Earlier this week, President Donald Trump and other world leaders convened in London for a NATO summit commemorating the military alliance’s 70th anniversary. As predicted, Trump focused his attention on many member countries’ failure to devote 2 percent of their GDP to national defense — a financial obligation for participants in the alliance. The tense meeting came to a tumultuous end on Wednesday, after footage of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mocking Trump with European leaders came to light. Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the summit’s closing news conference, and his denunciation of Trudeau as “two-faced,” are revealing of the deep-seated disjointedness in the organization.
The aggravation of longstanding problems with NATO’s solidarity, going back to its founding, threatens its future in a decisive period for the world’s balance of power. In order to counter mounting military threats from adversaries like China and Russia, NATO must reevaluate its collective goals and commitments.
From its founding in 1949, NATO has been one of the most effective international alliances in modern history. It was devised by Western powers in response to rising Soviet influence in Europe, and has been financially and strategically bulwarked by the United States ever since. For 42 years, the organization created a period of strained coexistence between the world’s competing hegemons — in all likelihood, preventing a nuclear conflict. When the threat that prompted its conception disintegrated in 1991, NATO struggled to reorient and coordinate its unifying objective in an entirely new geopolitical environment. Beginning with the Clinton administration, the alliance has experienced a gradual recession from global prominence — politically, militarily and financially.
Despite Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the organization and its member states, however, American commitment to NATO remains disproportionately firm. Almost 70 percent of national defense spending is supplied by the United States, well over the 2 percent GDP threshold set for member states at 3.4 percent of the U.S.’s GDP. In the past three years, the U.S. has significantly raised the budget for the European Defense Initiative, pledged to increase its military presence in Poland and headed the effort to counter Iranian aggression in international waterways. At its creation, the United States’ asymmetrical power and financial responsibility in NATO was a way to help weakened European countries counter a growing military threat from the Soviet Bloc — with the implication that European members would eventually uphold their end of the deal. Even as Western Europe has accumulated wealth over the past 70 years, it has never set about fulfilling this task.
As the United States seeks to displace the financial burden of NATO on its allies, it faces increased criticism. Leading up to last week’s summit, French President Emmanuel Macron called into question America’s willingness to contribute to the alliance’s collective defense, stating, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” His statements from last month came in response to Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria, leaving the Syrian Kurds vulnerable to a Turkish offensive. To President Macron, America’s abrupt decision signalled the decline in U.S. collaboration with its transatlantic allies.
However, the real failures of NATO arise not due to a lack of coordination across the Atlantic, but due to the disjuncture between its European member states. Since the organization’s founding, France has sought to cultivate European unity by propagating hostility toward American influence. Overall, these efforts have been ineffective because of France’s inability to estimate the goals of its European neighbors. Macron advocates for the creation of an independent European army under its lead, but disregards the aims of Germany — which would be primarily responsible for financing the project. And far from rallying Europe under a common cause, Macron’s comments about NATO’s “brain death” at the hands of the U.S. have provoked harsh criticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
NATO is at a crossroads. Although many of the issues it faces have plagued the organization for decades, the exacerbation of these tensions could lead to the downfall of the world’s most effective defensive alliance. This breakdown would coincide with rising threats to international security from China, Russia and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. To restore the transatlantic alliance to its former prominence, the U.S. must play a leading role in establishing consensus among member states. It must set collective goals for the organization and promote mutual investment from countries not paying their dues. NATO’s challenges extend beyond the trivial spats of world leaders, and must be met with corresponding commitment.
Charlotte Lawson is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.