Europe, Foreign Policy, recent, Security, World Affairs

Tensions in NATO and the Looming End of Pax Americana

As NATO leaders gathered in London this week to mark the 70th anniversary of history’s most venerable military alliance, it has been widely forgotten that not so long ago the specter of armed conflict haunted the European continent. When the Washington treaty establishing NATO was signed in April 1949, the Soviet Union occupied the captive nations of Eastern Europe and an invasion of Western Europe by the Red Army was not a remote possibility. On current trends, the Atlantic alliance may well suffer a premature demise as the world moves into another great power rivalry that is also an ideological contest between democracy and autocracy.

A terse review of the historical record is in order here. In the aftermath of World War Two, the United States committed itself to a revolutionary foreign policy. The extraordinary task of maintaining some semblance of international order after two global conflagrations was premised on a controversial but compelling notion of enlightened self-interest. The guiding principle of U.S. statecraft was that the peace of the world was in grave and permanent jeopardy, and thus that it needed to be imposed and kept by force, or at least the credible threat of it. This momentous undertaking required that American power remain second to none, and for it to be deployed in outposts far from the American mainland. It was only through this forward engagement, providing moral and material succor to vulnerable allies and international norms, that would prevent a breakdown in order that would draw the world into yet another violent maelstrom.

America’s reluctant but immense decision to take the lead in upholding a decent international order did not enjoy a long honeymoon. It rapidly came under ferocious challenge by Soviet power pressing to extend its imperium from Berlin to Baghdad, from Helsinki to Havana, and from Seoul to Saigon. The containment doctrine that flowed from the novel understanding of America’s self-interest aimed to thwart Soviet expansion. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, set up in 1949 as a key pillar of containment, upheld the principle of anticipatory self-defense. However, the “self” that was being defended, as was pointed out by isolationists of the day, was not exactly the American homeland, but the sovereignty of American allies and the security (as well as the prevalence) of the American way of life.

Four decades into its existence, NATO celebrated a resounding success. With the decline and fall of the Soviet empire, the Atlantic Pact reaped the benefits of standing united on the ramparts of liberty to deter aggression and defend the cause of a European continent “whole and free.” After achieving victory over the “evil empire,” NATO received a new lease on life. Although some in the West called for its dissolution, NATO instead committed itself to the grandiose task of maintaining Europe’s peace and helping to secure the global commons beyond the European periphery.

Thirty years on, the transatlantic alliance is in real trouble. It confronts an identity crisis that surpasses even what it faced with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It cannot be both what it has been and what it is now: both a military alliance and a political force. Although its 29 member states account for about half of the world’s military spending—NATO allies have all raised their defense budgets in the last half-decade for a collective increase of more than $130 billion—and close to half of the world’s GDP, prudent political leadership is absent while fissures within the bloc are widening.

Adversaries and allies alike have taken notice. In a provocative interview with the Economist, French President Macron pronounced that NATO, thanks to Trump’s single-minded insistence on spending outlays and ratios, is succumbing to “brain death.” He advises that the treaty organization pare down its residual role as a bulwark against Russian expansion and beef up its capacity to counter the global jihadist insurgency. Meanwhile, the American president has been a singularly destructive force in this drama. A consistent and radical critic of America’s role in the world, Trump has alternately proposed scrapping NATO, breaching its security commitments, enlisting it in the budding Cold War against China, and pressing partners to boost defense spending.

A commitment to increased defense spending by European nations is an important recognition of the imbalance in the distribution of the collective security burden. The American share, accounting for two-thirds of the alliance’s total defense bill, plainly represents an outsized contribution to transatlantic defense. But a close look at the historical record reveals that this imbalance is a feature, not a bug, of traditional U.S. foreign policy. The security implications of distributing military responsibilities for great-power competition across the alliance were always real and dire.

