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Nine European Union states have signed off on creating a new joint military intervention force. We speak to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. There is a new military force coming to Europe. Nine EU states have signed off on creating a joint European intervention force to deploy in times of crisis. The force was spearheaded by French President, Emmanuel Macron, and it’s been endorsed by NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.

JENS STOLTENBERG: I welcome this initiative because I believe it can strengthen their readiness all forces because we need the higher readiness. That’s exactly what NATO is now focusing on. So, I just see this new initiative as something that can complement and actually reinforce the work which is ongoing in NATO to strengthen and increase the readiness so all of our forces.

AARON MATÉ: The creation of the force comes ahead of a summit of NATO leaders next month. Joining me is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome, Colonel Wilkerson. So, explain to us what this force is. Is it something in parallel to NATO?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think we’re looking at what started, as I recall, at the 1994 Brussels Summit that came under the rubric of European Common Security and Defense Policy. And the specific force, sort of under the acronym European Security and Defense Initiative, it was looked at with some trepidation by the United States as being a drag on the alliance, NATO, and to a certain extent it was looked at by the secretary general as being something that competed with NATO. And so, while it did go through a number of summits, to include the Madrid summit in ’97, as I recall, and a number of other iterations, and did come to gather strength under that acronym, the European Security and Defense Initiative, and the Common Security and Defense Policy. It never really got forces allocated to it in a way that, one, would detract from NATO, and two, would mean a formidable force.

And this was called the Western European Union in the parlance of the time, meaning that it was the Western states in NATO, primarily France, Germany and the United Kingdom. And they would draw on forces for exclusively European security interests, and therefore not conflict with NATO. And our point was, the U.S. point was, “Well, there’s so few forces in NATO really, ground forces in particular, that when you call on them, you’re going to be detracting from the ability of the other, whichever way it might go, to react to a crisis. And so, we kind of had a lukewarm attitude about it. No doubt, now they have resurrected this, or at least the momentum towards it, and that probably is because of what Trump is doing in terms of disturbing and maybe even breaking, ultimately, the transatlantic link. And by doing so, making NATO a feckless alliance.

AARON MATÉ: So, let me ask you about that. Trump has been ramping up his trade shenanigans, going after China recently. But at the same time, from what I understand of what he’s done with NATO, is that despite some initial wavering on whether or not he would endorse Article 5, this measure that commits all member parties to collective self-defense, he has been a strong contributor to NATO. And let me actually play for you a clip of Jens Stoltenberg talking about the recent U.S. contributions to NATO under Trump.

JENS STOLTENBERG: What we see is that the U.S. is increasing their presence in Europe, and that’s part of NATO’s collective defense. We have seen a forty percent increase in US funding just under Trump, in the period that Trump has been president, for what they call the European Intervention Initiative, with more troops and more exercises, more prepositioned equipment. So, there is an increase of U.S. presence and increase of NATO presence in the eastern part of the alliance. And I welcome that, because that shows that the transatlantic bond, the North America, the presence of North America and Europe, is not going down, it’s actually going up.

AARON MATÉ: So, that’s NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, talking about the increased U.S. contributions to NATO militarily. But Colonel, at the same time, as we remember, just a few- Just last week or so, Trump famously insulted his partners at the G8 summit. So, what’s your read on what Trump is doing here? You have Jens Stoltenberg saying that the U.S. is is contributing militarily, but then you also have Trump’s shenanigans going on. What’s your read on what Trump’s policy is?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: As usual, with the NATO Secretary General, he doesn’t have any choice. He’s got to say positive things until the alliance melts under his feet, and then maybe he’ll say negative things. The truth of the matter is that since I worked for Secretary Powell- well, let’s go even further back. Since I worked for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, at the end of the Cold War, the United States has reduced its military presence and contribution to NATO by orders of magnitude. If you look around the world today, the major U.S. force laid down is in Central Command.

It’s in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and so forth. Despite what Trump or Mattis or anybody else might say, you cannot argue with the numbers. Ships, planes, troops and so forth. So, Stoltenberg has to say what he said, because he sees- and I’m sure Europeans see too, particularly in Paris, Berlin and London, that the U.S. commitment to NATO is decreasing every day that goes by. You can look at the budget, you can say this was plussed, up that was plussed up. We did get a seven hundred and nineteen-billion-dollar budget, I think, that looks like it’s going to make its way through both houses. But the truth of the matter is that one, and I’ve said this all along, since the end of the Cold War, NATO is an alliance in search of an enemy, and unless Trump wants Russia to be a number one enemy of the United States, par excellence, NATO still is in search of an enemy.

This, despite deployments into Poland and other places that are destabilizing and might be a little bit worrisome and of some concern to Moscow. But we really don’t have, first, a threat to Europe that makes them think about it hard, and second, they are developing their own capabilities now, as you just pointed out, moving on down past the common security and its policy in my view, because they don’t trust the United States anymore, whether it’s economics, whether it’s finance, whether it’s security or whatever. I don’t blame them a bit. I’d be doing exactly what Jan Stoltenberg is doing. I’d be saying everything was fine while I’d be backfilling swiftly to try and create my own capabilities to do things in a pinch.

