A former ambassador to NATO said Thursday that Donald Trump’s hesitance about supporting NATO allies against Russian aggression was “disturbing” and that his comments will cause anxiety in Europe about the United States’ commitment to its allies.
“It was a shocking statement. It was reckless and deeply unwise,” R. Nicholas Burns, who served as ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, told TPM. Burns is a career foreign service officer who served in the state department under Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush. He is now a professor at Harvard and serves as an adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Burns noted that since NATO was formed in 1949, every American president, both Republican and Democratic, has remained committed to the alliance.
“And for Trump to break with that policy in such a cavalier way is shocking and disturbing because keeping Europe democratic, keeping it safe, and preventing Putin from destabilizing Europe is among the most vital American interests in the world today,” he said.
In a Wednesday interview with the New York Times, Trump was alarmingly hesitant about how committed he would be to NATO allies if elected president. When asked whether he would assist Baltic states against Russian aggression, Trump said he would only do so after assessing whether those countries “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
“He gave an answer that was not at all clear,” Burns said of Trump’s remark to the Times. “And he looked weak, and it hurts the United States that the Republican nominee is not willing to support a traditional Republican position and a bedrock American position on NATO.”
Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have rushed to rebuke Trump’s stance and assure NATO allies that the U.S. has their backs.
NATO allies in Europe, particularly the Baltic states, are likely concerned about Trump’s remarks, Burns said.
“They are on the front lines against a very aggressive and cynical Russian leader,” he told TPM. “They believe, rightly, that the way to keep the peace is for the United States to stay strong and to commit ourselves publicly beyond a shadow of a doubt to the security of our NATO allies.”
“When one of the two people in our country who has the chance of being the next president says — questions the very bedrock principles of our foreign policy, it creates huge anxiety in the world, and doubt,” he later added.
Burns argued that the U.S. must remain committed to its alliances, noting that NATO came to America’s defense following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
“Trump seems to believe that all foreign policy is like a commercial real estate transaction,” he said.
“He just doesn’t understand the basics of how a global alliance like NATO works,” Burns added. “We have to be true to other countries and they’ll be true to us back.”
He said that Trump’s comment “cast doubt” on the U.S. commitment to NATO.
“It just illuminates again, it demonstrates again, he is completely unprepared to be president and unfit for the office. He shows such poor judgement about the fundamental building blocks of America’s position in the world,” Burns told TPM.
“The world’s too compacted and too dangerous for the United States to act in an isolated way,” he later added. “And I fear, in looking at Donald Trump’s foreign policy and what he has consistently said, is that he wants to take us back to isolationism.”
In particular, Burns said that Trump’s remarks were a “gift to Putin.”
In order to maintain peace in the region, Putin “has to believe in his mind that we’re strong and clear and that we will defend ourselves, and Trump just cast all that into doubt with his statements,” Burns told TPM.
Burns noted that Trump has been praising Putin throughout the campaign.
“Trump, for many months now, has been very critical of Germany, and Britain, and France — the NATO allies, and yet he treats Putin with kid gloves. And he’s very complimentary of Putin,” he told TPM. “It’s a very strange and bizarre way of thinking about international politics.”
When asked if Trump’s comments have caused a crisis, Burns said, “in a way, yes.” He said that that American leaders need to make clear to Putin that the U.S. is strong and prepared to defend its allies, and that Trump cast doubt on that.
“Is that a crisis? I think it’s a crisis,” Burns told TPM.
He said that Trump’s comments on NATO are “maybe the most reckless thing he’s said in the entire campaign, and he has said a lot of reckless things.” And he said that Trump’s remarks highlight how unprepared he is to be president.
“He is the least prepared presidential candidate certainly in modern American history going back all the way to the 1920s, perhaps even before that,” Burns told TPM. “So, for him to suggest arrogantly that he knows better than Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, boy that’s an arrogant attitude. That’s hubris.”