NATO’s big problem isn’t Trump, it’s Brexit

NATO has a big problem. And it’s not President-elect Donald Trump. In the end, the alliance knows how to talk to him and it knows how to influence the security apparatus that sits round any president. No, the real challenge for NATO can be summed up in one word: Brexit.

It’s not that Brexit in any way weakens the commitment of British politicians to NATO. Far from it. They have been vehemently — and sincerely — committing to continued defense cooperation. The problem is what the Brexit vote proved to the rest of the world: Longstanding international organizations that do not renew their popular mandate are vulnerable.

But there is one big difference between the European Union and NATO. While Brexit is in reality little more than a self-inflicted wound that only makes Britain poorer, a weakened NATO threatens everyone.

Russian President Vladimir Putin understands this. There’s been a lot of talk recently about his moving of missiles into Kaliningrad. When he does so, he is doing two things.

On one hand, he is probing defenses, just as he does when Russian submarines enter Swedish waters or Russian jets enter British airspace. On the other, and more significantly, he is opening another front in his information war.

The missiles are being moved, Putin says, in response to NATO “expansion.” This is a fictitious grievance — there is no such thing as NATO expansion, just sovereign states freely deciding to join it. Putin knows this. His claim is aimed firmly at European citizens. His aim is to sew doubt and dissension to undermine the shared sense of mission that underpins NATO.

The danger of Russia’s NATO rhetoric

The danger is not that citizens in European countries agitate for their nations to leave NATO, but that that they come to accept the steady Russian delegitimization of NATO, that they come to believe that Russia is the victim.

It has happened before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used the “peace movement” in an attempt to undermine the West’s resolve. It took the courage of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl in West Germany to ignore public demonstrations against the stationing of Pershing and cruise missiles at US bases in their countries.

Now, NATO and the leadership of member countries need to show similar resolve. That starts with fully understanding how fragile support for NATO is.

Just imagine that a Russian minority in a Baltic state agitated, claiming oppression, such as Russian minorities in other countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union have done in the past. Then further imagine that Russian troops are used in a police action to “protect oppressed Russian minorities.”

In which NATO countries would there be a majority of the public who supported the deployment of troops in support of the invaded country? Britain? Germany? Unlikely. The bet that Putin is making is based on this assumption that there is no popular support for Article 5 — the mutual self-defense clause of the NATO treaty. Is he wrong?

The good news is that the case for NATO hasn’t been lost — it just hasn’t been made. In a one sense, this is understandable. The Cold War is now taught in high school history.

But in another, it is unforgivable. Security is the first duty of government. Where that demands cooperation, governments must do so; where it requires consent, that must be built.

Winning the information war with Russia starts at home — NATO’s European leaders need to start now

John McTernan is a former speechwriter for ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-communications director to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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