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The Briefing: NATO and the shifting Iron Curtain

WASHINGTON – Acronyms make the eyes glaze over, and the term "NATO" does it worse than most. Somehow NATO conjures up another time, one when the world was separated by an Iron Curtain, with America's greatest foe residing far to the east of it.

But wait. That's still the case. It's just that the Iron Curtain moved eastward when the Cold War ended, bringing it closer to Russia.

That's just one reason why this week's North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, which starts Wednesday in Brussels, is so important.

The other, of course, is that one of NATO's strongest critics – President Trump – will be at center stage at the gathering.

To understand what will happen in Brussels, it helps to brush up on some world history and to examine why Trump seems so angry at America's allies in the 29-member defense pact. So here's a handy look at both.

NATO's origins: It sounds like a cliche, but communism really was on the march after World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet strongman Josef Stalin agreed at the 1945 Yalta conference to divide Europe into two spheres of influence – and Stalin's idea of influence was puppet governments in Poland, East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe.

It happened so fast that Churchill coined the term "Iron Curtain" in 1946. NATO formed three years later as the United States and 11 other Western nations joined together in a mutual defense pact aimed at preventing further Soviet expansion.

How NATO has changed: The Soviet Union, of course, lost control of its satellite states when a wave of revolutions swept across Eastern Europe starting in 1989. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, suddenly it was democracy, and not communism, that was on the march – and increasingly, soldiers from Eastern Europe's new democracies marched with NATO.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999, and the Soviet Union's three former Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – became members of the West's mutual defense pact along with four other Eastern European nations in 2004.

Russia did not take kindly to those moves. After all, they meant that rival troops and defenses, once 1,400 miles to the west in West Germany, now could be found in Poland and in the Baltic states bordering Russia. For proof of how much that bothers the Russians, listen to what Russian President Vladimir Putin had to say to (of all people) movie director Oliver Stone in 2016.

"When a country joins NATO, it becomes next to impossible for it to resist pressure from a major NATO leader such as the United States and hence it may deploy anything – a missile defense system, new bases or, if need be, missile strike systems," Putin said. "And what are we supposed to do? We are forced to take counter measures, that is, to aim our missile systems at those facilities which we think pose a threat to us. The situation is heating up."

To repeat, then: The Iron Curtain, and the danger associated with it, remains. It just moved eastward.

NATO's biggest challenge: Putin, of course, remains the Western alliance's gravest challenge. The Briefing will take a closer look at the neo-Soviet strongman before Trump's summit with him next Monday, but the most important fact to remember about Putin is that he, like his Soviet forefathers, seems bent on expansionism. Russia annexed Crimea – part of Ukraine since the 1950s – in 2014, and since then Putin's forces have been waging a shadow war aimed at spreading Russian influence in eastern Ukraine.

That recent history prompts some obvious fears. Does Putin want to reassemble the Soviet Union? Does he want to push the Iron Curtain westward again and reclaim the three Baltic states – a move that could lead to nuclear war with the West? Or does he just want to keep NATO in check where it is now?

Only time will tell.

Are members paying their fair share? Amid these grave dangers, Trump – a Putin admirer – seems mostly concerned about whether NATO's member states have been paying their fair share for the alliance's defense efforts.

There was a time when his complaint was well-founded. For years, France, Germany and other NATO nations did not set aside the amount of money for defense that they are supposed to under the alliance's guidelines.

Lately, though, that seems to be changing. Perhaps because of Trump's bluster – or Putin's – Canada and other NATO nations have upped their defense spending in recent years.

Is that enough for Trump – or is that even the real reason why he's so critical of NATO?

Perhaps only the president knows for sure.

And perhaps he will fill us in on his real thinking as the summit progresses. He's been known to do that, you know.

Happening today

President Trump is in Brussels for that NATO summit ... The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the nation's cyberspace vulnerabilities ... Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Demorat, testifies at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on paid family leave ... The National Transportation Safety Board continues its hearing on the Dec. 18, 2017, Amtrak train derailment that claimed three lives in DuPont, Wash., as well as the Feb. 4, 2018, Amtrak collision with a freight train near Cayce, S.C., that killed two Amtrak employees.

Good reads

The Washington Post tells us that while serving as President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani is working for foreign governments, too ... The New York Times sets the stage for the coming confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh ... The conservative National Review raves about Kavanaugh's credentials, while the progressives at the Nation fret about the judiciary's increasingly right-leaning political bent ... And the Atlantic explains why the rescue of a boy's soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand was so dangerous.



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