No play­ing Rus­sian roulette

Sec­re­tary of State Tiller­son pledges a stand with the al­liance against Moscow

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

On pa­per, NATO is an im­pos­ing in­sti­tu­tion — one of the world’s old­est and largest col­lec­tive de­fense al­liances. On the ground, its strength hinges on a sin­gle ques­tion: Will its 28 sig­na­tory na­tions ac­tu­ally spend blood and trea­sure to honor their pledge of col­lec­tive de­fense in time of war? No one will know un­til the dread mo­ment of truth ar­rives. With Rus­sia more men­ac­ing than ever, it’s gut-check time for NATO.

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s late de­ci­sion to at­tend the re­cent NATO con­fer­ence in Brus­sels was a gal­va­niz­ing mo­ment. Strik­ing a re­as­sur­ing tone, Mr. Tiller­son reaf­firmed Amer­ica’s com­mit­ment to the al­liance. In par­tic­u­lar, he pledged the United States would stand by its re­fusal to rec­og­nize the le­git­i­macy of Rus­sia’s 2014 in­cur­sion into Ukraine, and keep U.S. troops in Eastern Euro­pean na­tions un­nerved by Moscow’s ag­gres­sion.

That’s a long way from Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign sug­ges­tion that NATO might be “ob­so­lete” for its in­abil­ity to deal force­fully with global ter­ror­ism. A cam­paign catch phrase to be sure, but it was use­ful as an el­bow in the ribs meant to trig­ger soul-search­ing within a body that lost its edge af­ter the end of the Cold War.

The sec­re­tary of state re­minded the min­is­ters of the pres­i­dent’s pointed crit­i­cism of dead­beat states that don’t pay their dues. “As Pres­i­dent Trump has made clear, it is no longer sus­tain­able for the United States to main­tain a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of NATO’s de­fense ex­pen­di­tures,” Mr. Tiller­son said. “Al­lies must in­crease de­fense spend­ing.”

Mr. Trump’s arm-twist­ing has made some con­verts al­ready. France and Turkey are close to join­ing Greece, Es­to­nia, Bri­tain, Poland and the United States with prom­ises to de­vote at least 2 per­cent of their gross do­mes­tic prod­uct on de­fense by 2024. Other NATO na­tions are look­ing be­tween the sofa cush­ions for spare change. Ger­many, ex­ploit­ing the un­spo­ken wari­ness of nearly ev­ery­one of Ger­mans in arms, grum­bles about the dues.

In re­cent years, the al­liance has picked up new mem­bers from Cen­tral and Eastern Europe, lead­ing Moscow to growl that NATO is poach­ing in its neigh­bor­hood. Ukraine’s dal­liance with NATO contributed to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s de­ci­sion to oc­cupy Eastern Ukraine, ef­fec­tively blunt­ing Ukraine’s quest for ties with the West. Baltic states Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia fear the same rough treat­ment. A U.S. Se­nate bill back­ing NATO mem­ber­ship for Mon­tene­gro, a tiny splin­ter of the for­mer Soviet-ruled Yu­goslavia, sits on Mr. Trump’s desk now.

NATO was cre­ated as a nec­es­sary bar­rier against an ex­pan­sion­ist Soviet Union, and Rus­sia’s rekin­dled ag­gres­sion gives new rel­e­vance to the Rea­gan doc­trine of peace through strength. When Mr. Tiller­son vis­its Moscow later this month, he can gauge the depth of Mr. Putin’s frown at Mr. Trump’s ef­forts to awaken Europe to its obli­ga­tions. When Pres­i­dent Trump at­tends the up­com­ing NATO sum­mit on May 25, he can smell for him­self the sus­pi­cion of Rus­sian mis­chief that con­tin­ues to hang over the late U.S. pres­i­den­tial election sea­son.

Tough times are what al­lies are for, and bet­ter to mix it up with friends than play Rus­sian roulette with ad­ver­saries. As Ben­jamin Franklin re­minded his fel­lows, as they signed the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, “We must, in­deed, all hang to­gether or, most as­suredly, we shall all hang separately.” Words to live by, now as then.

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