On Trump, NATO, Bullies and the Baltics

Why should Donald Trump be considered an existential threat to all we have here in America, and more broadly an existential threat to western civilization and the free world as a whole? I mean he is just a somettimes-failed businessman who says things off the cuff that many heretofore self-described-marginalized members of the majority (read: mostly white males) have always wanted to say but never had the political cover to do so in polite company. He is a just buffoon making a mockery of our two party system (and possibly destroying one of those parties from the inside out). How is that guy a truly existential threat? There are numerous examples, many have been beaten like the proverbial dead horse. He could piss off Iran and give them reason to destabilize the Middle East. His numerous bigoted remarks on Muslims and Mexicans give cover for some heinous maleficent actors to do horrible things in the name of “saving our country from rapists and militant Islamists.” And many obvious answers which have been discussed ad nauseum on Sunday morning cable news shows by folks far smarter than I. However, some are more obscure, festering just under the surface of what most citizens know and are discussing at dinner parties. These threats are at a depth not too deep to understand but deep enough so as to be just out of view for most Sunday morning TV watchers. And that is not to demean most voters, these threats lay in the minutia left to law makers and policy wonks as an inherent condition of our representative government. The following is but one of those threats.

I will continue with this assuming a few things: readers of this know what/who NATO is and what for what reasons it exists. Readers also understand bullies and human nature and weaker players and the dynamic which exists in such a scenario.

So how do bullies and NATO and the Baltics fit into my assertion that Trump is a unique, existential threat to western civilization? Trump’s mere hints that he would not come to the aid of Baltic states (ie. weaker, more vulnerable countries), NATO members no less, in the event of a Russian invasion unless they “have fulfilled their obligations to us” is a great place to start this examination. Why would this pose an existential threat and as many of my “friends” ask, “who cares about some small countries so far away?”. Stay with me and I will try to tie it all together.

Let us start off with the bullies. Most grew up in a neighborhood/community that had at minimum one bully who everyone knew not to mess with. He was the tough (usually older) guy who would take the lunch money of the weaker/younger/more vulnerable kids in the neighborhood. My hood’s bully was K. Parker (I wont use his full name as I don’t know where he is now and don’t want to besmirch the name of what could be a good person for all I know at this point). K was 4 years older than I am and among the oldest “kids” in our neighborhood. He would steal lunch money, skate boards, bikes, and even be so bold as to steal beer from outside refrigerators of neighbors. He acted with impunity when it came to those younger, weaker, more vulnerable neighbors. The funny thing about bullies (as most of us come to realize as we age and learn) is they are actually acting out of weakness…and acting out of fear of being unmasked as weak. Bullies act with impunity towards smaller, weaker actors. They take what they want without fear of retribution or consequence. Even if the smaller, weaker “kid” gets a few friends on his side, they are all still weaker and smaller as three or four than the bully. And Mr Parker acted with impunity in our neighborhood. Until one of my smaller, weaker friends told his older, stronger big brother what was going on. And older, stronger big brother confronted the bully and it all stopped…just like that. No blood was shed, no fight occurred; but the bully had been bested — he had been unmasked. A group of smaller, weaker actors with one older, stronger ally put a stop to the bullying with nary a punch thrown. Because deep down bullies are not really tough. They are weak and they prey only on the week. And the only thing that prevents bullies from lashing out at those weak actors around them is the threat of the stronger interested party stepping in to intervene.

As I am sure it is obvious to most, the bully in the case of the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — the smaller, weaker actor in this scenario) is Russia. And the older, stronger brother is NATO (or rather a NATO with the USA fully engaged as stronger, bigger brother). So what is it specifically that keeps Russia from blatantly acting out against its weaker neighbors? Specifically it’s Article V of the NATO accord; the collective defense article which states (paraphrasing) that if an outside entity attacks one of the allies (NATO members), it is as if you have attacked them all. The implications of Article V are clear…you invade the Baltics, you have invaded NATO. Its quite possibly the only thing keeping Putin’s Russia from doing so. But so far this is obvious right? So where is the existential threat? A Presidential-hopeful Trump can say whatever he wants, but surely Russia/Putin doesn’t think that gives a green light to invade the Baltics right? Probably (though we should look no further than eastern Ukraine for probabilities on that). And further I can hear many less versed in history ask “plus its just some small countries with a total population of around 6.1 million so who cares? What have the Baltic states ever done for us?” The short answer is not much; but the long answer is much more nuanced, and Mr Trump seems to miss nuance on every possible occasion and herein lies the real threat.

