Photographer: THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images
Editorial Board

Reagan’s Russian Roadmap for Trump

NATO allies should invest more in their militaries, and the U.S. should prove it has their backs.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have taken a tough line against Russia’s many recent provocations. Other than calling for all members of the alliance to pay their fair share of the military bill, however, they have offered no real plan of action.

Russia’s aggressions call for a stronger response. While Mattis is right to tweak the Europeans for slipping on defense spending, the metric that is repeatedly cited -- committing 2 percent of GDP to the military -- is arbitrary. After all, Greece, which uses the army as a jobs program, makes the cutoff, while France, which has arguably the continent’s most capable force, spends only 1.8 percent. Members should be judged not just on what they spend but how they spend it, in terms of readiness, force projection and equipment.

The alliance could also make an adjustment to its chain of command that would get the Russians’ attention: giving the supreme military commander authority to act independently of the bureaucratic structure in an emergency.

While NATO and the U.S. have increased their presence in the Baltics and Poland, these forces only rotate in and out of the region. The Pentagon should draw up plans for keeping at least two armored combat brigades and their heavy artillery in the region permanently, and to rotate in more aircraft to bases there and in Bulgaria and Romania. Granted, these troops would be little more than a speed bump in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion, but they would be a barrier to the more stealthy sorts of quasi-military aggressions the Kremlin used to destabilize Ukraine, and would ease anxiety in the Baltics.

Looking further ahead, the U.S. should look deeper into the past. One of former president Ronald Reagan’s great successes was the so-called dual-track approach to the Soviet Union’s nuclear threat. While increasing the West’s military capability against the Soviets -- notably, getting permission from European allies to place nuclear-tipped Pershing missiles on their soil -- this strategy also coaxed mutually favorable nonproliferation agreements out of the Communist leadership.

President Donald Trump could do worse than following Reagan’s lead. This would involve renegotiating treaties to further cut weapons levels, extend expiration dates, and clear up the ambiguity over systems like Russia’s new cruise missile, which it reportedly deployed last week. Meanwhile, the U.S. could start discussions with with Eastern European allies on a new conventional missile system along Russia’s Western flank. 

Of course, it may be worth asking if Trump, given his kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, would be willing to take this more assertive approach. This is why NATO needs to carry more of the load -- and why Trump needs to reaffirm his commitment to an alliance that is as vital now as it was during the Cold War.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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