Monday, November 6, 2017

NATO, Latvia and The Joy That is Trump

This afternoon, I went to a lunch roundtable with a visiting Latvian dignatary, organized by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.  It was held under Chatham House rule, so I can only report what I said and what I learned, not what individual folks said.  As I am a cheerleader for the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence effort in the Baltics (I would rather Putin have fewer opportunities for a fait accompli), I tend to get invites.  And I learn stuff, which is good because I am endlessly curious.

What did I learn today?
  • I hadn't realized that twenty of NATO's twenty-nine countries have sent contingents to the Baltics. Which raises the classic question: who isn't?  When I have some time, I will figure that out.
  • I heard something I had not heard before: Trump's uncertainty might be a good thing.  That is, Putin likes to play the madman game to intimidate folks, but Trump is more sincerely a madman (not put in those words).  In my one chance to ask a question, I pushed back on this--that what NATO needs is certainty.  Which then led to:
  • Yep, the folks in Europe still hang their hopes on the generals--Mattis, McMaster and Kelly.  Followers of the Semi-Spew would guess that I pushed back hard on this. Yes, I did, noting that McMaster has been a bit more optimistic about military options in Korea, which means he is less credible.  Oh and that Kelly is awful, awful, awful.  That Mattis might have be wiser and more constrained, but Trump doesn't always listen.  Anyhow, I think this is wishful thinking--that we can hope that the generals can contain Trump, but given the lack of real alternatives, it is one that folks are going to hold on to.
  • That Latvia is lucky to have gotten Canada as its framework partner.  The British?  Not so reliable after Brexit--who knows what military capabilities they are going to sacrifice as a declining pound bites them big-time.  Germany?  The Germans are infected by Schroeder disease--that the past Chancellor is now in bed with Putin, and there are concerns that there are others in the German political system with financial interests in Russia.  Canada?  A good transatlantic partner that has always done serious things when needed--Vimy, Dieppe, etc.
  • That a big NATO presence, one that RAND recommended, would be bad.  That the current NATO force is not a real threat to Russia, but if you put in 7 brigades, they will come up with offensive war plans.  That deterrence worked in West Berlin with a very light force. 
  • That if Russia were to engage in war, they would find themselves cut off from the European markets and from shipping lanes--the Baltic Sea and Black Sea would be blocked.  Interesting.
  • Estonia and Latvia do seem to have the rules of engagement that I thought--if they see "little green men" Russian provocateurs, they will shoot them.  The question I didn't ask is: is that authority pre-delegated to the local troops?
  • Smartest thing: EU is the greatest threat to Putin, not NATO.  Because countries seeking to join the west and be more successful economically, such as Belarus, raise more risks for Putin's domestic politics.
  • In terms of who to hang out with, the Latvians prefer to be among the Nordics than Central European countries.
Overall, a very interesting lunch.  Thanks, MacLI!

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