President Donald Trump promised a different kind of administration. But many of those around him remain dedicated to the status quo. Even after President Trump spoke for the forgotten Americans who were tired of subsidizing European states which refused to spend more on defense, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Eastern Europe promising to risk U.S. lives and waste U.S. resources protecting those very same nations.
The vice president’s hosts, observed the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, “could be forgiven for thinking that Pence—with his throwback aesthetic of closely shorn hair and a square jaw—was just another happy Cold Warrior abroad.”
Even though the Cold War ended some three decades ago, the vice president acted as a modern Rip Van Winkle, just waking up and believing it to be, say, 1984, when former KGB chief Yuri Andropov was still Communist Party General Secretary. Without America protecting the leaderless, impoverished, and helpless Europeans, Vice President Pence appeared to believe that Moscow would conquer everything from the Atlantic to the Pacific, dragging the world into a new Dark Age.
Notwithstanding the president’s desire to improve relations, Vice President Pence observed: “recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow will not deter the commitment of the United States of America to our security, the security of our allies, and the security of freedom-loving nations around the world.”
Of course, the one country whose security to which Washington should be committed is the U.S. But Russia doesn’t threaten America. Yes, Moscow possesses a strategic nuclear force that could destroy the U.S., but using its nukes would ensure Russia’s destruction in return. Although the Russian Federation’s military is potent, its capabilities significantly lag behind those of America and its reach is regional, not global.
It isn’t clear where Moscow could attack the U.S. An invasion of Alaska across the Bering Strait? A naval armada to conquer Hawaii? Aiding a Cuban invasion of America, a la the original Red Dawn movie? Washington and Moscow differ over no vital interests and Russian President Vladimir Putin has never seemed anti-American, only anti-Washington, especially after its expansion of NATO almost to St. Petersburg’s suburbs. His policy has been more to restrain America’s influence than expand Russia’s control.
Protecting Washington’s allies, in contrast, should be a means to an end. That is, alliances should be matters of security, not charity. Nations should be protected if doing so makes America more secure. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case in Europe.
In fact, few Europeans believe they face a Russian military threat. Otherwise the continent would devote more than 1.47 percent of its GDP to the military. Germany, with the continent's greatest potential, would spend more than 1.22 percent of its economic resources on the military. Latvia and Lithuania wouldn't take years to reach a still embarrassing two percent. The continent's two strongest powers, France and Great Britain, wouldn't have difficulty simply maintaining their still modest existing capabilities.
Putin and his cronies have demonstrated no interest in ruling non-Russians. Nor have they shown an inclination toward national suicide, which is what going to war with the West would be. The collective GDP of the European Union is about 13 times the size of Russia’s economy. The latter is smaller than that of four European nations, including Italy. Europe’s population is about three times as large as Russia’s. Europe’s military outlays are four times as much. So why are over-burdened American taxpayers paying to protect Europeans who prefer to spend their money on generous social benefits?
It isn't Washington’s job to protect “freedom-loving nations around the world.” The earth is filled with countries which want the U.S. to protect them. That’s understandable, but irrelevant. Alliances are meant to increase, not decrease, America’s security.
Unfortunately, Vice President Pence would greatly increase U.S. defense responsibilities and the consequent likelihood of war. He announced that “Our allies in Eastern Europe can be confident that the United States of America stands with them,” even though NATO expansion proved to be a foolish mistake, expanding U.S. security guarantees to nations which weren’t important for American security while inflaming Russian distrust and paranoia.
In particular, the vice president announced that “we cherish our new alliance with Montenegro through NATO,” even though the latter has the reputation of a gangster state and barely 2000 men under arms. The U.S. might as well have extended alliance membership to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a fictional micro-state featured in the novel The Mouse that Roared.
In fact, the U.S. will do the equivalent if it adds Kosovo, which the U.S. and Europe forcibly split off of Serbia (while denying Serb-majority areas an equal opportunity to remain with Belgrade). Kosovo President Hashim Thaci claimed that Vice President Pence promised to help eliminate barriers to Kosovo’s entry into NATO. Pristina doesn’t even possess a formal military. It does, however, have a reputation for choosing as leaders common criminals and war criminals, such as Thaci.
Even more dangerous was the vice president’s verbal love affair with the country of Georgia. Vice President Pence condemned Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which long harbored indigenous separatist sentiments, sounded like war-happy John McCain in proclaiming “America stands with Georgia,” and “strongly” endorsed Georgian membership in NATO.
Yet Tbilisi has never mattered for U.S. security. Indeed, Georgia spent most of the last couple centuries under Moscow’s control with nary a complaint from Washington. However, President George W. Bush treated the now independent country as an ally and in 2008 President Mikhail Saakashvili, apparently convinced of U.S. support, started a war with Russia. Inducting Tbilisi into NATO would reward that government for its irresponsibility and recklessness, while bringing its dispute with Moscow into the alliance. America would be substantially less secure. The only policy which would be crazier would be to add Ukraine, since it currently is involved in a semi-hot conflict with Moscow.
The veep’s performance as uber-hawk confused many who saw it. Observed Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, “Everybody liked that message, but everybody wondered: Is he actually speaking for the president of the United States?” Americans should hope not.
Much of the American right appears to believe that the U.S. needs enemies, and Russia is a convenient state to demonize. No doubt, Vladimir Putin is a bad human being. But he’s holding a weak hand while facing a power which is ideologically aggressive, sanctimoniously demanding, and intervention prone. Russia has reason to feel threatened.
Washington should no longer think in terms of containment. Rather, the Trump administration should begin disengagement, devolving onto the Europeans responsibility to provide for their defense.
Candidate Trump criticized defense and foreign policies which put America last. President Trump should set aside his tweets for a few days and take back control of his own administration. Maybe then Washington would stop squandering money and risking lives to protect those who won’t make the same sacrifice to defend themselves.