About Steve Saideman
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U.S. President Donald Trump's NATO speech
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Transcript of the interview:
Sandy Garossino: This has got to be one of the most consequential NATO summits in recent memory or perhaps almost in the history of NATO. What is your overall perception coming into this summit and what are your expectations?
Stephen Saideman: There’s an irony here because the actual agenda is fairly limited. There hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion ahead of time of major initiatives. Two years ago at Warsaw, the big deal was the lead-up to the enhanced foreign presence at Warsaw Summit, plus the deployment of 4,000 NATO forces into the Baltics and Poland.
And so that was sort of a return to the, you know, sort of Cold War strategy, vis-à-vis Russia. And so that was a big deal. We don’t really see anything like that this time but on the other hand, there’s great concern that Trump may do much damage to NATO, so that’s why this is really consequential. It’s not like there’s a huge agenda item that will lead to major shifts in policy. It’s just a question of whether, at the end of the summit, whether NATO will still be standing given Trump’s various histrionics at past meetings, and whether there’ll actually be any agreements at all.
Garossino: How much is eastern Europe playing in the minds of all the professionals and experts and, and government officials there? I notice Canada is making some moves in eastern Europe.
Saideman: I think that’s been sort of the job of NATO. It’s going back to a return to what NATO was built to do, which was to contain the Soviet Union and to keep, to build peace and stability in Europe. The current threat to peace and stability in Europe is the Russian threat to the Baltic. The fact that NATO’s focused on that is important. And so you’ll probably see some discussion about the enhanced foreign presence mission.
The momentum right now, or the effort right now, is to make it easier for NATO forces to move from west to east in case of emergency. Exercises have shown that simply crossing boundaries is very difficult because of all the bureaucracy involved in that. There may be Schengen that allows goods and services and labour to move throughout most of Europe, but those rules don’t apply to tanks and artillery and whatever else would be moved across. And so there’s some effort being made right now to try to make it easier to move equipment across from, you know, Spain to Portugal to France. Or Germany all the way through Poland to the Baltics. So that’s going to be one of the priorities and that’s the one they may make some progress on.
Garossino: I understand Canada is enhancing its presence in Latvia. Are there other initiatives coming or expected from other NATO members to fortify or to enhance their presence in other Baltic nations?
Saideman: I think what Canada was doing was basically saying something that everybody understood to be the case, which was that the deployment of forces to the Baltics was now a one year thing. In fact, that whole debate about what to call it, persistent presence versus permanent presence, was a political thing, but everybody was expecting it to go off within a year.
I’m not sure you’ll see a lot of other countries...declare that they’re going to be there for three or four years ‘cause they’ve already made that commitment in the last year. It was just Canada was making it clear this time about a commitment they essentially made last year. They even agreed to lead this framework nation in Latvia. It was well understood that that was not a one-time, one-year thing. So they may be taking a little bit of credit now for a decision they made last year.
Trump’s NATO confusion
Garossino: So of course we have all by now heard President Trump. His very dramatic statements about how much America is subsidizing or covering the expenses for Europe and military expenses of NATO and basically, you know the standard line that this is a bad deal, America’s getting ripped off. And most of us have heard the two per cent figure (of GDP spending on defence) and have some vague comprehension of it. Can you explain what this two per cent figure means? How does it play out? How does this funding actually translate into NATO obligations?
Saideman: Trump has done more to confuse this debate over the past couple of years than anybody in the history of NATO. The reality is that NATO has always had a problem with how much does each member country spend on their own defence?
The idea is, if every country spends more on their own defence, then there’ll be more collective capability to deal with, whether it’s Russia or Afghanistan or events in the Balkans or whatever else. The idea is that every country has more money spent on their military, meaning more soldiers, more planes, more tanks, more ships, more money spent on exercising and being ready to fight, the greater the capability NATO has, then the more successful it can be in whatever it does. So the two per cent was just an idea of having a common goal.
And [the two per cent figure] was debated for a long time, but it was at the Wales Summit in 2014 where NATO agreed that countries would aspire to. The ‘aspire to’ part was something that (former Canadian prime minister) Stephen Harper put into the language because he didn’t want to actually commit to spending two per cent, but the idea was to aspire to reach two per cent by 2024.