It is a mistake to believe that what used to be referred to as the “German problem” has disappeared under the benign stewardship of Angela Merkel. Having just marked the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, few leaders (not even Germany’s foreign minister) bothered to recall that neither France under François Mitterand nor Britain under Margaret Thatcher supported German reunification after the end of the Cold War. Only America’s security guarantee ensured European integration. As the French like to joke, when Germany takes responsibility for defense, six months later it is usually marching down the Champs Elysées.

In a time of rising nationalism, would it really be prudent to entrust the peace of Europe to its constituent parts? In a time when Britain’s role in Europe is in grave doubt, can Paris and Berlin be counted on to muster a credible deterrent against a revanchist Russia? Without the sway of American power, could European nations rally effectively to counter the large and imposing influence of China? In each case, there is little reason to believe so.

Of Trump’s erratic effusions, the most egregious has been his obstinate refusal to endorse clearly and unequivocally the key provision of the NATO treaty, Article V, which mandates member states to come to one another’s aid when attacked. Amid the frequent paeans to “America First,” it is worth recalling that Article V has been invoked just once in NATO history, when the alliance rushed to the defense of the United States after the 9/11 attacks. It is also noteworthy that our NATO allies, where they have suffered thousands of casualties in combat against al Qaeda and the Taliban, remain garrisoned in Afghanistan to this day.

The spectacle of such mercurial and frivolous and reckless conduct from the natural head of the alliance ensures that it will not alight on a coherent strategy anytime soon. Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw U.S. Special Forces from Syria, causing the Kurds to take flight en masse, has ruptured the already fragile confidence in the reliability and staying power of the United States.

During this week’s NATO gathering in London, Nicholas Burns, who served as ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush, observed that a “not-so-closely guarded secret at NATO headquarters is allied officials are privately relieved that, rather than holding a full-fledged summit,” the leaders held just a few hours of formal discussions to limit “Trump’s opportunities to blow up the proceedings.” Unfortunately, not even this prophylactic measure proved sufficient, since the president stalked off early after having his feelings hurt by the grave concerns raised by exasperated allies.

In the immediate postwar years, Americans and Europeans were insulated from the political temptation to believe in the perfectibility of man, or at least the obsolescence of conflict. It was this hard-won and clear-eyed wisdom that breathed life into NATO in the first place. In the world we have known since 1945, however, many Americans (and many more Europeans) have abandoned the wisdom of their fathers, and permitted themselves to indulge such utopian fantasies. In their opulence and decadence, they have begun to cast aside the lessons of history. Many prefer to pretend that weakness isn’t provocative and that liberty can be maintained without sacrifice, or cost.

From the beginning, Europe’s paradise was a product of power—and specifically American power. Without that power (or some power) to defend its gates, the forces of menace in history will intrude and undo the paradise. In early 2003, when Robert Kagan published his magisterial treatise, Of Paradise and Power, he concluded that “perhaps it is in the nature of a postmodern Europe” to shirk from that judgment. At the time, the American Leviathan was a blundering but benign hegemon whose legitimacy was broadly accepted in the liberal world. Europe often complained about America’s “self-appointed” vocation to police the planet, and even cursed the hyperpuissance for it, but few doubted the tangible and intangible benefits that accrued to the world as a result. No national leader in the European core was very eager to bring about the end of Pax Americana.

Today, the problem for Europe, and not scarcely for Europe alone, is that the United States has indisputably cast its badge into the dust. Worse still, the sheriff has thrown in with the outlaws. Although some on the Old Continent are slowly waking up to this frightful reality, it does not seem to be in the nature of postmodern Europe to rise to the challenge of picking up the shield on behalf of the liberal order. If that order is to survive, it does not have long to wait for its erstwhile leader to come to its senses.


Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on U.S. foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776


  1. It’s a feature of Liberalism to always expect the best of people, but this needs to be tempered with the Latin phrase qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum “Therefore he who desires peace, let him prepare war”. This doesn’t mean continued engagement in the forever war, in the vain hope of modelling friendly democracies through regime change. More often than not, Democracy is paid for with the blood of patriots, and a process invariably fought for, from within. But it does require a strong miiltary, which ideally travels nowhere, because the main value of the ability to apply military force is deterrence- or as von Clausewitz puts it “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means”- ideally used as a preventive measure in most instances.

