WASHINGTON: Good news for NATO: Sen. Tom Cotton — Iraq veteran, Tea Party star, and potential Defense Secretary for Donald Trump — said that America’s commitment to defend its NATO allies must be “iron-clad” and that Russia must change its ways before relations can improve.
During the campaign, Trump famously praised Vladimir Putin and said the US might not defend the Baltic States against a Russian attack if they didn’t “fulfill their obligations to us” to spend on their own defense. But just after the election, President Obama said that Trump was committed to NATO. That’s the context for this morning’s comments from Cotton, who visited Latvia’s president in September; no establishment internationalist Republican, the 39-year-old Arkansan veteran in fact is rumored to be a top pick for Trump’s Defense Secretary.
“The best way to deter that kind of conflict…is to be iron-clad in our support of our NATO allies,” Cotton told the DefenseOne Summit when asked point-blank about Trump’s statement on a possible Baltic war.
But what about the allies that don’t reach the alliance goal of spending two percent of GDP on defense? “Article 5 is a treaty commitment,” said Cotton, referring to the clause in the North Atlantic Treaty that says an attack on one signatory is an attack on all. “The 2 percent defense spend is a political commitment. There’s a difference.”
“It would be a good thing if our allies were spending more than two percent,” Cotton said, and indeed many of them, including the Baltic States, are there or on their way. (Cotton recently proposed a $26 billion plus-up to the US defense budget). But NATO allies also make contributions that can’t be measured in financial terms, he argued, such as providing access to regions the US couldn’t otherwise easily reach. Cotton’s example? Norway. While Norway hasn’t been a military powerhouse since Viking times, its location puts it athwart the only route into the Atlantic for Russia’s northern fleet.
“NATO isn’t a charity,” Cotton said. “We’re not a member of NATO out of humanitarian impulse. We’re a member of the NATO alliance because it protects our interests.”
NATO is not a threat to Russia, nor is it postured for offensive action, Cotton said, and the Kremlin needs to realize that and change its ways. “It would be good, of course, if we had a better relationship with most of our adversaries, (but) they have to have a new set of boundaries,” Cotton said. “We are going to stand by our alliance (commitments). We’re going to support countries that support us.”
This is perfectly in line with what the President-elect has said, Cotton argued. “Donald Trump has spoken about upholding our obligations and our alliances,” the senator said. “I know that some people disagree with Donald Trump’s words (during the campaign), but it’s Barack Obama’s actions and policies” that have led to the world’s current perilous state. “Our allies need to be reassured after eight years of the Obama administration.”