One of Trump’s mistakes, deliberate or not, is he talked about countries not spending two per cent now. Again, the NATO agreement was to reach two per cent in 2024. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that when Trump talks about it, he acts as if countries —because they haven’t spent money in the past — somehow owe the United States money. This is not how it works. NATO is not a protection racket. It is not a country club. If you’re behind, if you pay less in earlier years, it doesn’t mean you have to more in later years.
There is a real problem with some of the countries of NATO having not spent enough money on their military, so that they’re not sufficiently ready. For instance, a lot of the German military equipment is simply not ready to fight. They only have a small percentage of the planes and the helicopters and tanks that are actually able to move and fly and do whatever else they have to do. So there’s a real problem that is out there.
But the two per cent metric is a problem, in part because it’s two per cent of your gross domestic product. So if your gross domestic product is small, then you look good by this metric. And we call that country Greece. Greece does better than two per cent, partly because the economy is smaller, probably because its economy has tanked, and partly ‘cause they have been milked out of a suitably sized military for years to be able to deal with – the Turkish threat.
The problem is the Turkish threat is within NATO and so it’s not as if Greece’s military is aligned to deal with NATO problems. And Greece rarely shows up in places like Afghanistan or Libya or anyplace else in any kind of way. They averaged roughly 20 guys in Afghanistan for most of the time that Afghanistan was going on. So the idea of two per cent is just one measure. It's not the only measure.
NATO also has measures about how much money’s going towards new investments in new equipment as opposed to just personnel costs, ‘cause a lot of countries will spend a lot of money on personnel, which helps a little bit, but in some ways it can be seen as a domestic benefit program or it could be seen in a variety of other ways, but it may not add to military capabilities in the same way as having the newest and latest and more artillery pieces, ships, planes and so forth. So Trump harping on this makes sense for him, because he wants to have any excuse to blast NATO. It comes down to something that’s more fundamental than the two per cent problem.
Which is that Trump sees any international agreement as a rip-off because he projects his own personality onto everybody else. He thinks that any deal he makes is exploitative, so he thinks that any deal, you know, that he wants to exploit others, so he thinks that anybody who makes a deal with the United States has tried to exploit the United States, because he thinks everybody is just like him. And that’s the problem. He opposes NATO, he’s opposed to NASA, he’s opposed to the World Trade Organization, he’s opposed to transfers of partnership, he got out of the climate change deal.
All these cooperative efforts he’s opposed to because he thinks any agreement the United States has made is a rip-off is because he thinks that everybody else is just like him. And that’s the fundamental problem. The two per cent thing is a hammer he’s using to beat up on NATO, but there’s a more fundamental thing here, which is he’s opposed to NATO. You don’t have to think about his ties to the Russians to get into the logic of this— you can just think about how he sees deal-making to get to the point where why he’s opposed to NATO.
Putin's interests in Europe
Garossino: So let’s look at Russia and Vladimir Putin’s interest. Because NATO has, since the end of the Cold War, expanded and absorbed into its membership a number of former Warsaw Pact nations that were part of the Soviet Union. And so now NATO is much closer to the doorstep of Russia and it does appear that Putin. He has taken his own steps in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and the region has become destabilized because of his willingness to use military force to expand and pursue Russian interests. Obviously, NATO and Russia are at loggerheads. Can you just explain the regional geopolitics for Canadian listeners about what his objectives might be. Why does Vladimir Putin care about NATO?
Saideman: The first thing is that a lot of the Russians, and particularly Putin, see the end of the Cold War as a defeat for Russia that they’ve been seeking to reverse. That the collapse of the Soviet Union was traumatic, that the loss of Russian influence was something they regretted. They’ve been trying to make Russia back to being a very influential power. Russia has lost influence in its own region, and its lost influence in the world. And they’re trying to reverse that. That’s the first thing.
