Donald Trump with his children Eric and Ivanka Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, on July 20, 2016.
Benjamin Lowy for TIME
By Massimo Calabresi
July 21, 2016

In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump said he might not act on the United States’ commitment to defend its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if they were attacked by Russia. Asked whether he would provide immediate military aid to the Baltic NATO members, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, if they were attacked by Russia, Trump said he would judge whether or not the victim had sufficiently contributed to the alliance before deciding whether to come to their aid.

Trump’s statements are at odds with the treaty that created the alliance, which requires all members including the United State to come to the defense of the others. More importantly, Trump’s comments represent a radical break from seven decades of adherence by the United States and the Republican Party to the national security concept of deterrence. From George Kennan and Paul Nitze’s strategy of containment launched in the years after World War II, through Ronald Reagan’s central national security tenet of “peace through strength,” American foreign policy has embraced the idea that war could be avoided through a resolute commitment to collective security.

Trump explained his unwillingness to overtly commit to the defense of NATO allies by saying that he wanted to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin uncertain as to how the United States would respond. “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do,” Trump told the Times.

That rejection of transparent and explicit deterrence through collective security drew immediate criticism from foreign policy leaders in the United States and abroad. George W. Bush’s head of policy planning at the State Department, Richard Haass, tweeted in response to Trump’s comments that “[Questions] of U.S. reliability could trigger more conflict, appeasement, [and/or] more proliferation as allies seek self-reliance.” The Secretary General of NATO, Norway’s former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, said, ‎”Solidarity among Allies is a key value for NATO. This is good for European security and good for US security.” Estonia, which has said Putin is already employing KGB-style espionage tactics to restore Russian power and destabilize it, issued a statement saying, “Estonia’s commitment to our NATO obligations is beyond doubt, and so should be the commitments by others.”

In an interview with TIME the day before Trump’s comments to the New York Times, Stoltenberg went further in outlining the importance of deterrence to international stability. Trump had previously called into question the utility of NATO in interviews. In response to questions about Trump’s statements, Stoltenberg laid out the strategy that has provided the foundation for NATO’s success over 77 years. The following is an edited excerpt:

TIME: Does what Donald Trump has said feed the idea that, politically, America might not be willing to go to war for the Baltics?

Stoltenberg: I relate to what the U.S. has actually done. And the U.S. has increased its presence in Europe. The U.S. has proven once again that it’s ready to defend and protect European allies. After many years of decline now the number of U.S. troops and forces in Europe is again going up.

TIME: Is there a message of unpredictability being sent by the American political system?

Stoltenberg: I have to relate to the decisions taken by the United States, the administration and the Congress, and what we have seen is a will of the United States to live up to all its commitments and to increase its presence in Europe. After years of reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Europe we have now seen an increase.

TIME: Why is predictability important?

Stoltenberg: Uncertainty can always create dangerous situations, can lead to miscalculations, to misunderstandings, power vacuums which can trigger dangerous situations. So transparency, predictability, contributes to stability, and stability is good for our security. Any miscalculation can be dangerous and that’s also a reason why NATO has increased its presence in the eastern part of the alliance, in the Baltic countries, in Poland, with… four multinational battalions, sending a very clear signal that an attack on any NATO ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance.

The reason to have strong collective defense is not because we want to fight the war but because we want to prevent the war. Our increased presence in the eastern part of the alliance is not to provoke a war but it is to prevent the war. Because as long as any adversary knows that an attack on one ally would be an attack on the whole alliance, then there would be no attack. So deterrence is a way to maintain peace as long as deterrence is credible, then there is peace.

TIME: There has been such a high level of Russian activity in these NATO allies aimed at destabilizing these countries, what is the danger of a message of unpredictability for those three countries in particular? Does it make them more vulnerable?

Stoltenberg: It is exactly to avoid any misunderstandings, any miscalculations that we are now deploying four battalions [to them and Poland]… The reason why we’re doing that is exactly to avoid any possibility of miscalculation, because as long as NATO is there, its obvious that any attack will trigger a response form the whole alliance.

TIME: Do Donald Trump’s statements with regard to NATO contribute to the sense that the alliance is not cohesive, is not holding together?

Stoltenberg: It’s for the people of America to elect the next president of the United States. It’s not for me.

TIME: What does it say to NATO allies that the GOP is willing to choose a NATO skeptic?

Stoltenberg: I respect that in all NATO allies there are different opinions, different views and open discussions. We have seen that over decades and we have always managed to find a platform for unity and also ability to adapt and to change.

 

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