NATO Needs to Woo Trump And Speak Plainly to Him

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on October 26. Francois Lenoir/reuters

President-elect Donald Trump does not reflect, at the moment, the traditional pro-NATO, pro-European, bipartisan foreign policy that America has pursued since 1949.

He is a throwback to a neo-isolationist mindset, at least emotionally. This reflects his perception of the level of U.S. international engagement and the costs that military, diplomatic and economic engagement have put on America since World War II.

The ideal U.S. decision-making style for the newly elected Trump would be to employ the pyramid formal/CEO decision-making structure, with the White House/president at the top of the pyramid but without presidential micromanaging and instead delegating the details of working with NATO and the EU to trusted loyalists. This was the then-novel and controversial decision-making approach adopted by Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1981-89 and George W. Bush in 2001-09.

Even with this style of decision-making, a fundamental problem remains: Neither Trump nor some of his closest advisers in foreign policy value or have had direct experience with NATO and the EU in their previous careers. That is true of U.S. Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuiliani may emerge as secretary of state and John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appears to be under consideration for a role.

Thus, it is vital that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (who was Norway's prime minister twice as well as a close ally of America) come to the U.S. on an "unofficial" visit.

He needs to meet with Trump, Gingrich and Flynn and explain in person, with matter-of-fact language and not official "diplomatese" or with an air of wounded pride, the importance of NATO to the U.S. This should take place before Trump assumes office in late January 2017.

Neither the editorial by the secretary-general published Sunday in The Guardian, nor a formal NATO approach involving departing U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, will impress or influence the Trump transition team.

Trump is influenced through direct nonconfrontational, personal conversations, supplemented by regular follow-ups with his main advisers.

Trump could maintain good relations with both Russia and NATO, despite past superficial remarks about trying to negotiate a different cost for servicing the NATO alliance. He must understand how to use rhetoric artfully as a public bargaining chip in the important discussion of U.S. willingness to continue to uphold the responsibility that NATO member nations share to defend any NATO ally in danger. (For example: the Baltic states if Russia were to advance beyond its boundaries).

Trump's campaign rhetoric instead created too much uncertainty among Baltic allies, Germany and Great Britain, and it ran the risk of emboldening Russia into provoking incidents with NATO.

There is still another possibility to consider in understanding these relationships. Trump could also establish a bilateral relationship with Russia, blaming all previous tensions—which Russian President Vladimir Putin actually created—on President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This would help Putin save face.

On the other hand, it would do nothing about the fears of the Democrats, the British and NATO that Putin's adventurism is a fundamental threat to alliance cohesion.

Still, Trump will probably not be pinned down regarding his stance toward Putin. He wants to keep his options open with the Russian leader—and yet it is still possible that Trump and Putin could clash down the line.

Marco Rimanelli is a professor of political science at Saint Leo University in Florida.