This year marks NATO’s 70th anniversary, and there is good reason to celebrate. At first glance, the alliance may appear plagued by trepidation and tension over various escalating and established concerns, leaving even the institution’s staunchest defenders tossing and turning. As Georgetown’s Charles Kupchan recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, “some worry that the growing U.S. preoccupation with East Asia will lure the United States away from its Atlantic calling,” while other “NATO watchers are concerned that EU efforts to more deeply integrate European foreign and defense policy could ultimately weaken the Atlantic link.” Others simply believe that the alliance is in dire need of a serious structural overhaul, as MIT political science professor Barry Posen suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed: “NATO’s founding mission has been achieved and replaced with unsuccessful misadventures.” He continues, “the United States has urgent business at home, and arguably in Asia. Though President Trump has no strategy for returning the European allies to full responsibility for their own futures, the American foreign policy establishment could better spend its time devising such a strategy than defending the counterproductive trans-Atlantic status quo. A reappraisal is long overdue.” He may have a point – at least to a certain extent.
When the Treaty of Brussels was signed on August 25, 1948, the world was, geopolitically-speaking, a strikingly different place. Just three years prior, Germany had signed its unconditional surrender, officially ending a war that left upwards of eighty million people in its malevolent wake. When informed by advisors that Soviet forces were a day’s march from Berlin, Hitler opted to forgo his planned extraction to the Bavarian Alps, electing instead to take his own life; as a result, the Third Reich collapsed as quickly as it was born. Twice in the span of a mere thirty years, the world had endured terror, suffering, and human carnage on a scale never before seen. But with the demise of Nazi Germany on one front came the rearing of the Soviet Bear on the other, as well as the division of the world into the competing spheres of influence of the two remaining superpowers – the USSR and the United States. It was out of these turbulent times that NATO was born.
Seventy years ago, at the Treaty’s official signing, U.S. President Harry Truman addressed the crowd, declaring that “men with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny. They can choose slavery or freedom, war or peace. I have no doubt which they will choose. The treaty we are signing here today is evidence of the path they will follow. If there is anything certain today, if there is anything inevitable in the future, it is the will of the people of the world for freedom and for peace.” With those words, Truman, a decorated veteran himself, christened the greatest military alliance in human history.
In this otherwise muddled post-war period, NATO’s mandate was clear as day. The organization was entrusted, as the organization’s first Secretary General Lord Ismay famously put it, to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” To ensure that this essential cornerstone was upheld, the original member-states, then a ragtag group of ravaged post-war nations, agreed that “an armed attack against one or more of them...shall be considered an attack against them all” — what we recognize today as Article 5 of the NATO Charter.
In recent years, NATO has been forced, however reluctantly, to evolve. Following the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1991, and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Bloc, NATO redefined itself within the confines of the current world order. As a counterweight to the Warsaw Pact for over forty years, its sole function was to strengthen, unify, and prepare for any possible Soviet offensive. Yet, with that threat extinguished, it has been sent on a vision quest of sorts to establish and reassert itself within the current rules-based international order.
While a recent New York Times editorial entitled Why NATO Matters makes the case in favor of the storied alliance, some are not so certain. “The justification for NATO was [that] it protects the West from the Russian hordes. The Russian hordes are gone. What happens to NATO? It should have gone as well,” argues Noam Chomsky. A recent Boston Globe op-ed written by Stephen Kinzer of Brown University entitled Is NATO Necessary? goes even further, announcing that “We need less NATO. Not more.” Kinzer concludes, ominously, that NATO’s troubled role today is that of an “instrument in escalating our dangerous conflict with Russia.” It's easy to see why, as Russian politician Alexei K. Pushkov makes clear in his National Interest paper Don’t Isolate Us: A Russian View of NATO Expansion. Though it is commonplace for Western observers to view Russia’s increasingly expansionist foreign policy, specifically towards sovereign states such as Ukraine and Georgia, as impetuous and unprovoked, it is equally important to view the Russian side of the story. In 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary became the first ex-Soviet Satellite States to join NATO; since then, the alliance has crept closer and closer to Russia. Where we see a dewy-eyed autocrat with Catherine the Great’s imperialistic aspirations of restoring Russia’s long lost empire, Putin sees an ever-growing, hostile NATO sitting on his snowy doorstep.