    Quite apart from the fact that most laymen misunderstand the quote, or might assume that the commencement of war necessarily entails a cessation of diplomacy, which it does not- there is another concept that von Clausewitx introduces that is far more salient in this discussion, that of friction. Here is a short extract: Only in this instance, we are talking about geopolitical friction.

    When evaluating President Trump on a domestic front, many will and should value his role as a disrupter, especially when it comes to many constituencies that politicians have not only failed to represent, but also, in many cases, not even bothered to try to understand. But on foreign policy, he is more a mixed bag. His natural antipathy towards regime change wars, and sending American sons and daughters overseas, against the express wishes of the foreign policy establishment is, on balance, a good thing. But his role in disrupting existing relationships is perhaps more worrisome. Because it costs a great deal less, in time and effort, to maintain existing relationships, than it does to build them from scratch.

  2. The only invasion Europe needs to worry about is coming from the Middle East and Africa. That is an invasion that will require political will to stem. No amount of military spending is going to make any difference there.
    As for Russia, the West had a unique - an historic - opportunity to bring that country into the liberal democratic fold after the fall of communism. But the usual gang of hawks didn’t just want Russia to drop to its knees; they want to see the Russians stay on their knees. To that end they rolled NATO up to Russia’s front door and essentially spat in the their face. Now Russia has had a pretty rough history with their European neighbors over the last two centuries. It is pretty safe to say that Russians have a far better sense of European history than even educated Americans have. Is it any wonder then that when they saw their Warsaw Pact defenses go down and NATO’s opportunistic expansion into their face that they became a bit queasy. Of course, the hawks cite Ukraine as evidence that the Russians never meant to deal in good faith. But again, history. Americans might think we have had an often strained history with Mexico, but compared to Russian/Ukrainian history, it looks downright benign. For us to imperiously look down our noses at Putin’s meddlings simply reveals how little we understand their history.
    Putin and the Russians today are one big Potemkin village, which, of course, the same old Western hawks are buying hook, line and sinker. Yes, they have an impressive nuclear arsenal, so what are they going to do? Nuke Munich? Their Italian size economy is punching way above its weight on the world stage. Why is that? Because we want so much to have a reason to fear the Russians in order to justify our aggressive NATO stance. Yes, Putin is a disrupter and general nuisance, but he is playing a very weak hand brilliantly, while the West plays its very strong hand dismally. We can do better than that. But is it too late? By our actions we have forced the Russians into the eager hands of China. Extricating them will prove very difficult.

  3. Invasion isn’t the only thing Europe should worry about. The loss of imported energy. Loss of offshore oil fields. Loss of deep sea fishing grounds. Blockading of ports. Denial of landing rights at foreign airports.

    Europe could be brought to economic and political collapse without a single Russian or Chinese soldier setting foot on it.

  4. I thought Quillette was an IDW platform. Is there some place where neocons are being denied a voice? What is this piece even doing here? It wouldn’t be out of place in the New York Times.

    It isn’t Trump, but he gets the blame as usual. It is Europeans who see no purpose to NATO. NATO’s European Allies Won’t Fight for Article 5:

    But when it came to committing to upholding Article 5—the alliance’s sacred cow, which requires NATO members to defend an ally if it is attacked—the results were devastating. The Pew poll showed that among Europeans, a median of 49 percent of respondents thought their country should not defend an ally, a response that exposes a lack of commitment to collective defense. Not only that: the majority of Europeans (67 percent), with the surprising exception of the Poles (49 percent), believed the United States would come to the defense of its allies.
    And at least half in Germany, France and Italy are unwilling to use military force to defend other NATO allies against Russian aggression:

    More and more Germans want the US to leave Germany:

    The biggest issue with Germany is that Germans don’t believe in NATO. In fact, most of the population does not believe in military alliances at all. And note the support before Trump took office. Almost the same. So, no, I don’t think that is from Trump.