NATO did expand and there were a lot of criticisms at the time that this would cause Russia to react. But a lot of Russia’s behaviour that we see after NATO enlargement was stuff that they were doing before NATO enlargement. They were playing in the politics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, Abkhazia, etc., etc., which are both pieces of Georgia. They’re doing a variety of things in what were...pieces of the former Soviet Union before NATO expanded, but certainly NATO expansion was something that he didn’t want to see because then that was an exertion of western influence in the region.
But if we take a look at 2014 and what happened with Crimea, that was much less about NATO and much more about the European Union. Because in 2014, there were two things that were going on: one was that United States and NATO were cutting their militaries, so even while NATO was officially closer to Russia, it was presenting much less of a military threat because the Americans were literally taking their last tanks out of Europe and sending them home. And the rest of the European countries were cutting their military budgets.
On the other hand, the real trigger was the change of government in the Ukraine, which became more favourable towards the European Union. The real trigger was a discussion of talks where Ukraine would become a partner to the European Union, not become a member, but a partner. And this was something that was beyond the pale for Putin because it might inspire other parts of the former Soviet Union, and even Russia itself, to have better relations with the European Union.
Garossino: Can I just ask why was the potential Ukraine membership in the EU such a threat to Putin? In what way?
Saideman: The key is that Ukraine had always been within the Russian sphere of influence. And Russia had dominated the politics of Ukraine. With a change of leadership, Ukraine was a less Russia-friendly government and looking more western.
This meant two things. It meant: (a) that Putin would have less influence in Ukraine; and (b) it might inspire other parts, other peoples within the former Soviet Bloc, including Russians themselves, to think that there are alternatives to the status quo, that Putin cares most of all about maintaining his own regime, which is a hypocrisy.
It’s a bunch of people who are really rich who are corrupt, who are maintaining a corporal system at the expense of everybody else, and the EU is supposed to make things more transparent, less corrupt and all the rest of it.
And we see that, that when countries join the EU, they have to do all kinds of stuff to make it clear that they’re not corrupt and while the EU did let in countries that had these kind of problems, it is an opposing model of how to organize one’s whole economic system.
A successful Ukraine in that model would present a challenge to the legitimacy of Putin. That was really the trigger for all the stuff that we’ve seen since then. It wasn’t about NATO being on their doorstep, it was about the European Union being on their doorstep. That was really mattered. From the standpoint of outsiders, we can’t tell the Ukrainians that they shouldn’t be trying to look for the best deal that they can get, that they shouldn’t be trying to join an international relation that has had a pretty good record of success at developing the economies of even the poorer countries.
The European Union doesn’t too good right now because of all the conflict of Brexit, and Greece in the past 10 years. But overall the European economy’s done very well and has been developing very well since they unified. And this is a model that challenges the basis of the Russian regime.
Garossino: You've expressed your view about Trump, and Trump’s motivation, but of course, behind all of this is a continuing suspicion that Trump is also under the influence of Vladimir Putin in this. Do you have any opinion about that? Do you think that there’s something more at work?
Saideman: It’s hard to say. It’s clear that we haven’t had a government this compromised by a foreign country since — well, I don’t know of a time in American history that it’s been like this. But it’s not clear that Trump is following Putin’s marching orders as much as Putin has been supporting someone who’s most likely to disrupt things. Not because Trump is following some sort of a plan set down by the Russians, but simply that he’s a force for this order.
The biggest consistency in Russian foreign policy the past 65 years or so has been so support anybody who’s undermining democracy, anybody who would cause challenges to the west. So there’s clearly Russian support for Brexit and we’ve seen what upheaval Brexit has caused, not just for Britain but for European Union. We’ve seen Russian support for Trump during the election. I don’t think they thought he was going to win, but they thought this was the mess for Hillary Clinton.
We’ve seen Russian support for Le Pen in last year’s French elections, and it didn’t work out for the Russians in that case. So the larger consistency is Russia is just trying to stir things up and make it harder for democracies to work together. And Putin’s larger objective in the long run is to break NATO.
