A Nervous Anniversary

April 01, 2019
"Restoring a measure of predictability to U.S. policy and leadership in NATO is the obvious priority.

"Restoring a measure of predictability to U.S. policy and leadership in NATO is the obvious priority. The United States hundred-year pivot to Europe may be under pressure, but it is not over yet." – Ian O. Lesser

By rights, this should not be a contentious anniversary for the North Atlantic Alliance. Allies can look back on a history of success in the core mission of collective defense, having held at bay and finally seen the collapse of a highly capable adversary. The fact that NATO has had only one Article 5 contingency in seven decades—the largely symbolic decision to treat the 9/11 attacks on the United States as an attack on all—is a testimony to NATO’s effectiveness in deterring threats to members’ territory. Successive enlargements have played a key role in the political reintegration of Europe’s east and, in an earlier period, its south. Since the end of the Cold War, critics have tended to cast NATO as an alliance in search of a mission. Today, this rings hollow as a second Cold War gathers pace and nuclear, conventional, and unconventional security challenges loom large. This should be NATO’s moment. Yet it is a period of intense, troubled debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first and most obvious reason is the rhetoric emanating from the Trump administration. The demand that European allies pay more for their defense is hardly new. Past administrations have made this point, sometimes in very sharp terms. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ 2011 speech on this theme is still remembered in Brussels. But President Donald Trump has taken the burden-sharing argument many steps further by questioning the underlying logic of the alliance and encouraging the idea that the U.S. commitment to European security is contingent. Since 1917, the European order has been shaped by the United States role as a security arbiter. The reality that it has its own interest in the stability of Europe and its neighborhood has gotten lost amid recriminations over defense spending.

Few would disagree that European NATO members need to spend more on defense. That is happening, even if the rather arbitrary “best efforts” commitment of countries to spend 2 percent of GDP is unlikely to be met fully anytime soon. Key allies, above all Germany, are far from meeting this goal and the politics of doing more are becoming more uncertain. Most worryingly, the transatlantic discourse on burden sharing and persistent uncertainty about the U.S. commitment has reached a point where many NATO members will be hard put to spend more on a project pressed by a deeply unpopular administration. And if Europe is going to do more in defense terms, many are convinced this should be done in a European Union frame with Europeans driving strategy and decisions on the use of force. Europe is far from having the cohesion or the capacity for this, but nonetheless strategic autonomy is a fashionable theme in 2019—and not just in Paris. Transatlantic rebalancing of this kind used to imply greater NATO-EU cooperation (which has happened) or a more capable European core within the alliance. Now, European allies are looking to hedge against U.S. disengagement or wrongheaded policies.

Early in the Trump administration, the United States’ NATO allies worried about its commitment to collective defense under Article 5. Reassuring words from senior U.S. officials, together with visible increases in the U.S. security presence in Europe had a calming effect, at least for a time. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s December 2018 address at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels was very tough on multilateral institutions, yet NATO came off relatively unscathed. But President Trump’s talk of withdrawal from the alliance and his repeated suggestions that allies should pay a premium for the basing of U.S. forces in Europe have had a corrosive effect. At a minimum, his rhetoric has encouraged the view that the administration gives little priority to NATO in its strategic calculus. At worst, there is mounting concern that it might make good on its more extreme proposals. However, strong support for the alliance in Congress makes withdrawal a very unlikely prospect. Even significant redeployments from Europe would face stiff opposition. It is no accident that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been invited to address a joint session of Congress as he visits Washington for the alliance anniversary.

The second reason for the state of the debate on NATO is that the alliance has accumulated a host of unresolved questions about its strategy and operations. Almost 20 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, NATO remains engaged in Afghanistan, largely at U.S. behest. Yet, the consensus in Washington around this protracted mission has reached an end, and the United States is now actively looking for an exit. This could be one of the few points of convergence between the preferences of President Trump and those of other NATO members. The prospective end of the NATO presence in Afghanistan will accelerate the return to territorial defense as a priority mission, principally looking east.

At the same time, NATO will need to grapple with the vexing question of a strategy for the south. Here, the challenges are more diverse—from counterterrorism to maritime security and border control— and diffuse. The good news is that NATO has always had substantial command and force structure around the Mediterranean. But the problem of a southern strategy is more complex across a land, sea, and air space of thousands of kilometers. The politics of NATO’s east-south balance are not as straightforward as is sometimes assumed. Beyond the obvious concerns of southern members, many core NATO countries in Western Europe are more concerned about risks emanating from North Africa, the Sahel, and the Levant than about Russia.

Beyond the ongoing task of bolstering NATO’s capacity for rapid response and conventional defense vis-à-vis Russia, nuclear strategy is also back on the agenda. The Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty raises long-deferred questions about the role of nuclear weapons in the alliance’s strategy and the future of arms control. European NATO members are largely in agreement about Russia’s violations of the treaty and the challenge posed by its increasingly provocative nuclear doctrine. But they also fear the consequences of the collapse of the treaty and other arms-control regimes. Strategists on both sides of the Atlantic recall the searing experience of the Euromissile debate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And that was at a time of unquestioned transatlantic cohesion on other fronts.

Third, the values side of NATO is under pressure. The Washington Treaty is explicit about the importance of democracy and shared values. This has been a key facet of enlargement and has arguably acquired even greater importance in recent years. To be sure, NATO has had challenges on this front in the past, with authoritarian governments in southern Europe and military regimes in Turkey. But allies have come to expect more on this front, and NATO membership surely played a role in the democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, in different ways, developments in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland raise questions about democratic cohesion and NATO’s future as a values based alliance. Nationalism, populism, and identity politics are on the rise, and these forces will inevitably complicate alliance relations. In the coming years, it is conceivable that NATO will face calls for sanctions against authoritarian members. Its competitors can be expected to exploit these tensions.

Finally, even the most committed Atlanticist cannot ignore the steady rise of China as a strategic competitor and looming risks in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite deepening friction with Russia, the Euro-Atlantic space is unlikely to remain the center of gravity for global security indefinitely. There will be more consequential animating conflicts elsewhere. These dynamics are already affecting U.S. strategy and force posture, and there is every reason to expect them to accelerate. European interests will be profoundly affected, too. At a minimum, the alliance will need to think much harder about how to work with partners outside Europe—and how to bring Asian security issues on to the NATO agenda.

The NATO ministerial in Washington will almost certainly lack the theatrics of the 2018 Brussels summit. That is no bad thing. It is an opportunity to stabilize a transatlantic security relationship facing real political and defense challenges. Restoring a measure of predictability to U.S. policy and leadership in NATO is the obvious priority. The United States hundred-year pivot to Europe may be under pressure, but it is not over yet.

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