Is President Donald Trump going to destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) when he attends its summit in Brussels on July 12?
One of the interesting aspects of the hysteria is that NATO’s supporters never seem to think it is necessary to explain why it would be a bad idea to end the alliance. In a spate of interviews ahead of the summit, NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchinson enumeratedthe many ways that Russia threatens Europe and U.S. interests. But while the threats she mentioned – political subversion through social media, nerve agent attacks in Great Britain, support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty, and annexation of Crimea – are all major threats, they are not the main threats that the U.S. faces today. Moreover, NATO has been ineffective in confronting these malign actions by Russia.
NATO’s ineffectiveness ought to be the key issue of discussion when considering its future. But to date, that weakness has been largely overlooked in the rush to blame Trump for allegedly destroying America’s alliances.
NATO was established in 1949. It was the second major organization, after the United Nations, which was formed in the aftermath of World War II. Like the U.N., NATO was envisioned as a means to secure the peace in the post-war era.
To a significant degree, NATO was established because the U.N. was not up to the task. At the outset of World War II, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned the establishment of an organization whose goal would be to preserve the peace that would be secured through an Allied victory. Its establishment was agreed to by the key World War II Allies — the U.S., the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of China.
The basic notion at the heart of the U.N. was that Germany had to be restrained. After it started two world wars in 25 years, the U.N. would ensure that Germany would be in no position to start a third one.
While the notion of organizing the international community around the goal of restraining Germany made sense in 1942, by 1945 it was less relevant. Germany had been defeated completely. And the Soviet Union was emerging as America’s greatest post-war adversary.
But the the initial discussions and wartime agreements had an inertia and a logic of their own. So by the time the U..N was established in late 1945, its central organizing principle was obsolete.
Even worse, due to the fact that the Soviet Union was granted permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, replete with veto power, the U.N. was almost powerless to stand in Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s way as he carved out an empire in Eastern Europe, subverted Western European governments, and undermined U.S. and British interests and power around the world.
NATO, then, was established because the U.N. was incapable of handling the actual strategic environment dominated by the Cold War.
And NATO was successful. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, in large part due to American leadership in NATO.
It was no doubt NATO’s success that precluded discussion of its continued usefulness after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Rather than contract its operations, NATO rapidly expanded into the former Soviet sphere, extending membership to states that had lived under Soviet domination since the end of World War II.
There was little discussion then, or since, of the desirability of NATO’s eastward expansion. No one asked if the U.S. would really fight to keep the likes of Lithuania out of Russia’s sphere of influence, or whether it ought to fight to do so. NATO had just won the Cold War. Obviously, so the thinking went, it should be expanded ad infinitum.
Following the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO intervened in the Yugoslavian civil war — twice. After invoking Article 5, the NATO Treaty’s mutual defense clause, after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, NATO served and continues to serve as the leader of the coalition in the war in Afghanistan. NATO was the banner under which the U.S. and European nations intervened in the insurrection in Libya in 2011. NATO trainers have also been used in Iraq.
In an interview with Bloomberg last week, German Defense Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen insisted that the most important goal of Thursday’s summit would be “unity.”
She explained, “I think it is important to talk about the issues that really affect the alliance. Who are our opponents? Our opponents would be delighted if there’s a division in NATO. So, to work on the strengthening of the alliance, to work on the unity is the most important goal for this summit.”
Notably, Von Der Leyen failed to mention who NATO’s opponents are. That was no fluke. The one thing that has been lacking in all of NATO’s post-Cold War interventions has been a common sense of strategic purpose.
If the purpose of NATO during the Cold War was to defend Western Europe from the Red Army, what is its purpose now? Is it to fight Russia? If so, why has it been so ineffective in combatting Russian aggression? Why is Germany Russia’s largest export market? Why is Europe Russia’s largest export market for its oil products?
In 1949 Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, famously said that the organization’s goal was “to keep the Russians out [of Western Europe], the Americans in [Western Europe] and the Germans down.”