Not only does Putin not want NATO on his shores, but he also doesn’t want NATO to exist at all. He would like to have more Russian influence in the region, and NATO is a threat to that. I don’t know how Trump ultimately fits into this in terms of whether he’s compromised or whether he’s just sympathetic to Putin or because Trump does not really support any rules, any institutions, anywhere. And so they’re like-minded as they look towards the international institutions governing the, what we call the rules-based international order. Trump is opposed to rules, so he’s a friendly person for what Putin wants to do. But I can’t say that he’s following Putin’s order, although it sometimes look like that.
Garossino: From the perspective of advantage or benefits to the US, when you listen to Donald Trump, it's as if NATO is a charitable institution that the United States donates to, to help and protect Europe. He pretty much said that on Twitter today. But of course, Article 5, the only that Article 5 has been invoked by NATO was NATO was, as far as I understand, was in defence of the United States in the mission in Afghanistan following 9/11. And there are other benefits, there are cyber-security benefits, there are other benefits, ways that the United States has benefited. To what extent do you think that there is dissension in the United States military, and what kind of a stress has this placed on Secretary Mattis and the American military, which I would imagine probably has seen considerable benefits from NATO.
Saideman: Absolutely. The American military is actually mostly laterally minded. They understand that when they fight, it’s better off fighting together, that fighting with allies is often difficult, but fighting without them is more painful.
That was one of the lessons is Afghanistan versus Iraq, that the organization of NATO has been very much a force multiplier, that’s the way the US military would phrase it. That they don’t see Germany as a threat to the United States. They don’t see France as a threat to the United States.
They see these countries as vital allies on a variety of measures around the world, a variety of activities around the world. I worked in the U.S. Pentagon in 2001/2002 on a fellowship where I was on the Bosnia desk, and it was very clear – this was at a time when Rumsfeld, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, was very hostile to international relations. I would go to all these meetings and you’d see Rumsfeld’s people on one side of the desk and the military on the other side of the table, along with the State Department and along with the National Security Council, which illustrated, sort of, the basic stance of the American military as being multi-laterally minded.
The big value of NATO for the American people has been that the United States benefits from a vital and secure and prosperous Europe. This has long been true, and the United States got sucked into two wars in the twentieth century when United States stayed out of things and wars developed, and it turned out to be far cheaper and far more beneficial to the United States to base troops in Europe to prevent a third war, to keep trade open with Europe, to keep relations open with Europe, and to keep the Russians out of Europe.
One of the biggest problems I have with Trump’s stances on NATO is he sees it as a charity that the United States is doing out of the goodness of its heart, and the reality is that if you ask probably 97 per cent of the folks who study International Relations, they see NATO as being a tool of American influence, as something that benefits the United States.
It gives it not only a safe and secure Europe but it also gives it more influence in Europe. It gives it more ability to do things in other parts of the world because they don’t have to worry as much about Europe. At least they did not have to worry as much about Europe. That the United States has to exert all kinds of effort just to try to get the Koreans and the Japanese on board on anything because there is no NATO-like thing providing the glue to bring all the east Asian allies together.
Doing things in Europe is far easier because we’ve got this institution that makes it easier for the United States to coordinate with its friends to get things done. So this whole idea that it’s a charitable institution is just wrong, but then Trump is wrong about NATO in so many different ways.
Garossino: So what kind of tensions might be arising within the US military camps that… Are you looking to any of the people in your network to hear from them about how this, is all perceived and how anybody plans on responding if things go badly awry?
Saideman: Things have already gone badly awry. But there’s not much the US military can do about it ‘cause the United States is trying to run a country where there’s civilian control of military. Now, the way that’s worked under Trump has been badly. He has not taken responsibility for the bad things that have happened and he’s only taken responsibility for the good things.
But the US military is not going to organize a coup and Jim Mattis is not going to exert much authority to push back against Trump on these things. We’ve seen many, many, many people overrate the ability of Jim Mattis to override Donald Trump. What the US military has done on war planning for Iran and for other issues is they’ll do what they call ‘slow rolling’ which is they’ll be asked by Trump “Hey, what about this?” and they’ll say “Okay, we’ll look into that.” And then they’ll look into it and they’ll look into it and they won’t produce anything. And then Trump will say “Hey, how about this?” and again they’ll eventually come up with a plan or a set of options that are very unattractive, and then Trump is left frustrated. So this is one reason why you got that recent announcement about Space Force, because Trump wanted to have a new command, a new branch of the service for space operations, and the people at the Pentagon didn’t want to do it.
