Senior strategist Steve Bannon’s wing of the administration has already done this presidency immeasurable harm on the domestic front. By entering the realm of foreign affairs, the Bannon wing is now a menace to global security.
For nearly two weeks, administration officials have been insisting that what seemed like a scandal was no scandal at all. On May 25, Donald Trump delivered remarks at the opening ceremony of NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels. Those remarks pointedly did not include any reference to America’s continued support for the Atlantic Alliance’s mutual defense provision: Article 5.
America’s allies were listening closely for a repudiation of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, in which he so often flirted with the prospect of abandoning the responsibilities of a global superpower. In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, Trump was asked if he would honor America’s obligations to its allies “if Russia came over the border into Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.” Rather than offering a perfunctory or even qualified “yes,” Trump bloviated about the need for these nations to have “fulfilled their obligation to us.”
If he meant that these countries need to contribute more to their own defense, he chose the wrong targets. Estonia, arguably the nation most threatened by Russia, was one of five NATO members (as of 2015) that met the alliance’s defense spending threshold of the equivalent of 2 percent of its GDP.
It may be that this comment and those like it were not merely expressions of ignorance on the president’s part. It seems more likely now that this was part of a convoluted strategy to satisfy the “America first” base.
According to the reporting of Politico’s Susan Glasser, Trump’s failure to reassure America’s NATO allies of his commitment to their defense wasn’t part of the plan. A reference to Article 5 had been in the speech text. The text was reviewed and approved by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis endorsed the affirmation. But, somehow, the expression of support for that bedrock principle uniting 29 North Atlantic nations in defense of each other’s security didn’t make the final cut.
“The president appears to have deleted it himself,” Glasser reported, citing one plausible version of events. “[A]nother version relayed to others by several White House aides is that Trump’s nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy aide Stephen Miller played a role in the deletion.”
The administration appears to recognize the scope of the president’s blunder. National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton—the author of a despicably nihilistic essay contending that 2016 America was a doomed airplane that was going down anyway, so why not vote for Trump?—insisted the president’s support for Article 5 is beyond question. McMaster co-authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal with National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn insisting that America’s allies heard Trump defend America’s commitments. This clean-up effort is necessary but misses the mark. What America’s adversaries heard from Trump is of less immediate concern than what our adversaries internalized.
Contrary to some expectations, bilateral relations between the United States and Russia have cratered since Trump took office. This was a predictable outgrowth of Trump’s misapprehensions. Donald Trump entered office with the desire to pursue rapprochement with Moscow. So did George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but Trump came in without even an elementary knowledge of American grand strategy, national interests, or a range of appropriate concessions. Through inference or, perhaps, explicit assurances made behind closed doors, Trump promised Moscow the world with no means of delivering.
More disturbing, the president left the Kremlin with the impression it would have greater freedom of action in a post-Obama world. Trump’s ambiguity regarding what the United States would and would not defend with force undermines a credible American deterrence. It also invites Putin to test the parameters of Trump’s resolve, which could be disastrous. In that probing process, the Kremlin could stumble into an international incident from which there is no face-saving off-ramp. It could cross a line the United States cannot allow to be crossed and stumble into a potentially disastrous global conflict. Putin has intensified his policy of conducting diplomacy through airstrikes on U.S.-backed militias in Syria, or even dangerously close to U.S. forces proper. Miscalculations by great powers and the sheer inertia of a geopolitical crisis have plunged the world into terrifying wars before, and it may well happen again.
The Bannon wing of the Trump administration is an embarrassing liability for this president. Whether it’s the original “travel ban,” the revised “travel ban,” the executive order targeting “sanctuary cities,” or the pronouncement that new oil pipelines be constructed with domestically-produced steel despite the fact that such quantities of domestically produced steel do not exist; President Trump is routinely done injury by his nationalists. Toying with the notion that the U.S. would not honor its obligations to the NATO alliance is beyond discomfiting. It’s dangerous. Once again, the White House is reduced to cleaning up the mess the Bannon wing has left behind. You would think that, at some point, the president would tire of being humiliated.