West’s dilemma on future of NATO
We live in an age where internationalism is increasingly being challenged by a resurgent nationalism. The assault on the world order based on international institutions that emerged 73 years ago under American global leadership is seemingly being encouraged by no other than the president of the United States himself, even as many Americans oppose him.
However, like everything else, this shift in the making comes within a context. While President Donald Trump’s assertion that America’s European allies can no longer expect Washington to do the heavy-lifting vis-a-vis the collective security of the West is still a new idea, NATO has been struggling for relevance for well over a quarter of a century.
The December 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union removed the key threat that NATO was founded to counter. A couple of months later, the European Union was established with the drafting of the Maastricht Treaty. These two events together radically altered the international security environment, raising the question of NATO’s role moving forward. For the next decade, NATO was increasingly looked on as an alliance in need of an updated mission. Not even an unprecedented development such as 9/11 could alter NATO’s trajectory; and understandably so given the fact that the transnational threat to international security came from armed non-state actors.
While President Donald Trump’s assertion that America’s European allies can no longer expect Washington to do the heavy-lifting vis-a-vis the collective security of the West is still a new idea, NATO has been struggling for relevance for well over a quarter of a century.
A generation later, however, we are witnessing the rise of nationalist/populist militarism. Brexit and Trumpism have the potential to return Europe to the pre-1945 conditions of conflict between states — let’s not forget that this growing intra-Western disarray is emboldening an assertive Russia. Meanwhile, a Middle East increasingly in turmoil has serious implications for European security.
Amid all of this, Trump’s call for European nations to increase military spending could inadvertently further damage the West’s collective security architecture. At a time when right-wing nationalism is on an ascendant course, there is a risk that European nations increasing their defense budgets could very well increase the risk of conflict. The only force that can serve as a bulwark against these dangerous trends is NATO.
The goal is for NATO to carry a bigger stick. However, the growth of nationalist politics increases the chances of that stick finding itself in the hands of populist extremist governments. And preventing that from happening in Europe was one of the reasons NATO was founded in the first place.
- Muddassar Ahmed is an advisory council member at the Atlantic Council in Washington.