Helene Cooper, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for the New York Times covering the Pentagon, was hosted by the Center American Studies to discuss new threats to U.S. and European defense. In this interview, Cooper gives her analysis of Italy’s role in U.S. – Russia relations and the impacts of populist governance on both sides of the Atlantic on international defense alliances, such as NATO.
John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, a few days ago met with Italian defense leaders in Rome, and people on both sides have said that Italy is an important ally for the U.S. Could you comment on the role that you think the transatlantic partnership will play in defense?
Italy and the United States have been allies and partners for decades. U.S. Defense Secretaries, including Jim Mattis and his predecessor, Ashton Carter, have been quite close to the Italians. There are American bases in Italy and the two countries’ troops fought side by side in Afghanistan. The Italians also stepped up to the plate in Libya, as far as the Americans are concerned.
It becomes a more complicated equation, I think with President Trump because of his propensity towards Russia. It could put Italy in an even better position with the Trump administration itself because from America’s point of view, it is closer to Russia than many other European allies, which is part of the reason why John Bolton was here. Perhaps the Italians will have a bigger role to play in the U.S.-Russia relationship. But that said, it could also put Italy in a box when Trump is gone because there are lots of people in the United States who think he is getting too close to Russia. I think that Italy has a delicate balancing act to play.
Given your extensive experience in nearby regions, what are the consequences of Italy’s expanded presence in Niger, including an embassy and increased deployment to the region, to fight human trafficking?
The Niger and the whole Lake Chad region, including the countries of Niger, Mali, and Chad is such a big deal because Africa is viewed as the next big battleground for the fight against Islamic terror. The U.S. and Italy have two perspectives on the same issue. When the Italians look at the region, they see refugee flows and human trafficking. The Americans are looking solely, almost completely through the lense of ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda, especially in the Maghreb areas where both Italy and the United States have been fighting side by side. The two issues are connected: when Boko Haram or ISIS attacks, there are bigger refugee flows from these regions.
Addressing this region well is important for the U.S. and Europe because to stop the refugees, they have to deal with the underlying root problems. The youth bulge in these countries is huge because young men in particular are unemployed. Some of their countries are not well governed so the men see no outlet for themselves except for what is offered by jihadists.
Do you think that defense policies could be compromised by the “friction” between the United States and its European allies, evidenced by, for example, so-called “G6+1” summit in Canada?
We are in an extraordinary time right now and as a reporter, I am struggling with how to cover it. America and its allies pick fights all the time, but they are never very serious. For instance, they will bicker over tariffs on different brands of bananas. Now, we have more nationalist governments, such as the right-leaning one in Italy, the “America First” policies of that of the U.S., or Merkel’s coalition partners in that of Germany. Everyone wants to put themselves first. I do not know what direction all of this will end up in. I just think that we are in a very scary time right now. The way that America is leading right now is not helpful or healthy, making me wonder at what point the Europeans allies, Italy not so much, will start to get fed up. The Americans believe that at the end of the day the Europeans need them, and that they cannot do anything without them, but I am not sure how long that will last. I feel that I should be asking the Center how long they tolerance them.
How effective will the NATO proposals and the Trump administration’s commitment to increase spending for U.S. defense in Europe be in deterring potential Russian aggression, particularly in the Baltics?
I am not sure. There are a lot of hypotheticals here. So far Russia has not explicitly challenged NATO. Yet, since the Russian invasion of Crimea, that has been the big question: whether they attack a full NATO member. When it comes to countering Russian aggression, Russia is a lot of talk, and at the end of the day, if the US uses its muscle, it can easily counter Russia. The question is whether the political will be there. I do not think it is a question of money, I think it is a question of will.
Do you think that the political will is in the U.S. to take a strong stance against Russia?
I cover the Pentagon so I know there are issues between the U.S. and Russia where the U.S. has sent a message. For instance, they are both supposedly fighting ISIS in Syria but on opposite sides of the Assad regime. A few months ago, there was a case the Pentagon did not even talk about where about 150 Russian mercenaries attacked American-supported Syrian rebels. American marines obliterated them. They killed 150 Russian mercenaries. In the end, Russia denied that the mercenaries were theirs and the Pentagon did not say anything further. In many ways it was an indirect message from the Pentagon to the Russian military that the U.S. had set a line that the Russians were not to cross.
Yet at the same time Trump just announced that he’s meeting with Putin, and he is probably going to end up at the World Cup in Russia, which many world leaders have shunned because they are mad at Putin.
It remains a question of whether the American political will be there in the form of President Trump. It is certainly there in Congress and the rest of the American establishment but President Trump is a different story. Across the Atlantic, historically, Europe has not been very strong in standing up to Russia in the absence of US leadership. There are still more questions than answers.