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NATO in the Political Fray

3 min read
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels on November 18 at a moment of high politics for the Alliance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels on November 18 at a moment of high politics for the Alliance. His remarks, and our wide-ranging conversation, made a striking contrast with the Secretary General’s first policy address shortly after his arrival in October 2014. Those earlier remarks, also at GMF, covered the range of challenges to European security emanating from the East, and from the South. It was very much about crisis management and response. Last week’s discussion made clear that these challenges persist and have become more compelling. But the real contrast has less to do with deterrence and defense, and much more to do with developments inside NATO member states. The Alliance debate has become intensely political.

The prospect of a Trump administration has spurred intense concern among America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere. Partners from the Atlantic to the Pacific are about to test the proposition that campaign rhetoric may not be a guide to policy in office. In any case, NATO does not have the luxury of holding Washington at arm’s length. Secretary General Stoltenberg has been very clear that “going it alone” is not an option for Europe or the United States. In a phone call Friday afternoon, both Trump and Stoltenberg underlined NATO’s enduring importance. But NATO allies are in need of specific reassurance from Washington. They will look to confirm that more pointed arguments about burden sharing — in particular, that Europe simply needs to spend more on defense — do not imply any weakening of America’s basic commitment to European security. In truth, the burden sharing debate is almost as old as NATO, and has been extremely contentious at times. Most often it has been about money. But, over time, it has also been about shared risk. This is the essence of extended deterrence.

President-elect Trump and others have portrayed this as a bargain, a transaction in which Europe pays more and the United States stays in the European security game. In reality, there has never been a bargain of this kind, and we should not start now.  The United States is engaged in NATO because it has shared (dare we say it, even independent) security interests in and around Europe, from deterring Russian adventurism to meeting terrorist risks emanating from the Mediterranean. This is an historic and, above all, a political commitment.

Beyond the question of America’s continued role in European security, the Secretary General also had a good deal to say about Europe’s substantial defense potential if European societies can summon the political will to act together and more efficiently. There is also much to be gained from NATO–EU cooperation, and this is now a fashionable idea in both organizations. A lot is being done, especially on maritime security — read migration and refugees — and counter-terrorism, and these are exactly the areas where publics are making vigorous demands. These may not be “existential” security risks as portrayed in campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic but they could prove politically existential for governments and alliances that ignore them.

Finally, domestic developments elsewhere in NATO, most notably in Turkey, but also in Poland and Hungary, have touched off a sensitive debate about the extent to which political conditions in member states bear on the future of the Alliance. In its approach to enlargement, NATO has emphasized the role of norms and values, alongside defense contributions. If the conversation at our November 18 event is any indication, it is getting hard to ignore these intensely political issues.

For better or worse, NATO is now deeply engaged in the transatlantic political fray.