Today it is fairly apparent that the Europeans view the alliance differently. On the one hand, Europe is still interested in “keeping America in.”
But as Trump has noted repeatedly, what Europe wants most for the United States to do is to provide the financial and military resources to secure Europe from Russia and other external threats.
Beyond refusing to abide by their financial commitments to spend two percent of their GDP on their own defense, European nations use NATO as a means of vetoing or undermining U.S. freedom of action. This came across clearly in 2003, when NATO allies France, Germany, and Belgium refused to have NATO serve as the framework for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They also refused Turkey’s request for consultations over a possible Iraqi attack against it.
Today, NATO members Britain, France, and Germany are working through the EU to undermine U.S. sanctions against Iran, in the interest of preserving the Iranian nuclear deal from 2015. As Trump noted when he announced U.S. abandonment of the Iran deal, far from preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the agreement gives Iran an open road to a nuclear arsenal. So today, key NATO allies are operating against the U.S on behalf of the Iranian regime in furtherance of its nuclear ambitions.
Then there is NATO ally Turkey.
Turkey, with its strategic location on Europe’s southeastern flank, was a vital member of the anti-Soviet alliance. But for the past decade or so, Turkey’s central achievement in NATO has been to block any chance of the alliance ever becoming reconfigured to combat and defeat the new common foe of all of its members except Turkey – radical Islam.
In 2009, Turkish leader Recep Erdogan nearly blocked then Dutch prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s bid to serve as NATO Secretary General. Erdogan opposed Rasmussen due to the latter’s firm defense of Denmark’s Jyllands Posten newspaper’s decision to publish cartoons of Mohammed in 2005. To appease Turkey, Rasmussen delivered a humiliating speech in Istanbul in 2009 where he proclaimed his personal opposition to the cartoons. Then-President Barack Obama sealed the deal by giving Turkey several senior positions in NATO.
Erdogan’s actions in 2009 neutralized NATO as an organization capable of fighting radical Islam. And as Erdogan has grown increasingly extreme in his support for jihadists and his open subversion of European governments, Turkey’s continued membership in NATO and its access as a NATO member to sensitive intelligence and weapons platforms has further hindered NATO’s cohesiveness and strategic rationale.
Under the circumstances that have developed since NATO helped win the Cold War, several things are clear.
First, NATO as it stands is incapable of developing a coherent strategic objective common to all of its members.
Second, NATO is a hindrance to U.S. strategic independence, shackling Washington to partners who do not share its interests or objectives, while requiring it to underwrite and secure their defense.
Finally, it is clear that NATO is incapable of shifting its mission to address current threats to U.S. security interests.
Today the U.S faces two main threats: China and radical Islam. Obviously, European nations have no capacity to play a significant role in containing or deterring China militarily. And as a military alliance, it is hard to see why NATO would be the tool of choice for developing common trade policies among allied nations to rein in China economically. Certainly NATO has been unable or unwilling to assist the U.S. in confronting the malign influence of North Korea, China’s most dangerous satellite.
As for radical Islam, due to Turkish membership in NATO, and due to European refusal to take any significant steps to rein in radical Islamic forces in Europe or anywhere else, it is abundantly clear that NATO is not the proper vehicle for U.S.-led collective defense against Iran or other jihadist powers.
To the extent that the U.S. seeks to work in the framework of a collective defense organization, it will need to look beyond NATO. It will require new alliance structures. Those can be informal, or transactional, or limited in scope, rather than formal and brittle, as NATO has been. But whether or not such alliances form, it is abundantly clear that scaling back NATO is a reasonable — indeed, a necessary — move.
As for President Trump, despite the bloviations of his critics, he bears no responsibility for NATO’s irrelevance. Trump did not cause NATO to have little role to play in fighting the key threats to American and global security. NATO has had nearly three decades to figure out how to do that. But it failed.
All that Trump has done is point out the reality of NATO’s decline — which his four predecessors refused to acknowledge.