NATO Is Still Vital After 70 Years

Flags of member nations fly during a ceremony at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels in 2018. (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)
The Cold War–era alliance faces new challenges and squabbles, but it is still holding together

The most poignant aspect of the celebrations of NATO’s 70th anniversary last week was the tension between the business-as-usual character of the meeting among the alliance’s foreign ministers in Washington and the continuing absurdity of Donald Trump’s presidential reality show — including his earlier suggestion that America’s allies be charged full costs “plus 50 percent” for the presence of U.S. military bases in their countries.

This contrast, together with what are largely conventional policies of a largely conventional Republican administration — including the strengthening of sanctions on Russia, a boost of U.S. presence on NATO’s eastern flank, and a more muscular posture toward China — create the impression that the idiosyncratically Trumpist challenge to the transatlantic alliance will fade away once Donald Trump leaves office.

That is an illusion. Trump may be crude and unsophisticated, but his presidency is raising questions about the alliance that have to be answered. Seventy years into its existence, NATO needs to adapt — or become irrelevant. Historically, after all, alliances between countries have rarely been long-lasting. In contrast, NATO has managed to outlive the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union by almost three decades. Whether that anomaly can continue hinges on the extent to which the alliance can still generate value for its members in a new global environment.

Trump’s antics often mirror real problems — especially Europe’s “free riding”. Notwithstanding decades of American cajoling and the EU’s self-professed desire to become strategically independent, few European governments are willing to invest real resources into their militaries. Germany, for example, recently revised its spending plans downwards, walking back its already timid commitment to increase defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025.

Germany’s current reluctance to step up its game is at least as irresponsible as Trump’s Twitter outbursts. Yet it is worth remembering that a part of the alliance’s initial rationale was “to keep the Germans down” or, more broadly, to limit the destructive power competition between European nation-states. In that sense, the feebleness of European militaries is a feature, not a bug, of the alliance’s design — and it has to be said that it has served Europe rather well.

If Germany just brought its defense spending above 2 percent of GDP, it would easily outspend Russia and become one of the largest military powers in the world. What would Germany’s neighbors in Europe say, especially those countries that are concerned that Berlin is already wielding too much power within the EU? The Mediterranean periphery blames Germany, rightly or wrongly, for imposing unpopular austerity policies on its hapless economies. Leaders of Visegrád countries, most prominently Viktor Orbán of Hungary, have soured on Berlin after Chancellor Angela Merkel extended her “welcome” to Syrian asylum seekers in September 2015. How would Germany’s militarization shape the country’s relations with the Czech Republic, which expelled two and a half million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland after World War II? With Poland?

Of course, none of this is an excuse for Germany’s current complacency. But how exactly Europeans step up their game is just as important as the question of whether European defense budgets will grow, and by how much. The best way to encourage Europeans to do more, without inviting back the destructive militarism of the past, is for the United States to support the deepening of the EU’s defense cooperation, which already enjoys popular support across the EU’s member states. Unfortunately, the administration has done the opposite — displaying its hostility to the European project on every occasion imaginable.

Given that European countries, including those currently governed by populist governments, are committed to the EU, euroskepticism as an official U.S. policy risks widening the already existing gap between Europe and the United States. Yet for NATO to remain viable, that gap needs to narrow.

On some issues, this may be difficult. The United States sees a resurgent Iran as the most significant source of regional instability in the Middle East. Europeans, determined to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, have seemed more willing to spend political capital to circumvent U.S. secondary sanctions than to stop Iran’s ballistic-missile program and respond to its support for Assad’s atrocities in Syria.

On other subjects, synergies are more natural. Similarly to the Cold War, the presence of common enemies fosters unity. In Washington, it is taken for granted that China already is America’s most important global rival. Europeans may be slow, but they too are waking up to the risks that Chinese investment might entail.

On the issue of Russia, which poses an immediate threat to the security of Eastern Europe, Europe itself seems divided. Some want to have it both ways — keep Vladimir Putin’s belligerence in check but also continue to do business with Russia as if the annexation of Crimea and war against Ukraine had never happened.

The alliance has no alternative but to find a common strategic outlook, in which the European continent plays an important but no longer an exclusive part, simply because the world’s center of gravity has moved away from Europe. What is equally important is NATO’s insistence on shared values. Why should U.S, taxpayers and its men and women in uniform underwrite the security of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic regime in Turkey, for example? At what point does Fidesz’s authoritarianism in Hungary become incompatible with the country’s place within the democratic, civilized West?

Membership in the alliance cannot be a one-way ratchet. It has to become a conditional privilege, with all the members playing an active role — and facing a common system of graduated sanctions, culminating in expulsion for rogue regimes. Otherwise, the frequent appeals to shared values will continue to ring hollow to voters on both sides of the Atlantic.

NATO is certainly not “obsolete.” As my AEI colleague Gary Schmitt argued, the alliance has been extraordinarily successful in “encouraging states and peoples to put aside traditional rivalries in the name of greater regional cooperation” while only minimally burdening the United States. It is, in short, the most successful alliance in the history of humankind. But its best days lie ahead of us only if the bloc succeeds in finding compelling responses to its threefold challenge of shared defense costs, shared strategic outlook, and shared values. I, for one, hope that Trump’s brusque manners will help catalyze that process, instead of eroding the alliance’s credibility.


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