During the US presidential election campaign, candidate Donald Trump was critical of NATO on two fronts. The first was that the Alliance was “obsolete” in not having adjusted to the new times and dealt with the menace posed by Islamist terrorism. The second was that members, with a few exceptions, were not contributing sufficiently to the common defence. Officials in Brussels have taken exception to both charges, while implictly acknowledging them by pointing out that NATO Secretaries General have long appealed to members to expand NATO’s capacity to deal with terrorism and to spend more on defence, in particular to meet the Alliance-agreed target of each state spending 2% of its GDP on defence.
So what now? Does NATO have a future with Trump in the White House? The answer would seem to be a qualified Yes, if allies move promptly to respond to Trump’s concerns. Trump’s nominees for Secretary of Defence and Secretary of State believe NATO continues to play a useful and important role in Western security, but allies can expect to hear them warn that NATO has to earn its place in the international order of the post post-Cold War world. The alternative — now much more real than a decade or two ago — is new defence architecture without NATO as we know it today.
Is NATO obsolete?
By any objective analysis, NATO completed its mission of defence and deterrence in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. For some time after, NATO’s declared raison d’être was to provide a measure of “stability” for a continent being transformed. This made sense, but not after NATO members failed to craft new security architecture for Europe which enveloped the new Russia and took account of its security interests, after it eliminated Russia’s defensive glacis by absorbing its Baltic and Central European neighbours, and after it toyed with Ukraine joining NATO – a casus belli for Russia by any geopolitical calculus. In brief, NATO ended one cold war and aided and abetted a second one.
While NATO purported to “manage the dissolution of the Soviet empire and integrate the captive nations into Europe” – in fact pursuing an enlargement project allowed to stretch all the way to Georgia — the Alliance’s unity of purpose was further fractured by taking on a host of peripheral tasks: “out of area” operations in Afghanistan, fixing failed states, combating piracy, building capacity in other organizations, and “partnering” and “dialoguing” with 70 countries.
Meanwhile, NATO neglected the one core function which it indisputably still did own, to protect members from the major new threat arising from the Islamist jihad being waged against them. NATO officials have disputed that, pointing to minor (and quite recent) organizational adjustments. But it was a telling indicator that, at their summit meeting in July 2016, NATO heads of state and government devoted just two paragraphs of their 139-paragraph final communiqué to the subject.
Then, as Russia under Putin began to push back using time-honoured Russian methods of intimidation and subversion of its neighbours followed by the forced annexation of Crimea, NATO was very slow to meet its renewed defence and deterrence responsibilities. The situation became so dire that the most vulnerable members had to publicly signal their unhappiness with the support they were receiving from their less threatened allies – pointedly asking whether the Western members considered them allies constituting NATO’s eastern flank or merely a buffer between them and Russia. In the event, it took an extraordinary summit meeting of the “Eastern flank members” to finally get Western members to agree to move beyond military exercises and permanently station troops in the frontline countries.
But the response was hardly robust – single battle groups in the Baltic States and Poland with the only European members willing to lead and contibute troops to them being the British and Germans. Where were all the others? Once again, it was the United States which had to fill the gap — along with, remarkably, Canada.
Does NATO have a future?
Governments will find out soon enough that Trump is serious when he says US policy will put “America First”. As serious as Ronald Reagan was when he said he wasn’t prepared to settle for containment of the USSR. As Trump wrote in Crippled America: I believe in always putting the interests of American citizens first – always. That level of commitment is what has been missing for so long in our foreign policy, in our trade policy, in our immigration policy. Somewhere we started worrying too much about what other countries thought about us.
Trump firmly believes that US military alliances are going to have to deliver more. Long before Trump arrived on the scene, the United States was warning its allies that they had to contribute more to the common defence. It wasn’t Donald Trump but Robert Gates who said (in 2011):
For the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance … Thus, for most of the Cold War US governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent.
The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. If current trends … are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.
Trump is the first of those future US political leaders. Not only is he disinclined to continue subsidizing the defence of wealthy countries fully capable of providing for their own security, but the US debt of $20 trillion is a powerful disincentive for doing so.
If NATO doesn’t change, it faces the prospect of the United States taking its distance from Europe, followed by internal collapse. While currently far on the horizon, the day is no longer so far off for the long-discussed idea of a new US-led global alliance comprising leading European and Asian countries (Japan, Australia).
If it is to survive, NATO is going to have to focus on three primary tasks and organize itself for these.
- Fighting and winning the battle against radical Islamism, politically as well as militarily.
- Defence and deterrence in Europe with a much more robust military presence in the Baltic States and Poland.
- Negotiation of a new modus vivendi with Russia based on common interests.
Russia is not the USSR, but it has a leader with a well developed sense of Russia’s security interests who will absolutely not hand back Crimea or allow Ukraine to pose a security threat to Russia. The West/NATO therefore has the choice of holding future relations with Moscow hostage to unrealizable goals in respect of Crimea and Ukraine, or forging a deal based on reconnaissance des acquis militaries in return for corresponding security benefits elsewhere in Europe. That is the deal the new Trump administration shows every sign of pursuing.
The future of the transatlantic relationship ain’t what it used to be.