By: Doug Livermore, Columnist
Photo Credit: United States Naval Institute
Far from outdated, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) original purpose of mutual European defense remains as relevant today as it was at NATO’s inception. The United States stands as the sole superpower on the world stage, an integral part of a number of important alliances that maintain global stability, none that is more powerful or relevant than NATO. Paradoxically, a major foreign policy theme for President Donald Trump throughout the run-up to the 2016 elections was the near-universal need to reassess the value of continued involvement in a wide range of these alliances, treaties, and other international pacts.[i] President Trump considered no proverbial “cow” too sacred for this evaluation, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and many other agreements all on the table for rejection or serious renegotiation.
Specifically, President Trump repeatedly questioned the wisdom of America’s continuing membership in NATO. Originally established in 1949, NATO stood throughout the Cold War as a bulwark of democracies against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact of communist vassal states. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the bipolar world order of the Cold War, but not the need for NATO. The United States invoked Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which requires that member states come to the aid of an attacked member, for the very first time in NATO’s history less than 24 hours after the al-Qa’ida attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001.[ii] Since that invocation, NATO forces have readily deployed alongside their American comrades in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world in support of US-led military operations.
Comments made by President Trump prior to the January presidential inauguration concerning the obsolescence of NATO left many European leaders startled and uncertain in the face of increasing Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.[iii] Russian activity along Europe’s eastern periphery has taken on an increasingly aggressive tenor in recent years. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and shortly thereafter, the Kremlin backed Eastern Ukrainian “separatists” advised and equipped by soldiers ostensibly on furlough from the Russian military.[iv] The last year has seen widespread accusations of Russian “active measures”, influence operations designed to sway general perceptions and political elections across Europe and even in the United States.[v] Many have criticized NATO members for being slow to respond, but a number of NATO deployments to the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania show that NATO possesses the means and will to provide increased deterrence in the face of Russian aggression.
While the alliance has struggled in some cases to adapt to modern threats such as terrorism and hybrid warfare, it remains a critical cooperative defense organization in which continued American membership advances US national objectives. In addition to assisting the United States in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO has also been instrumental in supporting shared interests across Africa, the Balkans, and in the Middle East. NATO provides military training to indigenous forces and other support to U.S. interests in Central Africa, and continues to be instrumental in ongoing counterterrorism operations in Libya. Since assuming office, President Trump has seemingly shifted his views on the alliance, stating during a conference at Tampa-based US Central Command (CENTCOM) in mid-February, “We strongly support NATO. We only ask that all of the NATO members make their full and proper financial contributions to the NATO alliance.”[vi]
Admittedly, in 2016 only five of the 28 member states in NATO invested the required 2% of their respective gross domestic product (GDP) into their military forces.[vii] The United States spends far more on defense as a percentage of GDP than any other NATO member, spurring criticism from some, including former President Obama, that NATO’s mutual defense assurances encourage “free riders” who disproportionately rely on the American investments in defense.[viii] However, NATO defense investment was already trending in the right direction before President Trump’s election, with real investment up by 4% in 2016[ix]. Jens Stoltenberg, the current NATO Secretary General, accepted comments by President Trump and US Defense Secretary James Mattis suggesting that US involvement in NATO might be “moderated” without increased defense investment by member states as “firm and fair”.[x] A number of NATO members, notably the Baltic States, have undertaken significant military buildups to face the growing threat posed by Russian aggression.[xi] To some analysts, President Trump’s original “hard line” stand on NATO was a shrewd negotiating ploy to elicit the desired defense investment by other NATO members. To others, his rhetorical shift indicates a recent realization of the importance of the NATO alliance to broader US national interests.
For over four decades, membership in NATO served US interests as a powerful counterbalance to the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact. In that bipolar world order, NATO’s defense deterrence contained communist designs on Western Europe, who saw global expansion of Marxism as a “sacred” duty. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not end the utility of NATO, though it did present challenges and opportunities to which NATO has adapted. In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO helped the United States advance shared interests in the Balkans, Africa, and the Near East. Throughout the Global War on Terror, NATO served alongside the United States in every single major theater, further honing wartime expeditionary capabilities. Even today, NATO stands ready to face the renewed threat of Russian aggression in Europe’s east, but it would be hard pressed to survive without US membership and support. NATO still matters because its existence is in the best interests of the United States and global stability.
[i] Theophilos Argitis , Eric Martin , and Saleha Mohsin, “How Trump Would Rework NAFTA—and What Mexico, Canada Want in Return”, Bloomberg Politics, January 24, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/ 2017-01-24/trump-s-nafta-revamp-may-hinge-on-partners-willingness-to-talk.
[ii] “Collective Defense – Article 5”, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accessed March 6, 2017, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm.
[iv] Paul Roderick Gregory, “Russian Combat Medals Put Lie to Putin’s Claim of No Russian Troops in Ukraine”, Forbes, September 9, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2016/09/06/russian-combat-medals-put-lie-to-putins-claim-of-no-russian-troops-in-ukraine/.
[v] Amanda Abrams, “ Russia’s ‘Active Measures’ Are Back with a Vengeance”, The Atlantic Council, December 15, 2016, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/russia-s-active-measures-are-back-with-a-vengeance.
[vi] Kevin Liptak, “ Trump salutes NATO with vow of strong support”, CNN, February 7, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/06/politics/trump-nato-centcom/.
[vii] “Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016)”, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accessed March 6, 2017, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf.
[viii] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world”, The Atlantic, April 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/.
[ix] Karen Gilcrist and Hadley Gamble, “ NATO backs ‘firm and fair’ US defense spending demands”, CNBC, February 18, 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/18/nato-backs-firm-and-fair-us-defense-spending-demands.html.
[xi] Andrew E. Kramer, “ Spooked by Russia, Tiny Estonia Trains a Nation of Insurgents”, The New York Times, October 31, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/world/europe/spooked-by-russia-tiny-estonia-trains-a-nation-of-insurgents.html?_r=0.