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Julian Lewis says Europe could not deter attack by Russian conventional forces, after president-elect says NATO is obsolete

By Ewen MacAskill, Defence Correspondent 

Guardian – 17 January 2017

The chairman of a Commons committee has described Donald Trump’s warning that the US might abandon NATO as “radical and reckless”, saying Europe would be vulnerable without American military protection.

Julian Lewis, who chairs the defence select committee, expressed the hope that the 0president-elect did not mean what he has said and that his rhetoric was just a negotiating ploy to force European countries to increase defence spending.

In a lecture at Westminster on Monday evening, the Conservative MP said: 

“It is as true today as it was when NATO was founded in 1949 that the only reliable deterrent to conventional war on the continent is the message, broadcast loud and clear, that an attack on any NATO state means war with America right from the outset.”

Lewis was speaking after Trump created alarm in European capitals by describing NATO as obsolete in an interview published by The Times on Monday. Last summer Trump also said he would not feel bound by Nato’s collective doctrine in which an attack on any one of the 28 member countries would be regarded as an attack on all.

Responding, Lewis said:

“And why is Mr Trump considering such a radical and reckless move? It is because the European NATO states – especially those which call most stridently for an EU defence identity – are investing nowhere near as much in their own armed forces, in GDP percentage terms, as either our principal ally in Washington DC or our principal adversary in Moscow.”

The MP, who was speaking in a personal capacity, and not in his role as the committee chairman, said that European countries without the US could deter nuclear blackmail from Russia, because both the UK and France had nuclear weapons, but not an attack by Russian conventional forces.

“It is no answer to assert that Europe will need to mount its own defence if Donald Trump’s America turns its back on NATO. If America turns away, Europe will have little chance of deterring anything other than a nuclear threat from Russia,” 

Lewis said.

Trump’s intentions towards NATO and Russia are hard to gauge, given the ambiguity and contradictions in his positions. In contrast with the president-elect’s hints of a rapprochement with Russia, his pick as next defence secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has long been a vocal critic of Russia and a firm supporter of NATO.

In the same interview in which he called NATO obsolete, Trump described the organisation as important and called on members to increased their defence budgets.

Lewis is as much in the dark about Trump’s intentions as just about everyone else but he hopes that Trump is bluffing. 

“The incoming US president prides himself on being a shrewd negotiator and also the political heir to Ronald Reagan. Those of us who remember President Reagan with admiration and respect need no reminding of his commitment to the North Atlantic alliance and his appreciation of the central role of NATO in preventing the third world war.”

Given Lewis’s remarks, it seems highly probable the Defence Committee will hold an inquiry into the US role in Europe.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Trump’s criticism of NATO had caused great concern. 

“I’ve spoken today not only with EU foreign ministers but NATO foreign ministers as well and can report that the signals are that there’s been no easing of tensions,” 

he said. In response to the US president-elect’s comments on NATO and the strength of the EU, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said: 

“We Europeans have our fate in our own hands.”

But Moscow welcomed Trump’s vision of an obsolete NATO.

“Since NATO is tailored toward confrontation, all its structures are dedicated to the ideals of confrontation, you can’t really call it a modern organisation meeting the ideas of stability, steady growth and security,” 

said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. 

Lewis also dismissed the idea of David Cameron becoming NATO secretary general, arguing that he was unsuitable for the role. At the end of last year, there was media speculation Cameron might be a candidate to replace Jens Stoltenberg when he stands down next year or the year after.

“David Cameron is a man of charm and ability. He deserves to find a role commensurate with his talents and I am sure that he will,”

“But those talents do not include wisely judging strategic issues, whether when toppling Arab dictators in places like Libya, increasing military commitments whilst cutting the armed forces, predicting a third world war in consequence of Brexit, or dangerously delaying the renewal of Trident for the sake of coalition politics – as he did.”