NATO Needs Solidarity for Its 70th Birthday
Trump should dial back the admonishment and offer allies the chance to unite over common purpose.
NATO marks its 70 anniversary this week—a remarkable milestone for a military alliance made up of 29 (soon to be 30) separate member states. But the big commemoration, scheduled for April 3 and 4 in Washington, has faced trouble from the start.
Given U.S. President Donald Trump’s past behavior at NATO gatherings (last year, he called allies “delinquent”), the alliance wasn’t even sure hosting an anniversary summit was a good idea. Last fall, it wisely downgraded the event to the foreign minister level. No Trump, no drama, the thinking went. Unfortunately, even without Trump, the gathering is shaping up to be anything but a celebration. As policymakers in NATO capitals draft flowery speeches for their ministers, and caterers in Washington place their orders for just the right vintage of champagne, allies are making a series of decisions that are rapidly eroding alliance unity. Too few members today—the United State included—see a need to prioritize NATO solidarity. That’s weakening members’ collective hand against the alliance’s adversaries and casting a dark shadow over the 70th anniversary.
Let’s start with Germany and the news out of Berlin on defense spending. After more than a year of defending her government’s plan to spend 1.5 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 instead of the NATO target of 2 percent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled a budget last month that won’t allow Germany to reach even its less ambitious goal. The decision spelled bad news on multiple fronts, first and foremost for Germany’s hollowed-out armed forces that lack ammunition and basic equipment such as secure communications. It was bad news for NATO as well. To see a country like Germany, which preaches multilateralism every chance it gets, sideline a NATO goal is worrisome. But the budget decision was never about NATO. Instead, Berlin’s defense spending debate became a choice between bending to Trump’s demands or spending more on domestic priorities such as pensions or education. It was also an attempt by the Social Democrats to differentiate themselves from Merkel’s Christian Democrats. With his party eager to say it stood up to Trump, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat with his own political ambitions, rolled back the government’s original plan.
Germany isn’t the only member putting NATO solidarity on the back burner. Under Trump, the United States has adopted a policy of relentlessly hammering NATO allies on defense spending even when it threatens alliance cohesion. At his first NATO summit in 2017, Trump surprised allies with his blistering critique of European defense commitments. He also failed to endorse Article 5, the collective defense clause in NATO’s founding treaty, raising questions about the United States’ long-standing commitment to defend Europe. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted during a trip to Washington in January, Trump’s scare tactics did yield results, at least with some allies. Defense spending across Europe has been increasing ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has continued to grow during Trump’s time in office. That’s a good thing. With other allies, though, the strategy of barking demands on defense spending and other topics, including trade, has clearly backfired. Europeans are exasperated with Trump’s transactional, my-way-or-the-highway approach that neglects 70 years of shared history and sacrifice. That’s part of the reason why Europeans aren’t following U.S. orders to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, kill the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, or end all future projects with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei on 5G cellular networks. They don’t like the fact that allies are now judged solely by the speed with which they meet Trump’s demands.
On the subject of fracturing NATO unity, Turkey also deserves a mention. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently reiterated his country’s plans to purchase a Russian missile defense system despite opposition from the United States and NATO officials. These S-400 batteries, which Russia plans to deliver in July, are unable to connect with the alliance’s early warning systems. U.S. military commanders also worry that the S-400s would compromise the security of the F-35 fighter jets that Turkey just purchased (as well as the F-35s that other NATO allies fly). The Trump administration and the U.S. Congress are warning of “grave consequences” if Turkey doesn’t cancel the deal, including sanctions and possible expulsion from the F-35 program. So far, Erdogan seems unfazed, willing to jeopardize Turkey’s defense relationship with the United States and NATO allies for a deeper relationship with Moscow.
Democratic backsliding in Turkey also poses a challenge for NATO. Unfortunately, Turkey isn’t alone in that regard. Poland and Hungary are also experiencing illiberal turns that are undermining the democratic values that have always sat at the heart of the alliance. Along with this comes the never-ending saga of Brexit and its uncertain end, which some fear could also pose challenges for NATO unity. British officials continually reassure allies that the United Kingdom’s NATO presence will remain steadfast. In truth, though, no one knows whether the economic implications of Brexit, particularly in a “no-deal” scenario, could leave Britain unable to meet its defense commitments.
It will be up to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the host of the 70th anniversary gathering, to address these internal challenges. He will no doubt herald NATO’s many achievements. But after some kind words, he will likely mirror what Vice President Mike Pence said at the Munich Security Conference in February and wind up publicly chiding allies for steering off course.
The United States plays a unique role in NATO. Part of that role should include pushing allies to meet their defense spending targets. But working on NATO issues for Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta taught me that the U.S. role stretches far beyond that. As the only NATO ally with a global posture and the capabilities to match, the United States, for its part, must alert allies to new threats, push the alliance toward innovation, and help maintain unity across the members. When the United States abdicates those other important leadership roles, NATO starts to stall.
For Pompeo, a more effective approach than admonishment would be to issue a call for a return to NATO solidarity, which must always begin with the United States. Then, to showcase Washington’s commitment, Pompeo could announce that the State Department and Pentagon officials who were tasked with calculating a bill for allies hosting U.S. troops have been told to stop work. That would send a strong message to NATO allies. Pompeo should also back off from Trump’s holier-than-thou approach on defense modernization, admit that waging future war will require new ways of thinking that can’t yet be found on either side of the Atlantic, and remind allies that the best solutions to tomorrow’s challenges start with everyone uniting over a common purpose.