It’s expensive to build an entirely new service. They felt that, you know, this is stuff that the Airforce could do, so you didn’t need to have a new branch. So they resisted. And so Trump ultimately said “You know what? We’re going to do it anyway.” So what you will see is the military try to resist by presenting either very, very bad options that turn Trump off, or by just not giving him any options and basically saying that they’re still working on it. But, you know, Trump to pull out of NATO would be very, very hard. What the real threat for NATO, it’s not that the United States pulls out, it’s just that the United States demonstrates that it won’t show up when it’s needed to. That there’s nothing automatic about NATO responses to an emergency.
If the Russians were to attack, it would lead to a vote or a decision progress in Brussels amongst the representatives of each country, and if they can’t get consensus – that is, if they can’t get the countries to agree not to oppose whatever the plan of action is, then nothing happens. And so you could see the United States opposing plan of action and so Latvia or Estonia or Lithuania are left on their own. That’s the real threat.
Garossino: So it’s just a complete dysfunction? So NATO effectively doesn’t collapse, it just doesn’t exist as a real force?
Saideman: Yeah, what will happen is it might exist as an institution but the promise of Article 5 of an attack upon one equals an attack upon all, may no longer be operative because if people don’t believe the United States is going to respond, well that’s the end of it. It may still have a big, beautiful building in Brussels, they may still be doing stuff. But people will no longer be assured by the probability that the United States and the Russia NATO would show up if somebody is attacked.
Canada's role in keeping international peace and stability
Garossino: What do you see as the major threat that NATO member countries… You’ve talked about Russia, but there are other potential threats. While we think about Russia and eastern Europe, I’m also looking at the Arctic and the number of nations, including Canada, with significant Arctic interests. Are there other areas, other spheres of influence or other areas of concern that you would be watching?
Saideman: The fun part about the Arctic is that NATO is not very active in the Arctic because Canada has resisted NATO taking a greater role. That Stephen Harper wanted it to be a bilateral thing with the United States and they didn’t want to work through NATO in the Arctic. There’s less NATO effort and there’s other kinds of efforts in the Arctic, is probably ‘cause of continuing opposition.
But the things that do get discussed at NATO which aren’t about Russia are about places like Afghanistan and Iraq, that there are still NATO forces in Afghanistan training the Afghan army, so that’s still a major priority. That the training of the Iraqi army is something that NATO is taking some responsibility for, so they’ll be talking about that. The big divide in NATO, besides Trump versus everybody else, is between those who care about the eastern front, which would be Russia, and those who care about the southern front, which are those countries that are mostly in the southern part of, of the alliance, that would be Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, Spain, who are more worried about the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
So there’s been some discussion about whether NATO could do more to prevent the flow of refugees. This is really hard to do because it’s not really sort of the same kind of basic NATO habits they have from the Cold War like putting troops close to the Soviet Union, now closer to Russians, having them be trip wires, having them be deterrents. NATO never had the ability to prevent refugees, so how does it do that? That’s something that’s going to be discussed...but I’m not sure what kind of progress they’ll make. But that’s the other front that a lot of NATO cares about it. It’s not so much the north but the south.
Garossino: Tell us more about Canada’s interest in NATO. We feel this enormous national obligation to be part of NATO, to participate in that, to keep probably very much largely emerging from the post-war era. Today what is – if we have been pushing back on any kind of multi-lateral presence or arrangement regarding the Arctic, what is Canada’s interest in NATO membership?
Saideman: Canada, like the United States, has an interest in European security and stability. That’s the first thing, is that Canada’s had to fight in a couple of big, bloody wars in Europe in the twentieth century and we’d like to avoid doing that. And Canada benefits from having a Europe that is peaceful and prosperous. Canada signed a trade agreement with Europe, and obviously trade with Europe is an important alternative these days given the rising trade war with the United States. And so just having a peaceful, prosperous Europe is good for Canada in terms of diversifying its trade. The second thing that’s important is that when we think about Canada and Asia we have a hard time figuring out how to fit in.... It’s a small country relative to, you know, the big populations of India and China. It doesn’t have, you know, a very large Navy compared to the Japanese.
