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