Nonetheless, the alliance appears to be in incredibly good condition, having shown great dexterity in its evolution from a communist counterweight to a finely-tuned cornerstone of the post-war, rules-based order. NATO’s extensive involvement both in the North Atlantic region and beyond would point to the fact that it is needed now more than ever; a reality predicated on recent Russian expansionist tendencies (as mentioned above), an increasingly outward-looking China, the rise of nationalist populism in Europe and beyond, a progressively antagonistic Iran, and a multitude of other burgeoning and established security threats. In the 21st century, NATO has remarketed itself as an “active and leading contributor to peace and security on the international stage. It promotes democratic values and is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes.” Yet what differentiates the alliance from other transnational organizations is the fact that “if diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military capacity to undertake crisis management operations alone or in cooperation with other countries and international organizations.”
The Trump Effect
Seventy years on, we should be extolling the greatest military alliance in history, not commemorating what once was, as some experts have suggested. And for that, we have President Trump to thank (at least in part).
In recent months, experts of great acclaim have penned a slew of articles denouncing Trump for his bombast toward NATO, and his adverse impact on the alliance’s health. While Douglas Lute and R. Nicholas Burns wrote a piece in The Washington Post castigating Trump as “NATO’s Biggest Problem,” Richard Fontaine decried in The Atlantic that the Commander-in-Chief simply has the alliance “backward.”
Admittedly, since assuming office, Donald Trump’s policy toward NATO has been marked by a rollercoaster of uninhibited impulsivity and brashness. By day, he has belabored European allies at length over not spending enough on defense. By night, he has threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether, while remaining painfully ambiguous about the United States’ commitment to common defense, the very foundation of NATO. As a result, it is clear that Trump has dealt a serious blow to NATO’s solidarity, worsening anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic and raising doubts about the alliance’s uncertain future. Yet Trump’s NATO hysterics, ever fortuitously, have yielded serious dividends, as lawmakers have rushed to reiterate their support for the alliance, only now under threat. The age-old adage rings true for NATO: you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s (almost) gone. Even Congress, the epitome of political inaction and crippling partisanship, has become NATO’s very own cheerleader, recently passing a flurry of legislation in support of the alliance. Just last summer, when Trump was assailing allies at the NATO summit, the House voted unanimously to pass a resolution of support for the alliance; the Senate did the same with a 97-2 vote. In January, in response to further leaks that Trump was considering pulling out of the alliance, the House reaffirmed its support for collective defense, voting 357-22 to bar the hypothetical use of federally-issued funds to remove the United States from NATO. Thanks to Trump, America’s commitment to NATO is now stronger than ever.
For critics to remain credible in their policing of Trump, it is necessary to take note of his achievements (though they may be hard to come by). His policies toward NATO represent a rare bastion of sanity and reason in an otherwise inept foreign policy doctrine, providing us with this essential opportunity. When it comes to NATO, and the United States’ role within it, Trump raises some very valid points. For one, Trump has been a vocal proponent of limiting the number of new entries into the alliance, particularly from the Balkans, which many experts, such as Richard Haass, have argued in like. It is important to remember that NATO, as opposed to the United Nations (excluding the Security Council), works on a consensus basis. This worked fine when NATO was established with twelve member states of shared ideology and common language and culture, but has become a topic of concern with the current twenty-nine (soon to be thirty) members. Furthermore, recent additions (most notably Hungary and Poland in 1999) have forced NATO’s hand, forcing the alliance to strike a precarious balance between sharing the fruits of its labor and upholding the essential desideratum of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”: founding principles of the charter.
In addition, Trump’s fiery rhetoric has been surprisingly effective in spurring much-needed increases in defense spending amongst the United States’ European allies. In 2018, a resounding twenty-four of NATO’s twenty-nine members increased their defense spending, while in 2019, nine states will reach the 2%, compared to a mere four in 2014.
Thus, some progress is clearly being made thanks to Trump. And, whether or not one agrees with the points raised above, one thing that is indisputable is that Trump has thrown NATO back into the international conversation where it rightfully belongs.
William Lloyd is a junior research fellow at the NATO Association of Canada, and a research assistant to Professor Timothy Sayle at the University of Toronto, where he is entering his first year. He is currently enrolled in the Margaret McMillan Trinity One Program, international relations stream.