President Trump and his “bull in a China shop” approach took center stage at a NATO leaders’ conference last week, as allied leaders cringed, side-stepped, and mocked their way through the meetings. Lost in much of the reporting on the talks was what the group had come to celebrate: NATO’s 70th anniversary.
While it is important to discuss the “Trump effect” upon NATO, it is also worth highlighting the success and longevity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Formed in 1949 to combat the rising threat of the Soviet Union, the alliance has become the most longstanding and successful alliance in history. The great bulk of alliances, formed out of wartime contingencies, barely survive the silencing of the guns of war. Thankfully, NATO never had to face its Soviet nemesis on the battlefield. It was also unique in that it was more than a military alliance, it was, and at least extensibly still is, a political grouping of like-minded nations.
That being said, the organization has seen its fair share of challenges and controversies in the past. Early on, it had to face the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which Britain and France, with Israeli participation, secretly attacked Egypt over its nationalization of the Suez Canal. Strong U.S. condemnation and financial cajoling eventually led to their withdrawal, and yet the organization survived. Likewise, France completely disassociated itself from NATO’s military arm from 1966 to 2009. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the alliance arguably faced its most serious challenge, as its raison d’être vanished. And some question whether NATO overplayed its hand in expanding eastward, needlessly antagonizing the Russians. But, the allies weathered these storms, the Balkans issue, and those that have transpired since.
This should be celebrated, but longevity and the past ability to push through challenges does not guarantee future success. Today, NATO faces perhaps its greatest threat: An American president who actively and openly threatens the alliance and questions its existence. As allies bicker, Russian President Vladimir Putin wins. It will take active diplomacy from Washington to refocus the group in the future.
Mostly par for the course in London
The history of President Trump’s participation in NATO meetings is a narrative of how not to manage an alliance. His actions have included the deliberate lack of affirming Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which views an attack on one nation is an attack on all, threats to back out of the alliance over spending, and this time, questions over whether or not the United States would defend an ally who wasn’t spending the requisite two percent of GDP on defense.
Seeking to avoid any Trumpian blowups, organizers for last week’s meetings went out of their way to tailor the agenda to Trump’s liking. According to the Washington Post, “Every last detail of this anniversary get-together has been choreographed to ensure that Trump’s happiness will be maximized and any opportunities to blow up the program, or the alliance, minimized.”
Trump wasn’t NATO’s only problem ahead of the meeting, though. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent interview with the Economist, in which he commented that the alliance was undergoing “brain death,” hung over the proceedings. In an ironic twist, Macron’s comments actually led Trump to defend the alliance ahead of his one-on-one meeting with the French leader.
Even with the delicate planning in place, and without any major Trump provocations, the Summit saw its fair share of controversy and challenges. Macron and Trump had a testy meeting that saw the French president tell his U.S. counterpart to "get serious," Turkey threatened to hold up defense planning for Eastern Europe over a desire for tougher language to describe Syrian Kurds once allied with the U.S., and, of course, there was the leaked video of Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, among others, seemingly mocking Trump. Meanwhile on bilateral trade issues, Trump threatened to impose a 100 percent tariff on French goods unless they walked back plans to tax U.S. tech giants and coupled that with his usual false hyperbolic claims of allies being “delinquent” in their defense funding
For the time being, at least, there were some successes to take away from London. For one, Macron seemed to be somewhat satiated about NATO’s future after the decision was made for the alliance to undertake some long-term strategic thinking. While issues over Turkey’s relationship with the alliance remain, “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ultimately backed down from blocking crucial military plans to defend Eastern Europe — a concession to fellow allies.” The alliance also discussed how to address China, which is a first, and to expand defense planning into space. And, ultimately, many saw the fact that Trump did not issue any threats to “blow up” the alliance, and the fact that he cancelled his pre-departure news conference where he could have provided such a threat, as a big victory.
Just getting by is not good enough
The fact that many within NATO are happy with recent meetings because they could walk away without having had any major Trump blowups, while obviously with some merit, belies the larger issues at stake for the alliance in today’s world. For the first time in the Atlantic Alliance’s history, the leader of the strongest and most important member country actively and openly questions the its existence, let alone America’s willingness to come to the aid of another country through Article Five. This leads to, and has led to, meetings like last week’s in London, where the main victory was that the U.S. president didn’t threaten to end the alliance.
While I won’t argue that that isn’t a good goal to have, NATO has much more pressing issues to deal with at this time. While allies bicker and seek just to make it through meetings, major challenges fester, the alliance grows weaker, and Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians who seek a weakened NATO are the winners. While the group has weathered storms throughout its history, it is not a foregone conclusion that the alliance will come out of this era stronger than before.
The Trump-era has done major damage to NATO and other American alliances. Europe remained relatively peaceful throughout the Cold War and beyond in large part due to NATO’s effective deterrent. As we face a resurgent Russia and a new period of international stresses, we will need a strong and cohesive NATO. In the coming years, it will be up to Western leaders and diplomats to re-forge the North Atlantic bonds that enabled NATO to last for the first 70 years in order for it to remain a source of strength and a model political and military alliance.