On April 4, NATO foreign ministers will gather in Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the most successful military alliance in history. Instead of being a happy occasion celebrating the treaty, it will be a ceremony fraught with anxiety and foreboding about the future.
The world is witnessing the return of great power competition and the gradual diminution in the economic weight of the United States and its core allies. The rise of populism in the West has emboldened parties openly contemptuous of NATO, such as Italy’s Northern League and France’s Popular Front. And then there’s the American president.
To put it starkly, NATO has never encountered such concentrated antipathy from the titular head of the alliance as it does from President Trump. He has gone beyond his predecessor’s practice of haranguing European allies for shirking their responsibilities to questioning the very purpose—and subverting the main principle—of the alliance.
In May 2017, at a NATO summit in Brussels, Trump went off script at the dedication of a monument to NATO’s Article 5 pledge of mutual defense and conspicuously omitted to support Article 5 itself.
This willfulness aligned with Trump’s long-standing view that NATO was “obsolete,” and that “free-riding” allies were exploiting American largesse. Still, before the summit the president’s more circumspect defenders liked to advance the argument that, campaign rhetoric aside, nothing Trump had said or done while in office had jeopardized trans-Atlantic unity or the extended deterrent upon which NATO depends.
But that position became inoperable. For the first time in the history of the alliance, its de facto leader left unspoken whether it would greet an “armed attack” on an ally as an attack on itself. The American president, astonishingly, refused to say whether his nation would honor its NATO obligations to small countries under the Russian gun.
NATO members were more poignant than polite in pronouncing their disquiet. The chancellor of Germany, to pluck only the most obvious example, declared in a major speech after the summit that the position of the leader of the free world was vacant and that henceforth Europe would, for the first time in generations, have to look after its own interests.
Instead of trying to repair this damage to the alliance, Trump redoubled his efforts to dismantle it. He publicly speculated as to whether the United States should risk a single soldier’s life in defense of specific NATO allies such as Montenegro. More recently, he has reportedly mused about withdrawing from the alliance altogether.
The harm this posture has caused is not limited to stimulating the Russian appetite in what it calls its “near abroad.” It has also corrupted mainstream opinion among the Republican party, which not so long ago enjoyed the distinction of being committed to a strong national defense, attentive to American alliances, and unyielding toward the enemies of freedom.
Consider a recent poll by YouGov which shows that since 2016 the percentage of Republicans who wanted to withdraw from NATO more than doubled, from 17 percent to 38 percent (which is the same number as Republicans who support the alliance).
When the ostensible party of defense is ambivalent about the preservation of European security, it is the party of defense no more.
Some observers see no cause for alarm in the shift Trump has brought about. In the New York Times this week M.I.T. professor Barry Posen called for shuttering NATO since it only remained in business after the Cold War because it had a “good brand” that could be put in the service of “international social work” (to borrow a phrase from Michael Mandelbaum).
Posen asserts (as did many “realists” of the interwar years, incidentally) that “Europeans can defend themselves.” How he arrives at this judgment is something of a mystery given that he proceeds to cite a litany of reasons why Europe’s defenses are low, and considers it a “tall order” for the U.S. to maintain the sovereignty of NATO’s new member states along the Russian frontier.
All of which makes it worth remembering why we have NATO in the first place.
In the immediate postwar years, it was not the emerging Soviet threat but the receding shock of Axis aggression that fundamentally shaped American statecraft and birthed the alliance. After the failures of Munich and the bloodshed of Pearl Harbor, America’s postwar leaders had a visceral understanding of the delusions of “splendid isolation.” They were thus determined to avoid the mistake made after World War I when the United States abandoned Europe, and with it, any hope of a world congenial to American interests and principles.
If the lesson of history was that the United States could not safely withdraw from far-flung lands and return to “normalcy” behind the seas, it would need a larger conception of its national interests than preserving a sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere and defending the American coastline.
Instead, the United States cast itself as the primary defender of the liberal world order, to assure what Acheson called “an environment of freedom” around the globe. In this fashion it would develop a robust alliance system and derive much of its security from the security of others. Whatever the costs of that engagement—to secure free trade, promote democracy, and dampen security competition among great powers—paled before the costs of not accepting those responsibilities.
NATO was born out of this new conception of self-interest. It was not altruism—far from it. In the words of Lord Ismay, it was designed to keep “the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” This arrangement worked better than could have been imagined, bringing about not merely the demise of the Soviet empire but the “Europeanization” of Germany and the integration of Europe, to boot.
It is by no means clear that any of those historic accomplishments would have been possible without the prolonged garrisoning of American soldiers in the Fulda Gap.
Republicans used to understand this. In early 1951 Dwight Eisenhower offered a deal to his rival for the Republican nomination: If Senator Taft, who had voted against the formation of NATO two years earlier, would lend support to the Atlantic Pact, then Eisenhower was willing to suspend his candidacy. It was only after Taft declined the proposal that Eisenhower resolved to enter the race and make transatlantic collective defense an axiomatic feature of Republican foreign policy.
And now, 70 years after the birth of NATO, the Republican primus inter pares, carrying the imprimatur of the American government, is signaling its desire to bow out of this grand accord and “come home.” Preoccupied with the material cost of global security commitments and disenchanted with the abiding obligations of leadership, Americans on the left and right might even be persuaded to go along with this surrender of America’s competitive advantage in a world of gathering peril.
The world has changed a great deal since Eisenhower’s day. But in fundamental ways, the laws of power remain unchanged. And a world without the Atlantic alliance fully armed—morally and materially—for the challenges to come will not be a world that enjoys its widespread peace and progress for much longer.