Back in 2003 (after September 11th, 2001 when the US decided to invade Afghanistan), a small Baltic country (Estonia — population ~ 1.3 million) sent 150 troops to Afghanistan as members of a larger NATO force. I can hear many now “150 troops, wow big deal…what good was that?” Again the short answer is not much considering the overall scale of the war effort. But I give you two reason why it matters (which is also why NATO matters):

1 — Its the principle of the thing. Estonia sent a small group of fighters who if not present would make almost no difference in the strength of the fighting force. But the principle of sending what you can afford to send (and more than you can afford to send, I am sure some parents who lost children from Estonia in the war would say) is what NATO (and specifically Article V) stands for. Its not about fulfilling obligations to the US or to anyone else. Its about being a part of the whole which comprises the larger, stronger actor willing and able to stand up to the local bully. Its the principle which demonstrates the rule to serve as a deterrent for any other would-be-bullies .

2 — Estonia sent 150 fighting members to be a part of the larger NATO force in Afghanistan by 2003. That is only .01% of their total population you might say. But when viewed in a larger sense it is much more meaningful. Of those 150 or so in country at any given time, 9 have died in Afghanistan with another 92 wounded. Those numbers are right in line with American casualties in the Afghan theater based on percentages. “So what?” you might say, “they didn’t sacrifice any more than the Americans did, from a percentage stand point or in gross numbers.” That is correct. However in 2003, Estonia was not yet a member of NATO. They were a hopeful member who would not receive induction into the treaty organization until 2004. And yet they sent troops. Troops who died at the same rate as other full member nations. Troops who came home in body bags at the same rate as American troops. Even though they were not yet members of NATO. And on a side note to this, and just another benefit of the many differing sizes and strengths of NATO member nations is this: When Estonia and the other Baltic States (Lithuania and Latvia being the other two) began losing soldiers to attacks from Taliban fighters on motorcycles and were not able to pursue the attackers in the heavy, armor laden vehicles provided by NATO (for two reasons: the vehicles were not as nimble in the rough, rocky terrain and they were susceptible to roadside IEDs) they made a tactical change. Being smaller and having much less bureaucracy to go through to make changes, they requested motorcycles be sent to the front lines to their troops in hopes of pursuing the attackers more efficiently and effectively (and thus dissuading any future similar attacks). The Baltic NATO troops quickly received the motor bikes set up a training ground for “motorcycle warfare” for lack of a better term, and learned to repel and pursue would be attackers who came on motor bikes. This was very successful in defeating this tactic used by the Taliban and forced the bad guys to change tactics away from one that was previously very successful. The other unintended benefit from this was that the NATO forces learned that the IED’s set by the Taliban on high traffic roadways frequented by NATO forces and locals alike were rigged via a spring load and triggered to go off only when the heavy, armor laden vehicles of NATO rolled over them as opposed to lighter traffic (like foot traffic and motorcycles)…thus allowing the Taliban to easily focus IED casualties on heavy trucks (NATO) and not waste them on locals and (more importantly) not blow themselves up as they quickly and expertly escaped attacks via lighter motor bikes. The Estonian/Baltic ability to quickly adjust tactics (as a result of being such a small force) led to this understanding and tactical breakthrough and loss of tactical advantage for the Taliban. An advantage gained (and information gained) for NATO which was far larger than the corresponding strength of adding Estonia’s 150 soldiers to its unified force.

So why does this lead to the conclusion Trump is an existential threat to western civilization and the free world as we understand it today? Because this delicate balance of implied threat of retaliation (and all that comes with it — even threat from smaller actors like Estonia) is what keeps potential threatening state actors like Russia (and many others) from invading a region and permanently destabilizing the balance of power as it currently stands. Its not exactly the same as the Mutual Assured Destruction of the US/USSR Cold War. It is far more nuanced, which I again say Trump has no grasp of on most levels personally, professionally and politically. So when Trump says to the New York Times on Wednesday, July 21st that he might not defend NATO allies if Russia attacks them based on whether those countries “have fulfilled their obligations to us” it is more than just an ignorance of what those countries have sacrificed in the service of NATO, even before they were full NATO members…it is a perceived crack in the exterior of the willingness of the older, stronger actor to stand up to the weaker, opportunistic bully in the neighborhood. And for those of us who dealt with (and were expected to stand up to) bullies in our neighborhood, even the smallest crack in the perceived willingness to stand up to a bully is like an invitation to act on the bully’s part. And that perceived crack and invitation to act is a potential existential threat to the free world as the consequences of an emboldened malicious state actor (as opposed to the current threat of non-state terrorism, as bad as it is) could be catastrophic. And the domino effect of such a catastrophe could make the aftermath of 9/11 (the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the rise of ISIS) look like so many small potatoes. It could be a threat that truly becomes existential.

And to be clear, this is not the only reason why Trump is an existential threat to all we hold dear as a free and open society. In point of fact, this is a less visible (though no less likely) example of just such a threat than what I have seen being discussed with regards to Trump. And it is not one I have seen many (outside of the policy wonks) discussing. There are other more glaring reasons why he would shake the foundations of “liberty and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed to all” that this country was built upon. But those have been discussed by many far smarter and better spoken than I am. This is just something I have been thinking about for quite some time that I would like other non-policy wonks (again far smarter than I am) to be aware of and discuss.