Donald Trump is now on the record saying he wouldn’t necessarily back NATO members if Vladimir Putin decided to invade. That’s a bit ironic since one of the countries most threatened by NATO’s collapse is Slovenia, where his wife, Melania, was born.
In an interview with The New York Times, Trump said the U.S. would not provide military aid to NATO members unless they put 2 percent of their GDP toward the alliance.
“Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes,” Trump said.
Trump’s comments drew the ire of both U.S. defense officials and of NATO. Officially, the Pentagon refused to chime in, desperate to keep the wall between politics and the troops. But around the proverbial Pentagon water cooler, the talk among some is quite different. Officials noted that many member nations are trying to meet their financial obligation, which is aspirational, not a condition of the alliance. Such rhetoric, some fear, could encourage Putin to seek additional territory from nations like Poland and the Baltic states.
“Let’s just move forward with plans to hand Eastern Europe to Russia,” one U.S. defense official scoffed.
Slovenia, in central Europe, would naturally be further down Putin’s list, as it once was a communist country that was part of Yugoslavia. (“So many other countries would have to fall first,” a U.S. defense official quipped.) But Slovenia represents other ways that NATO undergirds European security. Slovenia and the other NATO members share intelligence, work to stop human trafficking, monitor the flow of refugees, and help build the region’s security forces. If Putin’s “Little Green Men” overthrew any NATO country, it would be bad news for Melania’s Motherland.
“It was initially a military alliance but it is evolved into something much stronger,” Lt Gen. Mark Hertling, who retired in 2012 as the commander of U.S. Army Europe, explained to The Daily Beast. One benefit of joining NATO “is a feeling of being part of something bigger.”
Slovenia, which joined NATO in March 2003, falls in the middle of countries dealing with the flow of refugees from the Middle East. It also is in the middle of Croatia and Bosnia, both of which have been susceptible to rise of jihadists.
In other words, Slovenia depends on NATO—not as much to deter Putin, but for every other crisis. The country has sought to bolster the alliance, often contributing more than its fair share. Hundreds of Slovenian troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And just this week, Slovenian Defense Minister Andreja Katič traveled to Washington to attend a two-day conference hosted by the U.S. secretaries of Defense and State on how to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Slovenian officials have yet to respond to Trump’s comments. But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement defending the organization.
“I will not interfere in the U.S. election campaign, but what I can do is say what matters for NATO. Solidarity among Allies is a key value for NATO. This is good for European security and good for U.S. security. We defend one another. We have seen this in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of European, Canadian, and partner nation troops have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. soldiers. The United States has always stood by its European Allies,” Stoltenberg said.
For a planning organization like the U.S. military, Trump’s proposals not only suggest a major shift in the American military’s posture around the world. The seemingly flippant suggestion to let NATO members to their own devices—it portends of a dysfunctional policy making process under the Trump administration, centered on appeasement.
Trump’s words have also divided his own party. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican hawk who specializes in foreign policy issues, said that he was getting close to endorsing Trump when he read Trump’s comments about NATO in the New York Times.
“Yesterday, I was getting close to saying that I was with Trump, and this was another thing that held me back… I think it’s a devastating statement,” Kinzinger told The Daily Beast. “I always said I want to get to yes… I was close, because he won the primary fair and square. But when he says things contrary to what is fundamental to America, like NATO.”
The Republican nominee has struggled for party unity all week during the Republican convention in Cleveland, which has been marred by Sen. Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse and questions about whether the GOP will rally behind him. Bucking the party’s traditional position on Russia will further rock the boat.
Last week, the Trump campaign worked to delete a reference in the Republican platform that called on giving weapons to Ukraine, in order to fight Russian and Russian-allied forces.
“It’s appalling to me that party of Reagan removed Russia as a threat to democracy and now it looks to restore it. It doesn’t make any damn sense,” said John Noonan, a former House Armed Services Committee aide who worked for Jeb Bush this election cycle. “They turned the GOP platform into a Putin spank mag. Moscow’s been trying to break apart the NATO alliance for decades. Now Trump wants to make it a reality.”
“We can have a working relationship with Russia but you don’t impress Vladimir Putin by showing weakness,” added a senior Republican aide who focuses on national security. “He needs to know that America is not going to tolerate his strongman tactics and that we are going to stand firmly with our NATO allies. The platform would have been an excellent means to send that message.”
Trump’s words may seem empty. But defense officials noted that such language can impact the actions of other states. Perhaps the closest example would be the Obama declaration that it would “pivot toward Asia.” As the U.S. military redeployed its ships and troops to make the shift, which eventually only happened in a limited way, some defense officials believe Putin exploited the change, making moves on places like Ukraine.
“Words matter,” the defense official said.
Melania Trump should know. Her association with the campaign—and her recycling of Michelle Obama’s speech—already has been met with ridicule within Slovenia, where some worry it will affect the nation’s reputation.
—with additional reporting by Tim Mak