AARON MATÉ: So, do you then see this as a positive development, as acting as a potential counterweight to U.S. dominance of NATO?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: It all depends on how you look at this, Aaron. If you think, and you can spin off a lot of different thoughts about this, but if you think basically that at the end of the Cold War, the United States should have retrenched significantly and should have made sure, through a series of presidents, instead of as Bill Clinton did, expanding NATO in the face of Moscow, should’ve made sure that NATO grew smaller, not larger, not expanded and so forth, should have taken a new look at the world and a new look at its own security parameters and what were necessary to meet those parameters. If you if you believe that, then we should have done some of this a lot more cleverly and a lot more smartly, a lot more diplomatically a long time ago, say 1993, 94, 95, 96. I’m pointing a finger at my former boss, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and his follow-on, General Shalikashvili as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who’d come from being European commander here, because they didn’t believe that way. They believe that they ought to expand NATO and so forth, and so on.

But if you believe that that was a very unwise strategic move, then what Trump is doing now, however glaringly inept his procedures are is somewhat smart. On the other hand, if you believe that the tensions that existed between the USSR and the United States still exist between Russia and the United States and that Russia is increasingly siding with China- the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, for example, is being touted by about two billion people in Asia, primarily, as being a far more successful meeting than for example, the G7, G8 or any meeting that the West has had in a long time. If you believe that that’s a development that we ought to be looking at and we ought to be sort of looking at the NATO as a primary poll in defaming against, then this is a very dangerous move. So, you pick your world views and you take your sides accordingly.

AARON MATÉ: Let me play for you, finally, Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaking just recently. He certainly has not abandoned the decades old line from the Pentagon about Russia as posing a major threat. And this is what he recently said in a speech.

JAMES MATTIS: Putin seeks to shatter NATO, he aims to diminish the appeal of the Western democratic model and attempts to undermine America’s moral authority. His actions are designed not to challenge our arms at this point but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis speaking recently. Colonel Wilkerson, your thoughts on Mattis saying that Putin is undermining America’s moral authority?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think Jim is right, so far as it goes. But I would add and I would amplify and I would say this to Secretary Mattis, were I able to sit in front of his desk and talk with him for a moment, it’s the United States that’s doing most of what you’ve just described as Russia doing to the United States. We have undermined ourselves, from torture to this recent incident on the border with Mexico, to any number of things that you want to look at, just the election of Donald Trump, we are undermining ourselves. Gordon Adams had a marvelous speech this morning that, while I might not agree with every point he illustrates in that article, he essentially says the end of Pax Americana is here. It’s a done deal.

I just so happened to read Gordon’s piece at the same time I was reading a very deliberately granular economic and financial piece written by someone in China whose identity I’m not quite sure of, but it is a very, very good piece in terms of amplifying Gordon’s point of view with regard to the United States by pointing out how China is gaining and gaining and gaining. Not least of China’s gains is being able, as I mentioned earlier, to point to meetings and to groupings, security and economic groupings, that are vastly superior to those that are now disappearing in the wake of the U.S.’s incompetence following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So, you know we read Western, media we read our own media. We look at our own televisions and so forth. We don’t listen, we don’t look at China and at Singapore and at Tokyo and Seoul and so forth. We should, because that’s where the dynamism is taking place. Let me read you something from Misha Glenny’s book, McMafia. This is on page 339 of Misha Glenny’s book, McMafia. “Essentially, the days of the United States overwhelmingly defining the security parameters of the Pacific Asia are coming to a close.” That’s true. China is the great power on the rise, the United States is the great power demise.

So, I mean, let’s face it. The best we can do right now is hedge our bets and hold on to what we’ve got. And going around doing what Trump is doing, that is to say basically alienating our allies and causing them to do things that he thinks they ought to do anyway but fracturing the relationships that exist as he does it, is a very dangerous thing to be doing. I’m not saying that some of this isn’t necessary, because these people need to grow up and do their own security, do what we’ve been doing for them for half a century themselves. But it’s a dangerous time to be doing this, when we’re confronting this, more or less. If you want an axis of evil, I’ll give you an axis of evil, Russia and Beijing.

AARON MATÉ: Well, do you endorse the view that that constitutes an axis of evil? And also, let me ask you. I mean, in terms of hedging our bets and holding on, I mean what if we just actually gave up our desire for hegemony and stop trying to control countries and resources around the world?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That would be a wonderful development. Our hegemony is disappearing. I’m not sure we actually ever achieved it. We thought we did. We thought we be the exceptional nation too, but we aren’t, and we didn’t. And your point is well taken. It is about time that we revisited what strategies, interests we really have in the world, applied our resources to that interest in a very frugal sort of way, because unlike China, our resources are very limited right now. Our governance process is dysfunctional. The world is looking at the United States as a power not to be trusted, as a power not collapsing but at least diminishing in its real power throughout the world, with the only thing it has left, the world’s only power projection capable in a major way military, and so like a dying elephant, can thrash a lot of grass.

That’s the way the rest of the world is looking at us, and the military is the dying elephant thrashing all that grass. That we need to change that approach to the world is indisputable, but that we can because of our dysfunctional governance process, and in particular because of the president we have right now, is highly questionable. That’s my greatest concern right now, that we get through this period and are able to recognize that we need a glide slope down to a different position in the world, and we fashion that glide slope and we somehow get on it and accommodate the need to be a little less in the world than we have been for the last seventy-five years.

AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.