Posted: December 20, 2016 1:48 PM

Ex-NATO Official Sees Post-Election Anxiety, Opportunity for Europe

By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The election of Donald Trump has caused “a general level of anxiety” among European allies, the recently retired deputy secretary-general of NATO said Dec. 20.

That anxiety about “the unknown” as the president-elect selects his future national security and foreign policy officials is particularly keen over whether Trump will continue to support the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), adopted by outgoing President Barrack Obama in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and belligerence toward the former Soviet Union states that now are NATO members, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said.

That concern also applies to the incoming Republican-led Congress, which has many key members who have championed deep cuts in federal spending, including for defense, Vershbow told a Defense Writers Group breakfast.

But, Vershbow added, Trump’s campaign criticism of NATO, particularly of its efforts to counter the global terrorist threat and the failure of most member states to meet the alliance’s stated target of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, could have a positive effect.

Although only five of NATO’s 28 members currently meet the 2 percent GDP target, more have started to increase their defense spending and bolster their forces, Vershbow said.

“I see the questions raised by the new president as an opportunity, not a threat,” and are pushing alliance members “to buy more of the right things” for their defense, he said.

The ambassador said the ERI, which is bolstered by the return of heavy U.S Army forces to Europe, has been “extremely effective” in deterring Russia and reassuring the vulnerable Eastern Europe allies that “we are with them.”

Vershbow, who left Brussels two months ago after four years as NATO’s No. 2 civilian leader, said the alliance began to develop more “expeditionary” capabilities after the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the threat in Europe, and remains “on the fringe of the international effort against terrorism.”

In his “parting shots” to the alliance leadership, Vershbow said he told them “NATO is doing far less than it is capable of doing” to extend its defense to the South, referring to North Africa and the Middle East

While the new threat from Putin has required NATO members to develop more heavier forces, “they need to remain ready for expeditionary missions, all of which costs money,” he said.

Vershbow said he also is concerned about the growing strength of right-wing political parties in Europe, some of which are openly pro-Putin. Those nationalistic movements are “breaking down some of the bonds of cooperation and sacrifice” among NATO members, which has implications for U.S. security.

Asked about Trump’s choice of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary, Vershbow said his experience as head of the NATO Transformation office, and command of allied forces in Afghanistan, indicates that he knows how NATO works and may help encourage alliance members to continue their contributions to the train and assist mission in Afghanistan.

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