    In seven of 10 European countries where people were asked about military defense of a NATO ally, more respondents said that the U.S. would use force to defend a NATO ally than said their own country should use military force under the same circumstances.

    All I’m hearing is that non-Americans want American politicians to act not in the best interests of their constituents, but the best interests of non-Americans and special interests. I’m not interested in the US military being the world’s police or some other countries’ mercenary army. Of course the freeloading world is upset that the good old American all-you-can-eat buffet of handouts is coming to an end. Pulling their own weight is something strange and new to them.

    Zeihan explains why America does what it does. A great watch. Answers so many questions. A bit long, but completely worth it if you want to understand the post-WWII situation until now.

  5. The author is not very convincing. He seems to attempt to blame Trump for issues that far predate his involvement. Namely that NATO doesn’t have a core purpose any longer and that many NATO partners refuse to live up to their funding commitment.

    It’s time to dissolve NATO. When the Russians repeatedly violated the INF treaty it was time for the US to pull out of the treaty. NATO partners have repeatedly violated the NATO treaty it’s time to pull out. The US isn’t a battered spouse that needs to stay in a marriage where the partner isn’t faithful. It’s healthier for both sides to get out of the relationship.

    I’m not advocating an isolation policy. We can and should keep active treaties with nations that are good partners. We should ditch those that just use the treaty to take unfair advantage of the relationship.

  6. As an Israeli citizen, I should be the most worried about US isolationism.
    But I am taking Trump’s side. Europeans sincerely believe that Americans are obliged to protect them.
    If you babysit a child, he will grow up an evil egoist. This is what we see in Europe today.

  7. All my life people have been forecasting that the US will embrace bread and circuses and sink like Rome.

    All my life we’ve seen ever more bread and circuses.

    Why do we act surprised?

    Like Rome, our vast, widely-deployed military must contract, sacrificing the wider world’s defense to protect the core. The core will fall last.

  8. Blockquote The American share, accounting for two-thirds of the alliance’s total defense bill, plainly represents an outsized contribution to transatlantic defense. But a close look at the historical record reveals that this imbalance is a feature, not a bug, of traditional U.S. foreign policy.

    As a tax-paying American citizen, I do not care about the historical record. I care about what my money is paying for now. My money is not being used wisely (as with most other government expenditures) in this case.

    Also, can we stop the weak Trump-blaming? We all know he’s a butt head and that he loves throwing tantrums. But please don’t assume everyone is going to nod along when you simply state that Trump is screwing something up. Back it up with some real analysis.

  9. NATO is the prime defender of Western values. That being said, what is so outrageous about rethinking NATO’s mission after 70 years? Could it be that the greatest threat to Western values is no longer the former Soviet Union?

  10. What utility does a militarily interlinked NATO provide to Europe other than a sense of Cold War nostalgia? Is anyone actually of the opinion that Russia is keen to start WW3?

    Thats the question the foreign policy establishment must be asking itself.

    Trump saw the proverbial thorn in the side of NATO and called it out. The fact that NATO got away with relying on US defence money and assurances meant it got to put its feet up and pretend there was a credible threat.

    Meanwhile China has continued to establish itself as the new global threat to democracy, the rule of law and human dignity.

    While Obama was loved in Europe, he failed the people of SE Asia who out of a desperate need for economic recovery ended up taking up Chinese “Aid”. Had NATO got its act together 20 years ago and Obama’s establishment foriegn policy makers had a spine on Asia… We wouldn’t be here now…

  11. Especially when the author backs it with such claims:
    “Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw U.S. Special Forces from Syria,”
    How many times does it need to be pointed out that Trump announced his intentions during the campaign. He was even criticized by the WaPo 18 months ago for not following through on his promise to leave Syria and yet here again the decision is labeled “hasty”. Apparently “hasty” is the go to epithet for any decision to which you disagree.

    I thought it was better understood that when offering critical analysis, fraudulent claims will undermine and discredit the author.

