Why NATO Matters
The allies are looking with dread to this week’s summit as President Trump continues his campaign to undermine a decades-old partnership.
As Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, somewhat cheekily observed, the trans-Atlantic alliance was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” Seven decades later, those goals have largely been met (yes, the Germans have risen, but in the right ways), and many people — including, evidently, the president of the United States — wonder whether the alliance still has a purpose.
It does. It remains the most successful military alliance in history, the anchor of an American-led and American-financed peace that fostered Western prosperity and prevented new world wars. No one has proposed anything credible to improve upon it. But as the allies gather in Brussels this week for their annual meeting, many are wondering whether the American president is intent on wrecking it.
Born after World War II, NATO linked America and Europe not just in a mutual defense pledge but in advancing democratic governance, the rule of law, civil and human rights, and an increasingly open international economy.
The alliance was the core of an American-led liberal world order that extended to Asia and relied on a web of international institutions, including the United Nations and the World Bank.
American military protection gave the allies space to develop their economies and pluralistic societies. Despite compromises and occasional failures, the experiment was broadly successful.
During its existence, NATO has often been strained as the security and political environment evolved. After the Cold War, it found a new purpose, defending Muslims in the Balkans, and after 9/11, helping the United States fight terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and elsewhere.
Former Communist countries swelled the alliance from 12 members to 29, with others knocking on the door even now, concerned about an aggrieved and aggressive Russia.
Across seven decades NATO has invoked its Article 5 mutual defense commitment only once: to rally to the defense of the United States after the attacks of 9/11. Even today, the armed forces of 39 countries are serving, and sometimes dying, with American troops in Afghanistan.
More than 70 (NATO and non-NATO) countries are part of the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State; two dozen countries have joined a global counterterrorism initiative.
In short, NATO remains central to major American national security initiatives in a world shaken by the rise of an increasingly assertive China, the expansion of competing power centers from India to Saudi Arabia, the surge of migration from the Middle East and Africa and the dislocations caused by globalization.
Yet NATO is being weakened from within — by members’ failure to spend enough on defense; by the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism, especially in Turkey, Hungary and Poland; and perhaps most of all, by President Trump, who seems to prefer President Vladimir Putin of Russia to America’s European allies.
NATO has always depended on leadership from the United States, the world’s biggest economy and most lethal military power. Mr. Trump not only doesn’t want to lead the West, he has denigrated the alliance, bullied its leaders and accused NATO and the European Union of exploiting American largess.
At a rally in Montana last week, he complained that while the United States is protecting Europe, “they kill us on trade.”
“We’re the schmucks that are paying for the whole thing,” the president said. “I’ll see NATO and I’ll tell NATO, ‘You’ve got to start paying your bills.’”
While his predecessors often pressed the allies to raise their military budgets, Mr. Trump has a singular view of NATO as a transactional relationship in which members pay for protection.
Many allies can do more to reach the target level of spending 2 percent of their annual G.D.P. on defense by 2024. Faced with the Russian threat and Mr. Trump’s pressure, they are making real progress toward this goal, for which the president can take some credit.
But NATO is not a golf club, and money, the only thing Mr. Trump prizes, is just one, narrow measure of the costs and benefits of belonging. This president has shown no understanding of the power of partnership, and the reciprocal nature of its bonds, in an alliance that stands for something far bigger than paying your dues on time.
Mr. Trump is burning up all the credit the United States has accrued with our allies across decades by attacking the basis of this alliance, if not the very idea of any alliance — thus, deliberately or not, doing the bidding of Mr. Putin in his quest to divide the West.
“NATO can withstand four years under Trump,” one former NATO ambassador said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ll withstand eight.”
Given the legacy of Republican support for national security and democratic allies, one might expect that Republican congressional leaders would speak up. But, cowering before Mr. Trump, they have been virtually silent as he has undermined America’s alliances.
The NATO meeting is expected to approve significant new steps to contain Russia, which most of the allies, and most of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers, recognize as a threat, even if the president does not. These measures include establishing two new military commands, expanding cyberwarfare and counterterrorism efforts and approving a new plan to speed the reinforcement of troops and equipment to Poland and the Baltic States to deter Russian aggression.
Sooner rather than later, NATO is also going to have to decide what to do with Turkey and the other countries that are eroding the fabric of the alliance by repudiating democratic principles.
At this week’s gathering, the result that matters most is a firm and convincing commitment to a strong NATO, ready to contribute to stability today, and to adapt to future challenges. With no coherent vision of his own to make Americans, and democracy generally, more secure in a world without NATO, Mr. Trump would do well to make that commitment, and honor the friends we have.