In June 1976, I was a young Army captain commanding an artillery battery stationed in Gelnhausen, just east of Frankfurt, in what was then West Germany. We were part of the 3rd Armored Division, whose mission it was to defend the Fulda Gap, the Soviets’ presumed attack avenue into West Germany. Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic were on tour in Europe and scheduled to perform in Frankfurt, so a group of us from our small post bought tickets to attend.
The Fourth of July was approaching, and 1976 was America’s bicentennial year. We were feeling more patriotic pride than usual, along with some disappointment that we would not be home to celebrate this milestone in the traditional American way. But that turned out to not be a problem.
At the concert, Bernstein conducted several classics along with some of his contemporary compositions. When the performance ended, he departed the stage to a warm round of applause followed by the customary demand for an encore. When Bernstein reappeared, he tapped his baton and the orchestra played “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Most NATO members are concerned about Russian behavior, which seems not to offend Trump.
Along with my Army colleagues seated in the balcony, I rose and applauded — but so did the Germans throughout the auditorium. I recall we were all a bit surprised by their enthusiasm, which slowly drowned out our own. When Bernstein finished, he turned and bowed to the audience, which itself then turned to face our relatively small contingent sitting above them. Feet stomped, hands clapped high in the air, cheers echoed — for us. I’ve never in my life felt so honored and touched.
Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston famously said this about international affairs: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Only our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Henry Kissinger has resurrected this phrase on many occasions, and in fact, America’s list of friends and enemies has changed many times since that day in Germany more than 40 years ago.
The United States now has formal diplomatic and significant economic relations with China, and American tourists flock to Vietnam. The Middle East, with its oil wealth and economic leverage, remains strategically important despite a growing regional chaos that runs wider and deeper than any time in modern memory. But what has not changed are America’s interests in Europe and NATO, the alliance under which my unit would have fought in case of a Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap.
It is, therefore, profoundly puzzling that President Trump seems intent on reducing our strategic partnership with NATO and Europe in favor of an improved relationship with Russia, a nation that does not reflect American values, that launched a significant attack against our electoral system last year, that invaded and annexed portions of an adjacent state, that casts a dark shadow across Eastern Europe, and that is led by a president whose professional past would not suggest friendly intentions toward the United States.
In an appearance in Washington two years back, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt described Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an “unpredictable country” on a path that is “revisionist, reactionary, and perhaps reckless.” These disturbing words are grounded in recent Russian behavior reflecting what Putin undoubtedly sees as his nation’s eternal and perpetual interest — reducing the influence of Western Europe in general and, specifically, fracturing NATO.
At NATO headquarters last week, the president emphasized one theme that was poorly received by our NATO allies, and ignored another, which was certainly well received by Putin. Lecturing NATO’s members on defense spending was certain to be offensive, and irrelevant in the absence of a strategic context for additional investments. Most NATO members are concerned about Russian behavior, which seems not to offend Trump, so what would be the purpose of meeting the spending guidelines Trump seems so fixated on?
But of greater concern was the absence of any reference to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, stipulating that an attack on one is an attack on all, a treaty provision that has only been evoked once — following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The three NATO members most vulnerable to Russian threats and intimidation are Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all former subjugated Soviet states. For the most obvious of reasons, these three NATO allies were as disturbed by the absence of public support for Article 5 from the president of the United States as Vladimir Putin is no doubt thrilled.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, stated recently that the United States has always been seen by its allies as “dependable and reliable; and should those qualities disappear they will certainly recalibrate their relations with us.” In that regard, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration following the NATO meeting that a new chapter in U.S.-European relations had opened, and going forward Europeans must “take our fate into our own hands,” was only startling in the rapidity with which it was made. Evidently, the recalibration has begun.
The United States has an enduring and perpetual interest in standing with its closest friends and allies, and standing against domestic and international recklessness. And even if friends are not eternal and perpetual, it is important to know who they actually are at any given moment. That should not be a challenging analysis, but it is uncertain that the current White House is up to conducting it. Germans once cheered “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It would be a significant strategic tragedy if they, and their fellow Europeans, were no longer moved to do so.
M. Thomas Davis is a retired Army officer who commanded an artillery unit during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and taught international relations and economics at West Point.
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