Trump sets NATO on edge, but he’s got a valid point to make

Click to play video: 'Trump calls NATO obsolete, continues to stir controversy days before inauguration' Trump calls NATO obsolete, continues to stir controversy days before inauguration
WATCH ABOVE: Donald Trump has caused worry in Europe by suggesting NATO is obsolete, and that he trusts Russia’s president as much as the leaders of America’s closest allies. Jackson Proskow reports – Jan 16, 2017

As we head toward the inauguration of Donald Trump later this week, two stories jumped out at me. The first was fairly typical pre-inaugural fare: the president-elect, in an interview given jointly to British and German media, returned to many of his familiar talking points, including strong criticisms of NATO.

“It was designed a long time ago,” Mr. Trump told reporters from The Times of London and Germany’s Bild, declaring the alliance “obsolete.” (The U.S. constitution he’ll soon be tasked with “preserving, protecting and defending” is also no spring chicken, one can’t help but note.) Mr. Trump also said that the alliance failed to fight terrorism and that many members were refusing to pay their fair share.

READ MORE: NATO is obsolete, Trump says, but still ‘very important to me’

Then there was the second story: early in the morning (local time) on Thursday of last week, a convoy of American armoured vehicles, troops and assorted combat gear entered Poland. American troops have never before been permanently stationed in Poland, which joined NATO in 1999. Technically, they still won’t be “permanently” stationed — to honour an agreement signed with Russia years ago, under which NATO agreed to not permanently station troops in Eastern Europe, the forces will be rotated out every nine months, in constant succession. Troops will come, troops will go, but the American military presence will remain.

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A man poses for photos with a member of the US army (L) during an official welcome event for the US army in Zagan, west Poland, January 14, 2017. EPA/LECH MUSZYNSKI

And the Americans aren’t the only countries deploying troops on a similar not-permanent-but-permanent basis: Canada is leading a battlegroup in Latvia, Britain in Estonia and Germany in Lithuania. The battlegroups are small — roughly a thousand troops each — but they are still a big improvement over the nothing that previously constituted NATO’s first line of defence in Eastern Europe. They’re also symbolically important. The allies have banded together as one to deter aggression.

READ MORE: Canada’s Latvia mission moving ahead despite concerns about NATO’s future

The two stories made for interesting reading, particularly in contrast to each other. The American contingent in Poland, one of two the U.S. has pledged to send to that country, was welcomed with hugs, waves and chit-chat from friendly locals, and no doubt relief among Polish political and military officials. Meanwhile, the man who will command those soldiers in a matter of days has written off the treaty under which they have been deployed in the first place. Because it’s old.

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There’s nothing new or even all that unusual about U.S. presidents being sworn into office having pledged a new approach to a geopolitical or military strategy. But it’s hard to recall a change of presidents in the United States throwing a mission into doubt literally as the mission gets started. Will those troops newly arrived in Poland turn their tanks around and drive back into Germany a few weeks hence?

WATCH: Poland’s Prime Minister welcomed 4,000 U.S. troops to the country as part of a NATO deployment which is being seen as a show of force to Russia.

Click to play video: 'US troops welcomed to Poland as part of NATO show of force' US troops welcomed to Poland as part of NATO show of force
US troops welcomed to Poland as part of NATO show of force – Jan 14, 2017

Short answer: probably not. One hopes Trump’s officials in the U.S. defence and state departments would head off any such embarrassment. But the status of NATO, and certainly this specific mission, is very much in doubt under President Donald Trump. NATO’s entire original purpose, still in effect today, is to deter aggression through not only military might, but also resolute, ironclad commitment to collective defence. A deterrent only works so long as the other guys believe you mean what you say.

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But Trump isn’t entirely wrong about NATO. That’s an uncomfortable fact that needs to be acknowledged. It’s silly to say it’s obsolete because it’s old, and NATO, contrary to Trump’s words, has certainly stepped up to fight terrorism. NATO has been at war in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, for instance, and the alliance’s willingness to fight terrorism abroad is a big reason why it is anything but obsolete.

But Mr. Trump isn’t wrong about too many NATO allies under spending, dramatically, on defence. The European allies, and Canada, I’m sorry to say, have long taken for granted the American security guarantee that NATO has afforded them. Worse, many Canadians and European citizens — including numerous government officials — have long and sometimes openly derided and mocked U.S. foreign and defence policies, and treated America itself with disdain.

America’s foreign policy is hardly perfect, if I may be forgiven an understatement. There’s any number of disasters that could have been easily avoided. But there’s always been something off-putting about smug Canadians and Europeans criticizing American defence policies while living comfortably and safely in countries that are free to neglect their armed forces knowing full well those boorish, ignorant Americans will protect them. The American electorate has traditionally been remarkably patient and tolerant toward such fair-weather (at best) friends. Until, perhaps, now.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada is a “strong and valuable NATO partner” that will continue to be a part of the alliance following President-elect Donald Trump’s comments on NATO.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau discusses Canada’s role in NATO following Trump’s comments on paying more, doing less' Trudeau discusses Canada’s role in NATO following Trump’s comments on paying more, doing less
Trudeau discusses Canada’s role in NATO following Trump’s comments on paying more, doing less – Nov 14, 2016

The need to spend more on defence, to take their own security needs seriously, is hopefully dawning on officials in capitals across Europe. Alas, there’s no sign of any such dawning awareness in Ottawa. There’s been some talk of Canada’s commitment to NATO – that’s super – but unless Canada is ready to spend more, much more, on defence, talk is all we’ll be offering.

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READ MORE: Reality check: Donald Trump says NATO members need to pay more. What is Canada paying?

Canada doesn’t have enough troops, enough planes or enough ships to contribute much more to international operations than it already is, and with the government seemingly determined to find a peacekeeping mission in Africa, the Canadian military cupboard will be even more bare. If Russia decided to send a column of tanks toward Paris tomorrow, on top of the troops headed for Latvia and a half-dozen or so jets, Canada could send … thoughts and prayers. And maybe a fact-finding mission.

To the extent that Trump’s comments on NATO can give the allies the kick in the rear they need to make their own defence a priority, they are welcome. But only to that extent. Undermining the integrity of cornerstone of Western security is a terrible idea at any time. For an incoming U.S. president to do so as his troops arrive in a new land with promises of protection makes for particularly horrific timing.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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