In the United Kingdom on December 3-4 a gathering of the US-NATO military alliance took place to mark the 70th anniversary of its creation. It might be expected that such an occasion would have been one of jovial self-congratulation for managing to keep such a moribund institution on its expensive feet for so long, but the mood was decidedly downbeat, and divisions between some national leaders were most marked. Indeed the entire affair declined into farce rather than being dignified and productive.
President Trump went even further than usual from the boundaries of balance, and his televised exchanges with President Macron were bizarre. His final early exit from the country “after a group of leaders, including Boris Johnson, was caught on video ridiculing the US president at Buckingham Palace for staging lengthy press conferences” reminded us that we are approaching Christmas, the season of pantomime.
While in mid-Atlantic, speeding west in Air Force One away from European laughter, he tweeted “The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to belittle my VERY successful trip to London for NATO. I got along great with the NATO leaders, even getting them to pay $130 Billion a year more, & $400 Billion a year more in 3 years. No increase for US, only deep respect!”
The one thing that Trump has not gained among NATO nations—and a lot of other groupings and individual states—is deep respect, because he is erratic, insulting and self-centred to the point of clinical narcissism. The trouble is that when a powerful person who is a capricious egocentric realises he or she has been made to look a fool, their reaction is one of increased spite and malevolence rather than sorrow and acceptance that it is they who are irregular and unreliable rather than the rest of the world. This does not bode well for US foreign policy and NATO’s intentions.
On December 3 Trump said “Russia very much wants to make a deal on arms control and nuclear and that’s smart and so do we, we think it would be a good thing and we’ll also certainly bring in, as you know, China and we may bring them in now or we may bring them in later but Russia wants to do something badly and so do we it would be a great thing to do.”
This was a sensible pronouncement, but as reported by Al Jazeera, NATO’s consensus in a concluding statement was that “Russia’s ‘aggressive actions’ were a threat to Euro-Atlantic security, and that China’s growing influence presented challenges for the alliance.”
Where is the Trump-NATO consensus? If the leader of the world’s most powerful country considers it would be sensible to behave pacifically towards two major nations and the NATO military alliance declares them threats to the West, then where do we go from here?
One solution for Russia and China is simply to ignore the war drums and NATO’s belligerent posturing and continue with what is going very well indeed—namely the expansion of their bilateral economic cooperation and development of similar collaboration between Russia, China and the European Union.
In the day before the NATO pantomime opened, the Washington Post noted a success story involving Russia and China. To give it its due, the feverishly anti-Russia Post provided a balanced account of the new “$55 billion gas pipeline, Power of Siberia [which] runs almost 1,865 miles from gas fields in Irkutsk and Yakutsk in Siberia to the Chinese border. It represents the latest powerful symbol of the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing, amid the US-China trade war. The pipeline enables Russia to tap into China’s vast, expanding market for gas as part of a 30-year, $400 billion gas supply contract that promises to soften the impact of Western sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. In China, the gas pipeline will run 3,175 miles from Heilongjiang province in the northeast to Shanghai.”
It is mandatory for the Post to get in a bit about Crimea without mentioning that Crimeans prefer to be part of Russia, but nonetheless it was a surprisingly positive report about an impressive engineering accomplishment that will benefit countless millions.
And four days before the NATO fandangos, Reuters reported another China-Russia success, in completion of “the first road bridge linking their two countries . . . the bridge across the River Amur will connect the cities of Blagoveshchensk in Russia’s Far East and Heihe in northeastern China and is intended to increase the volume of freight traffic and agricultural products between the two countries.”
China is not the only country with which Russia wants to increase peaceful trade and cooperation. Much of the European Union beckons with enthusiasm that is entirely contrary to the drum-thumping rhetoric of NATO. In 2018, as calculated by Eurostat, “Russia was the 4th largest partner for EU exports of goods and the 3rd largest partner for EU imports of goods.” Russian imports had a total value of $168 billion, and exported goods and services worth $83 billion, with much bilateral trade involving Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, with whom Russia wishes to expand commercial ties.
Another outstanding success is the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline which is nearing completion. It extends 1,225 km from Russia to Europe and Deutsche Welle observed that “critics of the project, including the US and Poland, fear that the EU will become too dependent on Russian gas”—but in addition to the mutual commercial benefits, this very requirement is a guarantor of ongoing peaceful cooperation. Moscow would be most ill-advised to cut off such a lucrative source of hard currency—and the EU would be equally unwise to be swayed by the political antics of the anti-Russia lobbies in Washington, Kiev and Warsaw.
Elements of NATO seem to have different ideas about the desirability of peaceful cooperation with Russia, however, and Secretary General Stoltenberg stated in an interview published on December 2, before the Anniversary Summit began, that “Through the presence of NATO forces in Poland and in the Baltic countries, we are sending Russia a very strong signal: if there is an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries, the whole alliance will respond.”
It is absurd to imagine that Russia is preparing to invade any of these countries. Any objective examination of Russia’s stance regarding the Baltic nations and Poland would indicate that, irrespective of NATO dabbling, the consequences for the region would be economically catastrophic. Militarily, of course, Russia could sweep through any or all of these countries in a matter of days, just as it could have reached Ukraine’s western borders in three weeks had it wished to do so. But Russia doesn’t want war. It wants trade and peaceful cooperation.
It had been intended that the final NATO communique, the ‘London Declaration’ should include reference to the Baltic States and Poland along the lines of Stoltenberg’s confrontational statement concerning a threat that does not exist, but internal squabbles negated this, and there was no mention of “sending Russia a very strong signal” about that particular region—although they did agree to the vague yet all-embracing ‘Keep-NATO-Alive’ slogan that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.”
Russia (and China) should simply let them carry on with their empty threats and their expensive military posturing in the skies, on the seas, and along land borders, for they mean nothing, and in general do not hinder commercial initiatives. No matter the movement of US-NATO armed forces ever closer to the borders to menace Russia, it is most probable that trade and peaceful cooperation will beat the warmongers.
This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.
Brian Cloughley is a British and Australian armies’ veteran, former deputy head of the UN military mission in Kashmir and Australian defense attaché in Pakistan.