Clairmont: Do you see a connection at all between Trump’s equivocation about honoring NATO Article 5, and Obama’s distinction between core and non-core interests, and [his discussion of] “free riders,” in “The Obama Doctrine”?
Mandelbaum: Well, they're connected by inference. But if you have signed a treaty to protect a country such as Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, that would seem to make it a core interest.
Clairmont: Russia has made military incursions in Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, all non-NATO countries. And one gets the sense that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has designs on Estonia [as well as the other Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania], which are NATO countries. But he hasn’t done anything in those countries. Is this because NATO, so far, works?
Mandelbaum: I think the fact that Ukraine and Georgia were not in NATO certainly made them attractive targets. And now the Baltic states are in question. They’re not defensible, at least not with the force the United States and NATO have there. So they are in some sense the equivalent to the Cold War status of West Berlin. But Putin has lots of ways to harass the Baltics: cyberattacks, stirring up ethnic Russians. So, he could make a lot of trouble for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, without having Russian troops cross the border between them and Russia.
When NATO expansion was proposed it was presented by the Clinton administration as being a way to unite Europe. And those of us who were opposed 20 years ago said: “To the contrary, this is going to create a line of division in Europe.” And so it did. It would have been a line of division if only Russia had been excluded. But for various reasons Georgia and Ukraine were also excluded, and now they are in no-man’s land.
Clairmont: Walter Russell Mead, the foreign-policy writer and my former boss, sometimes says that if you put up signs over one half of a lake that say “no fishing,” people are going to make an assumption about the other half of that lake.
Mandelbaum: There is something to that.
I think that although NATO expansion was a terrible mistake—and a very costly one, in that Russia might well have a different foreign policy than it does if not for NATO expansion and all that followed—precisely because of what Russia has become, there is a need for NATO. Europe is important to the United States. But it’s true that the Europeans pay less than what every American president since Eisenhower regarded as their fair share—President Obama called the Europeans free riders, and to some degree indeed they are. They have been for over 60 years, dating back to 1952 and the Lisbon Agreement [on NATO Force Levels]. The idea was that NATO should have many more ground troops than it had, and they would come from the Europeans. But the Europeans never stumped up.