On 4 April, NATO will turn 70. It is no mean feat for either a human being or an alliance to reach that august age. It appropriately occasions both a round of celebration and a long bout of introspection. As it enters its eighth decade, NATO has much to celebrate and much to think about: history’s most successful military alliance now faces its biggest threat not from a foreign enemy but from its central pillar, the United States and its mercurial president.
Troops are only as good as the willingness to use them; spending is only important if it buys a common defence.
NATO foreign ministers will assemble in Washington to mark the occasion. They will give many speeches extolling NATO’s long history – its role in winning the cold war, in spreading democracy to Eastern Europe, in stabilising the Balkans, and, I guess, in staying in Afghanistan for a really long time, which is impressive if not especially productive.
There is much to criticise about NATO, but this is not a bad list after all. The alliance’s undoubted success is all the more surprising when you consider the competition. The Warsaw Pact shattered like glass at the end of the cold war. Nobody remembers SEATO or CENTO. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation is a bit of a joke. Nobody is hoping that Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will come to their defence in the event of foreign attack, particularly given that two of its members almost went to war with each other last month. The European Union isn’t even sure whether it is a security alliance.
But NATO not only endures – it continues to expand. The newly named North Macedonia is on track to become its 30th member very soon. And it seems that practically everyone still wants to join. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reminded us last week that, as the alliance promised in 2008, Georgia will become a member and – according to him, at least – there is nothing Russia can do about it. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin still seems afraid of NATO, judging by how much he criticises it.
As a democratic alliance, one of NATO’s strengths has always been its capacity for introspection and change. We probably won’t hear much introspection at the anniversary celebration because political leaders will want to appear upbeat. And, anyway, throughout its history, NATO has lurched from one crisis to another – from dealing with Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s to Euromissiles in the 1980s, to the prolonged “whither NATO” identity crises of the post-cold war period. The alliance has always found a way through because it has remained useful to its members and because it has always shown the ability to recognise and manage internal differences.
But these are especially troubling times for the NATO. For the first time, the cause of its current crisis not some internal dispute over burden-sharing or its mission. Instead, it is the idea that the alliance’s central pillar, the US, is no longer committed to it.
The proximate cause of this crisis is, like so much else these days, US President Donald Trump.
His constant questioning of NATO’s Article 5 collective-defence commitment; his frequent assertion that he would only protect countries that paid America enough money; his claim that he could simply walk away from Europe without any loss to America; his apparent plan to bill NATO members for hosting US troops; and his refusal to criticise Putin have all caused many Europeans and Americans to wonder whether Trump would really be there for NATO allies in a crisis. As former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski put it after Trump’s infamous 2018 press conference with Putin in Helsinki, “we have no idea what President Trump would do in a crisis with Russia”.
Trump’s lack of solidarity with NATO is so toxic that the original idea for a leaders’ summit in Washington was downgraded to a foreign ministers’ meeting so that he would not have to be the host. NATO will now have a 70th anniversary summit in London eight months after its actual birthday, which – as a NATO press release helpfully reminds us – is appropriate because “London was the home of NATO’s first headquarters.”
Trump’s attitude is particularly problematic because the very essence of NATO is America’s commitment to European security and its promise to defend its European partners. If Europeans lose faith in this commitment, the alliance will be, for all intents and purposes, dead – even if it appears to putter along in its Brussels headquarters and on European military bases. So, even though the Trump administration has sustained US troop numbers in Europe and even increased funding for the Obama administration’s programme to deter further Russian adventurism in eastern Europe, the alliance still feels less cohesive than at any time since the end of the cold war.
It is not hard to understand why. In conversations about NATO, we often imply that the alliance is given life by the number of US troops on European soil or increases in European NATO members’ defence spending. These things are important, but they are not the lifeblood of an alliance. Troops are only as good as the willingness to use them; spending is only important if it buys a common defence. NATO draws breath from the sacred commitment that allies make to defend each other in times of crisis and severe need.
And the issue is not just Trump. Indeed, NATO’s American problem will probably outlast his presidency. For all his rudeness and radicalism, Trump is expressing a trend in US domestic politics towards questioning America’s role in the world, particularly its commitment to Europe. None of the candidates in the 2020 US presidential race is running on the idea of taking greater responsibility for European security than Trump does. A future president may have kinder words to say to US allies in Europe, but he will continue to move the focus of American attention and resources elsewhere.
Of course, NATO can recover as it has so often in the past. But the alliance will only see its 80th birthday if there is a new US president who recognises its value and if European members of NATO can demonstrate that value to sceptical US policymakers and a distracted American public. That’s a tall order, but the most successful alliance in the history of the world is worth the hard work.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.