Alfonse D'Amato

Europe must help defend itself

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The U.S. and its European allies gathered again last week at NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss the mutual-security commitment that has helped keep Europe at peace for almost 75 years.

In the past, these meetings have been little more than a formality, with the U.S. pleading with other NATO member nations to provide more for their own defense rather than relying primarily on America’s outsized financial contribution to the alliance. But that was before President Trump arrived on the scene to give NATO a reality check. And good for him for doing so.

A little history helps here. NATO was born out of the ashes of World War II, as a bulwark against the looming threat from Russia’s “Soviet Union.” After the war, the Russians had gobbled up a huge swath of Eastern Europe — including half of Germany — and pointed the formidable Soviet war machine at the heart of the continent. The U.S. and the surviving nations of Europe formed NATO to defend against this threat.

Over the decades that followed, the American commitment to NATO remained steady and substantial. The U.S. defense budget climbed upward, and American troops were stationed in Europe. In addition, the American “nuclear umbrella” provided another layer of deterrence against further Russian aggression. Eventually, this unwavering steadfastness yielded results: The Soviet Union began to crumble under the weight of its failed economic system and its militaristic overreach, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freedom of Europe’s “captive nations.”

But what did Europe do with this freedom and security? It began to shirk its responsibility for common defense and markedly reduced defense spending in favor of economic development and spending on generous social programs. The U.S. was left to pick up the slack, despite the pleas of one U.S. president after another for more financial help from Europe to defend it.

How bad did it get? Take Germany as an example. Because it allowed its military capability to steadily decline, Germany today is essentially defenseless. Its own military commissioner recently reported that practically none of its submarines or transport planes were ready to sail or fly. Worse yet, only 66 of 93 German fighter planes were operational, and just 29 were combat-ready. The commissioner also found that the number of German troops has been allowed to fall to dangerous levels, and the officer corps is badly depleted.

In the meantime, German leaders have given contradictory and confusing signals to their potential Russian adversary. Largely because of an ill-advised decision to decommission all of its nuclear capacity, Germany faces a critical energy shortage. In a desperate move to fill this gap, German leaders cut a deal with Russia to build a huge gas pipeline through Europe. So Russia — the country Europe supposedly fears most, and which could quickly strike at NATO countries with massive force — will be a major supplier of the energy that will help power the German economy.

How will this affect Europe’s defense posture? Well, let’s not forget the long gas lines and energy insecurity America’s over-reliance on Middle East oil created. Or the resulting flood of money into countries that hate the U.S. and Israel, fomenting a radical Islamic age of terror the world has lived under for a generation. One can imagine that just as Russia cut off the natural gas it supplied to Ukraine at the height of winter during the recent Crimean conflict, it could someday also leave a cold Germany to fight a hot war.

America finally got its head out of the Middle East sand and developed its domestic energy sources, so Europe should strive for its own independence from strategically questionable sources. And if that means replacing Russian gas with liquefied natural gas shipped from the U.S., why not? That would make more sense for the defense of Europe, and would help reduce Germany’s huge trade surplus with America.

So before the old-guard diplomatic community gets itself all worked up over Trump’s hardball tactics with our complacent European allies, it would do well to insist that he take the same muscular U.S. message to Russia. In his one-on-one conversation with Vladimir Putin, I hope Trump told him in no uncertain terms that if Russia ever again wants to be accepted in the community of nations, it must halt its militaristic expansionism, give up any temptation of aggression against Eastern Europe and, yes, stop messing with other countries’ elections.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.