And so when we look to Asia, we’re like “How does Canada fit in?” We don’t really have that question when it comes to Europe because Canada fits in through NATO, that Canada has shown up in every single NATO operation. Canada did not show up in 2003 in Iraq ‘cause that was not a NATO operation, but Canada showed up in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Libya, Afghanistan, and of course during the Cold War. And so Canada has always been a part of NATO operations. And so while Canadians should care about NATO, because when NATO acts, it ultimately places demands upon Canada. And so Canada plays a role.
And I think in large part this has been good for Canada because, again, it gives Canada the influence and a role to play. Canadians want Canada to make a difference in the world and it can make a difference more clearly through institutions like NATO than it can by itself. And again, the contrast between Europe and Asia is stark. Canada simply doesn’t know how to fit in in Asia, but NATO is a way to get Canada to have influence.
And it had the command of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation in Afghanistan under Russ Hillier before he became Chief of Defence Staff. It had operational command of a Libyan air operation under General Bouchard. Canada’s developed a very fine reputation for being a good NATO ally for leading operations and that gives Canada some influence. And it can help Canada make a difference in the world. And these days it’s a bit more direct than trying to go through the UN where Canada’s influence was more diffuse
Garossino: I note that Canada’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is one of the lower, among the lower members of NATO. Are we on track to hit that two per cent number? And if we are not, how do you perceive our military spending in this context?
Saideman: The Defence Review that came out last year, made it very clear two things: the bottom line is that Canada was going to spend a lot more money on its military, and that Canada was not going to hit two per cent. That they were going to recalculate the numbers using some of the calculations other countries do that will make Canada look a little bit better, because we weren’t counting some things that other countries count.
There’s no single way to count what is a defence item to get to that magic two per cent number. But there is this ongoing and future massive investment in the Canadian military that if we end up buying all these ships and we end up buying all these planes, Canada will have more capabilities, and may get us to 1.45 per cent, 1.49 per cent. The Canadian message will be “We’re spending more, we’re going to have more capability, and unlike other countries, our capability is going to make a difference and make a contribution.”
Again, you’ve got countries that spend more of the GDP on their military, but it doesn’t show up during a NATO mission whereas Canada does do that. And so that’s the thing that Trudeau kept on harping with Trump about is that Canadians died in Afghanistan for Americans. Afghanistan wasn’t a Canadian war, it was an American war. And so Canada always show up. That’s the message that they’re trying to give, that it’s not just about two per cent.
But Canada does face a problem, which is that it needs to spend more money on its military, but the same people are not all enthused about it because they understand that Canada is not really threatened, it’s about whether Canada wants to make contributions in the world. And you know, spending more money in the oil trade hasn’t won people a lot of votes.
Garossino: Who is the global community of the NATO community looking to, to show leadership at this summit? Is Canada in the mix here?
Saideman: Absolutely. Right now, a lot of countries within the Alliance are having their own domestic political problems. They’re facing large populace movements. Merkel has had to deal with a lot of fratricide within her own party or within her, the right wing of the political system. The British are a complete and utter mess.
When you look around, Canada is a success story right now in that it’s not facing a huge populace backlash that, while Trudeau’s taking some knocks domestically, his image internationally is still quite good. At least, in Europe it is. His European trips tend to go much better than his Asian trips...that might be the understatement of the day.
So, there are people looking to Trudeau to be a leader of the West. First, because he was a good Trump whisperer, he seemed to have Trump mollified for quite some time. And now, as someone who is leading the resistance against Trump, by pushing back on the trade war. So I do think that Canada is more visible now, and I’ve seen a bunch of articles the past few days talking about Canada as one of the last best hopes for the international order because Canada has always been a supporter of international order. And even as the American support declines, the Canadians become more visible in supporting NATO and supporting the World Trade Organization and supporting NASA and supporting all these other arrangements that have created peace and stability, and fostered growth.
Garossino: Professor Saideman, thank you so much for joining us.
Saideman: My pleasure, Sandy.