The Gray Zone, the civil space that allows for people to exist outside of their private lives and participate in societal, political, economic, and to some extent religious activities, is not just threatened by terrorist attacks and the extremism they’re rooted in, or systemic failures of political and social institutions as they age. It is also threatened when elected and appointed officials, and those seeking elected office, seek to purposefully break institutions for partisan gain. Yesterday the NY Times featured an interview with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. As has been the case several times since he began his run for the Republican nomination and the presidency of the United States, Trump threatened the institutions and alliances that have provided stability and prosperity, albeit an imperfect form of stability and prosperity, since the end of World War II.
Trump’s remarks to the Times included:
He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.
For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
As I wrote after the March 10 GOP primary debate, the US is not an empire and we don’t demand tribute from our allies and partners. We now have, however, the nominee of one of the two major political parties in the US announcing that he may not fulfill America’s NATO treaty obligations, as well as other American international commitments. This is at a time when our NATO allies, and especially those in Eastern Europe, are especially worried about the actions and intentions of Vladimir Putin and Russia. The strategic messaging of Trump’s remarks is amazing. The presidential nominee of the Republican Party, the party long put forward as the party of national security (the Daddy Party), has just told Putin that should he be elected, it is not only possible, but also plausible that the US would not honor its everyday commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty, let alone an Article 5 request for collective defense.
For all the sturm and drang about President Obama providing al Qaeda or al Qaeda in Iraq with a clear date and time of US withdrawal from Afghanistan or honoring the Bush 43 Administration negotiated date of withdrawal from Iraq; Trump has now given Putin the time window he would need for planning should he decide to engage in further adventures in the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been accused of leading from behind because they took the time to work through and with partners or assemble coalitions to deal with major international issues such as Iran’s nuclear program or the terrorism and low intensity warfare of the Islamic State. What Trump has done, in his remarks during the debates, on the stump, and in this interview with the NY Times is actually signal that the US will just not lead at all unless Trump feels it is being treated fairly.
And this brings us full circle back to Trump’s foreign policy speech. When Trump gave his foreign policy address at the end of April, the overarching theme running throughout his remarks was: “America will be treated fairly.” It is quite clear that being treated fairly is actually the overall strategic message, for lack of a better term, that runs throughout the Trump campaign. First it was “the GOP will treat Trump fairly or I’ll run third party”, which was the origin of the GOP candidate pledge to support the eventual nominee. Then it was “the media will treat Trump fairly” or he’d take his campaign activities away from them and deny them the advertising revenue. He actually did this with FOX Cable News when he refused to participate in one of the debates and held a highly controversial counter event to raise funds for veterans. The core of Trump’s pitch to voters is that “only Trump knows how to ensure that they will be treated well.”
The fly in the ointment of all these appeals for fairness, however, is the implicit or explicit “or else…” Trump has told our NATO and EU allies, and by extension other allies and partners, that if he’s elected they cannot necessarily count on American support and assistance, which has been at the core of the post World War II system that the US helped to build to change the security dynamics in Europe that has been a hallmark of the stability and prosperity of the past 71 years. By strategically communicating that the US may not lead, depending on how Trump feels as President about those asking us to do so, he’s told Putin and his planners, as well as those of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Peoples Republic of China, Boko Haram, North Korea, and others, that they can develop contingencies for actions to start the weekend of January 21, 2017. With this approach to National security, foreign, and defense policy, Donald Trump has taken the GOP, the oft promoted party of National security, and, perhaps the US, into uncharted territory that threatens the Gray Zone in a way that no terrorist, extremist, or state based actor ever could. More frighteningly, it is unclear what the plan would be for charting this brave new world.