NATO’s Child

“How smart is that? And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper…We could use that on our southern border…here’s a guy who’s very savvy.”

— Donald Trump’s comments on Vladimir Putin’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Eastern regions, Feb. 22, 2022

I’ll never forget candidate Donald Trump’s first campaign trail attack on NATO in 2016. According to Vanity Fair, the telegraphed threat to our democratic allies came mere hours after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. When asked how he would deal with a Russian attack on the Baltic nations, Trump said U.S. aid would be dependent upon whether those countries “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

The question to Trump referenced Article 5, which represents the core mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance as embodied in the concept of Collective Defense. It “requires that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies,” according to NATO. Article 5 was first invoked after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when NATO member states came to America’s aid.

To someone who had grown up in the shadow of NATO — to an American whose father proudly contributed to NATO’s mission in Europe — Donald Trump’s words already sounded like treason. 

But it got worse. Throughout his chaotic presidency, Trump regularly threatened NATO allies and repeatedly told aides he wanted the United States to withdraw from NATO, according to the New York Times

The American president wanted to shatter this 70-year-old mutually protective alliance between the great democracies of Europe and America. 

Does anyone still wonder why?

***

In 1962, my South Omaha-born Polish father, West Point graduate and recently minted Army Lt. George Wees, was stationed in Heidelberg in then-West Germany. His Signal Corps unit was assisting the newly authorized military of the recently admitted NATO member state. I was born at the spartan Army hospital there, just a few months before the October Missile Crisis. 

World War II had ended for our Heidelberg home some 17 years earlier. Evidence of the Cold War now surrounded us, including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s brand-new Berlin Wall. 

A decade later, in 1973, Dad was ordered to the NATO command in southern Italy, so off we went. We lived near Pozzuoli, a small town on the Bay of Naples, in a country house. Dad worked for what was then called the Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) command, located on a bucolic campus in downtown Naples.

I remember when, in 1974, we learned that NATO member state Greece was stepping away from its role in the AFSOUTH military command. This was a result of an attack by Turkish forces on Cyprus. It felt like a shock: The Greek military was leaving us. 

In those days, even such a small ripple in the fabric of our stability was significant. The Cold War was very real to us, though very hushed, like a terrible secret. We kids knew the dangerous business our parents were engaged in, so we listened closely. Hot spots like Cyprus could become another Korea, another Vietnam. Or something much worse. 

NATO’s strength in numbers felt like our strength. Its diminution felt like our weakness.

***

With the Soviet Union long gone, some now ask, what is America’s interest in NATO? I might respond with the French aphorism: Plus ça change…. Because NATO’s purpose was never to protect Europe from the USSR, as some choose to believe. Its purpose was — and is — to protect all those who value democratic self-determination and the rule of law from those who do not. 

And it’s not just NATO’s job. It’s ours, too. Because as we have been repeatedly reminded lately, some wield power for themselves alone — for their own interests against the interests of peace, against the community of nations and against the rule of law. How well we live up to our ideals is not the question at times such as these. The question is how much we value the preservation of our way of life, the pursuit of our ideals and the legal protections for both traditions afforded by our Constitution. 

A benevolent and peaceful American future is not assured. As we should know by now, the relative peace and economic cooperation that has allowed Europe and America to thrive since the end of World War II is constantly under threat from morally unmoored opportunists like Vladimir Putin — and Donald Trump. 

(The above appeared originally in the online Nebraska Examiner 02/26/2022 under the headline “Ukraine and future of the NATO alliance”)

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