On April 4, 2019, NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary: a milestone that was hailed by many experts. But isn’t it time for a change, Roberta Haar wonders.
NATO’s 70th birthday was prolifically analyzed by pundits and academics, including me. While commentators were filling columns and airwaves with mostly, insistently positive interpretations of the alliance’s endurance, most politicians were aggressively mute on the topic. To the relief of NATO’s supporters, the subtle celebrations did not present any opportunities for fireworks, such as the dressing down that U.S. President Donald Trump gave his fellow leaders at NATO headquarters in May 2017. It helped that the heads of government of the member states were not invited to mark the occasion in Washington, D.C. All this careful management to ensure that the alliance does not break while Trump is at the helm (at least not in 2019), leads me to suppose that its future is in more danger than we realize.
International Organizations are in decline
I recently chaired a Round Table discussion at Maastricht University that focused on the overall decline in the relevance of international organizations. The starting premise was that global governance, as constructed after the Second World War, has become fiercely contested for a variety of reasons, including Trump’s zero-sum approach to multilateralism. Although America’s role in the world has been shifting for some time and analyzing American decline is itself a whole genre of scholarship, Trump’s residency in the White House hastened U.S. withdrawal or its distancing from a number of international organizations, including NATO. Reiterating this change, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in his December 2018 address to the German Marshall Fund, was critical of multilateral institutions and their utility to support American interests.
However, in my colleagues’ panel investigation of the decline of the relevance of international organizations, Trump is only one factor. In fact, one could argue that he is symptomatic of a larger revision in thinking about the role of global institutions. A paradigm shift that would include the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. Does the loss of faith in NATO or the EU reflect broader popular sentiments that international organizations are too distant, too intrusive and ultimately too ineffective (for example, when it comes to issues like global warming or curbing Chinese theft of Western intellectual property)? If so, what are American and European leaders meant to do to offset this trend? Moreover, since leaders in Western liberal democracies are failing to adequately grapple with rising nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism at the national level, why should we think they are able to address the loss of faith in institutions at the global level.
The life-span of alliances
Reanimating the existing system of global governance is a monumental task that a Europe that includes the United Kingdom, or an EU without it, might not have the wherewithal to tackle. However, the decline of global institutions is not the only challenge that threatens the longevity of NATO. The return of power politics is further prompting a retreat from multilateralism and the reappearance of the sovereign state as the most important actor on the world stage. The Realist’s security seeking explanation that states want to become less dependent on others looks once again to be exerting centrifugal forces on alliances, which Realists like Stephan Walt consistently point out have life-spans.
In a recent interview, Barry Posen, another Realist scholar and the Director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, reasoned that if NATO did not exist today, it probably would not be invented. Posen’s argument takes into account that America’s concerns are across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. Moreover, the Europeans could, if adequately incentivized, provide for their own defense. Realists would further argue that Trump’s questioning of the underlying logic of the alliance is further prompting European allies—and not just France—to contemplate hedging against possible U.S. disengagement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remark that Europe can no longer depend on the U.S. and must take destiny in its own hands, is a case in point. While it is true that NATO is the longest-lasting alliance in history, current tensions might lead to its eventual demise rather than its perpetuity.
Reinventing the alliance
If NATO’s life span is to be long or very long, it must reinvent itself. Since 2013-2014, NATO has been back in the business of defense against a revanchist Russia. While I do not want to underrate this threat and Russia’s nuclear deterrent, the future of the alliance is not on its eastern flank. The Russian economy is one tenth and its population a quarter that of Europe’s. As the 2018 Munich Security Report pointed out, Russia has a GDP the size of Spain and its growth prospects are modest at best. Europeans also collectively spend four times as much as Russia on their militaries, although a good portion of this spending goes in duplicating assets and on personnel and pensions (as much as 75% of defense spending in Belgium and Greece). It is true that as long as Putin is in charge Russia will remain aggressive towards the West. However, contrary to what Alexander Vershbow argues, deputy NATO Secretary-General and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, this bellicose stance is not certain to last several more decades. Younger generations of Russians look to the West as their role model for lifestyle choices, embracing consumerism and the freedom of social media. It is not that hard to contemplate younger Russians adopting civic models from Western Europe as well.
This means that the future of the alliance lies in its ability to address the new great-power competition that lies on the horizon; namely, the future competition with China. Although, the Trump Administration’s China policy is all over the place, strategic views on China could be the basis of a shared policy. For Europeans, and especially for the French, aligning any future NATO priorities with American interests will be difficult, especially if Trump continues to dismiss the EU as “worse than China.” However, in the end, European capitals also need ballast against Chinese pressure as well as clear assessments of the security implications that Chinese investments in European infrastructure might pose.
A Common Middle East Strategy
The other key component to reinventing NATO is the development of a common policy towards the Middle East. The region’s challenges include terrorism, migrants, piracy and proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2017, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London pointed out that eight of the world’s ten most lethal conflicts are taking place in the Middle East. The development of a common policy could give NATO a new rai·son d’ê·tre, in part, because the European member states are simply geographically closer.
However, given Trump’s confrontational stance on Iran and his administration’s decisions to largely withdraw or reallocate its military resources from the region, reinventing NATO around a common Middle East policy might have to wait for Trump’s successor. With that prospect in mind, Europeans will be listening carefully to the 2020 presidential debates, trying to catch viewpoints on whether the preservation of NATO is a strategic objective for potential candidates—a stance on which to build the next 70 years.