A united NATO is in America’s interests
No one was naive enough to believe last week’s NATO summit would go smoothly. There are obviously deep divisions between the current US administration and a number of the organization’s leading European members about its mission, its purpose, and how much each member should pay for it. For most of NATO’s nearly seven-decade existence, its summits have been conducted in a spirit of camaraderie — albeit with robust discussions — bearing in mind that its main aim is to deal with external enemies, not internal disagreements.
Nevertheless, few imagined that US President Donald Trump would go in all guns blazing at the very first meeting, launching a diatribe against one of its most powerful members. He accused Germany of being under Moscow’s control because of its dependency on Russian energy supplies. This was the precursor to a summit that lived up to expectations that it would be the most divisive in NATO’s history. Even before reaching European shores, Trump had tweeted: “First meeting — NATO. The US is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them. Not fair to the US taxpayer.”
Before the summit, Trump had demanded that all European countries raise their defense spending to 2 percent of their GDP. Now, out of the blue, the president made a new demand: That his European allies spend 4 percent of GDP on military expenditure — even more than the US does. Was it a deliberate spoiler? Was it a random outburst? Or was it a negotiating tactic — setting an unrealistic figure that would make 2 percent seem like a bargain?
In fact, there is a near consensus among other members of NATO that they should pay more toward not only the cost of the organization, but also of other international organizations. Previous American presidents, including Barack Obama, made it clear to European states that they could not expect the US to carry a disproportionate economic burden, let alone a military one, in defending them and maintaining international peace and political and economic stability.
Few imagined that US President Donald Trump would go in all guns blazing at the very first NATO meeting.
But it is the dictatorial tone and manner in which these demands are now being made that infuriates America’s allies. Previous NATO summits have been choreographed showpieces for projecting unity and common purpose while divisions and disagreements are kept behind closed doors. Now it is all done in the glare of publicity, oversimplifying complex issues and benefiting only those — including the Kremlin and terrorist groups — who would like to see a weakened NATO.
Some question whether NATO is even necessary in the post-Cold-War age. However, there is no other international collective security mechanism to preserve peace and stability and protect liberal democracies.
NATO does not only benefit Europe. It also serves US national interests, even if there are reservations about whether it is the most cost-effective tool for ensuring America’s security. If anyone thought the alliance was surplus to requirements with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it quickly became evident that was not the case. Challenges began to mount from all directions and it became an even more complex task to defend the interests and values of member states. Wars, genocide, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cybersecurity, trafficking of narcotics and of people, have all posed threats that NATO plays a key role in containing. No single country or combination of countries could replace NATO in doing so.
It is indisputable that the US has carried more of the financial and military burden than other countries, but it is equally indisputable that the US has benefited enormously from NATO. And there are historical reasons for the extra burden.
When NATO was established, Europe was taking its first steps in the long process of recovery from the devastation of the Second World War. America, meanwhile, was taking the first steps on its march to superpower status.
The US, unlike Europe, suffered no destruction on home soil. It helped rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan, but it also created the political and economic conditions for its superpower status, while establishing the strategic depth to contain the Soviet Union.
NATO has supported US operations even when many of its members disagreed with them. It has provided peacekeeping forces where US missions have gone wrong. And America’s military-industrial complex, the biggest arms industry in the world, benefits greatly from the sale of weapons to NATO countries.
NATO allies have hosted US bases for decades, and paid much of the cost. They have sent tens of thousands of troops to fight in Afghanistan, saving the US huge sums of money. And in the entire history of NATO, Article 5, the principle of collective defense, has been invoked only once — in support of the US after 9/11. All of which shows more commitment to America’s cause than Washington has so far been willing to admit.
To threaten NATO’s future by setting an arbitrary figure on how much each member state should spend on defense is to ignore the organization’s contribution to American national interests in political, security and economic terms.
One can only hope that his anti-NATO stance is just another Trump publicity stunts to rally his supporters and get some public attention, while behind closed doors serious discussions are taking place on the real challenges to the free world that come from beyond the organization.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg