, that Trump collaborated with the Russian government to get elected. In your speech, you raised the possibility that the dossier might itself be a hoax created and spread by the Russian government to undermine the credibility of the Trump administration. What would Russia gain by discrediting Trump?
Kirchick: I think Russia has a very ambitious, multi-faceted plot. It’s basically postmodern. It’s to upend our notions of truth, of what’s true and what’s false. It’s to introduce moral relativism into everything. It’s not like the Cold War where you have the Russians saying, “We have a system, Communism, and this is the way to go.” There’s no system they’re trying to export. It’s basically, “You’re just as bad as us. We’re not making any bones about Russia being a great country or system, we know we’re corrupt, but you know what, you’re just as corrupt as we are.” And that’s the ideological message that they’re trying to spread.
That’s basically what they achieve in having an American discourse where no one presses anyone, where the president is a conspiracy theorist who is constantly spouting support for conspiracy theories. He’s an oligarch himself, like a lot of the Russian oligarchs are. And it makes America look like a Latin state. And our credibility and our prestige are dramatically undermined. So that’s what the Russians gain. A world in which America is less powerful and respected is a world which is safer for autocracy.
Editor’s Note: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that President Trump plans to withdraw United States membership in NATO. While Trump has threatened to not honor America’s obligation to protect other member states in case of attack, which would violate the organization’s foundational treaty, he has not called for a formal withdrawal from NATO. Weld regrets the error.