  12. Good point. I think Andrew Yang is essentially correct that the threats of the Twenty-First century, will come from non-state actors and the misuse of technology. We still need the big stick of a strong military, for the deterrence value that it holds- but in most instances it should not be fully mobilised- which in itself would be a significant cost-saving. NATO’s future lies far more in co-operating on matters of intelligence and combating cyberwarfare, as well as deliberate attempts to destabilise world financial markets. They still need to maintain rapid deployment forces, encompassing all manner of potential scenarios, but disengagement from regime change wars needs to be a priority.

  13. “They still need to maintain rapid deployment forces, encompassing all manner of potential scenarios, but disengagement from regime change wars needs to be a priority.”

    I agree but would also add maintaining a robust missile defense system. Also as I mentioned in another post, one must realize disengagement opens the possibility of having to accept more refugees or witness more atrocities. The rapid deployment capability you mentioned is essential, as there is always something to be said for fighting an enemy on his own turf.

  14. I reasoned the same about another article, in the same vein as this one, but was put down with the argument that all “ideas” are up for rational scrutiny, that is Quillette.

    So I guess they let one or two get through within a window of time to be properly disassembled into the propaganda they represent. - In contrary to e.g NYT, where hammering through pieces like this is a deliberate opt-in on a DDOS* brute force attack on free thought.

    So kudos to almost all commentors for a nice job at that.


  15. Whomever thinks that Russia is not a threat and that it can be brought to the table has no idea how Russia works. Do you really think that a country that spent literally centuries building buffer zones around its otherwise easy to grab European territories will suddenly cease messing with its much smaller, defenseless neighbours? If so, think again. What really unites the Northeastern Europe all the way to the South is a deep hatred, mistrust of the way Russian leaders have dealt - cowardly - with their much smaller, scared nations that happen to fall within this self claimed protection zone.
    I am a Romanian citizen and I can tell you that nobody here trusts them. You’ll get the same answer from any Pole or Baltic. Think about it: Russia, in its several incarnations, picked on all its neighbours, with various degrees of success - Finland, Romania, Poland, Georgia, and the list goes on. Unable to project any soft power, it clutches on to its only means to protect an otherwise rotten core - aggression.
    We were, during the Cold War, part of the Warsaw Pact. We had no say in it - either joining it or getting out of it, like all the other members (some of them were slapped hard, mercilessly by the USSR - remember 1956 or 1968?). Now, after we got out of the prison, out of the murderous clutches of Mother Russia, we can finally make our voices heard by joining NATO, to Russia’s stunned and malevolent trash talk. They continuously claim that NATO got too close to its borders. Who are they to decide what a bunch of otherwise insignificant countries do to fulfill their manifest destiny? We were threatened, some Russian officials said they could invade Romania in 2 days, that they could nuke us if they wanted (they did the same with the Poles and Baltics).
    My country has constantly increased its defense spending lately and we’re now hovering around that now-famous 2% acceptable level. We pay our dues. Sure, it’s a drop in an ocean, but that’s the least we can do. We’re willing to show that we can share the burden and this is increasingly paying off. We lent a hand to most of the NATO operations, and that cost us lives and money, but we did it anyway, though. Our military is being revamped into a competent force, hard to ignore. It’s painfully slow and expensive, but we’re willing to do it - that’s how much we yearn for freedom.
    Macron - this failed figure of a president has betrayed us, like many more before him. All the other allies contributed to our defense in the dire times after we joined NATO - Canadian F-18s, British and Italian Eurofighters. The only ones that stood idle were the Germans and French. You can argue that the Wehrmacht cannot provide any assistance because of its poor state, but what about France? They never helped and probably never will if the proverbial sh!t hits the fan.
    Some Israeli commenter said that he fears an American isolationism or inwards withdrawal. That’s our biggest fear as well and we’re fully aware that nobody will stand for the small guys, except the Anglo-Saxons, with its second to none US; I can only hope that I will never live to see it happening.
    As for NATO and its future purpose? China.

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