NATO Is Struggling Under Trans-Atlantic Tensions
After this week’s summit, members must keep turmoil in the political side of the alliance from undermining its military purpose.
NATO leaders gathered in London this week for a brief summit marking the alliance’s 70th anniversary. The trans-Atlantic community looked on with trepidation—not because there was an imminent military crisis to navigate or a major alliance decision to make, but because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s propensity to derail meetings. This time around, however, Trump was not the only source of contention.
Ahead of the meeting, there were plenty of warning signs of impending discord. French President Emmanuel Macron said the alliance was suffering “brain death” and in recent months has pushed an increase in outreach to Russian President Vladimir Putin—a position certain to disconcert Central European and Baltic countries. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emboldened by the strengthening of his own relationship with Putin, said he wouldn’t commit to NATO’s plans in the Baltic States unless alliance members capitulate to his position on classifying Kurdish fighters in Syria as terrorists.
Unfortunately, these fears were borne out. Before the summit was even underway, Trump, temporarily playing the part of the NATO fan, chided Macron for his remarks disparaging the state of the alliance. Even as those assembled posed for a NATO family photo with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, tensions behind the scenes were running high: Trump called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced” after he was caught on a hot mic mocking the U.S. president, in conversation with Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. After hijacking most of his press opportunities after bilateral meetings with allied leaders to opine on a wide range of topics, Trump canceled his final press conference to beat a hasty retreat back to Washington amid ongoing House impeachment hearings
Why NATO felt it needed to have a final 70th anniversary hurrah in London in the midst of a heated U.S. presidential campaign, in which NATO has become a punching bag for Trump’s base, is anyone’s guess. But Trump behavior aside, Macron, Erdogan, and even Johnson, who faces a general election next week, seem willing to send their own messages of discord. Amid mounting trans-Atlantic tensions, the alliance’s most important weapon—unity—has suffered. Ultimately, there was not enough substance to the leader’s meeting to justify the public relations gamble at a time of discord.
That said, a summit must not always culminate in a dramatic announcement, and there was some value in reaffirming member states’ commitment to collective defense; the leaders did address important issues that perhaps should not have risen to the summit level but were nonetheless significant. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced further increases in defense spending, stepped up efforts to respond to cyberthreats, and recognized China as a challenge the alliance must address. Macron also got NATO to step up efforts to fight terrorism.
NATO also announced outer space as a new operational domain. While a NATO “space force” like the one Trump announced in the United States is not in the cards, the alliance has recognized that its dependence on space for communications and surveillance could be its Achilles’ heel—compromised by the possibility of a cyberattack, and by Chinese and Russian anti-satellite capabilities.
More controversially, after months of bruising debates, NATO members finally agreed that the United States would cut its contribution to NATO’s common fund while other members, especially Germany (but not France), will increase their contributions to make up the difference. This cheap win for Trump on burden-sharing means that European allies’ funds will go to needs like NATO’s electrical bill instead of being spent at home improving their own military capabilities—a steep price to pay for a smidgen of burden-sharing relief for the United States.
As a sop to Macron, the allies agreed to initiate a “forward-looking reflection process,” to “further strengthen NATO’s political dimension including consultation.” Macron continues to ring the alarm bell that NATO is once again in crisis.
Although NATO has its problems, the frustration that Macron and others are channeling doesn’t stem from anything happening solely within the alliance. Militarily, NATO is on solid footing. It has taken a number of prudent steps in recent years to adapt to the challenges it faces, including a more assertive Russia. Instead, a growing list of problems emanate from the outside; these are the symptoms of a larger, more existential problem in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Europe has seen the growth of a widely held perception, fostered by Trump, that the United States is disengaging from the continent and lacks commitment to NATO. Macron has sought to lead the charge to carve out strategic autonomy from Washington. His frustration appears to stem from the fact that no one is following his lead. European elites are still searching for a plan B should the United States disengage from Europe. But whether that plan involves a stronger European Union, as the Germans want, or something else, remains to be seen. Russia, which has amplified its influence operations in many European nations, has fanned the flames, seeking to cast doubt about U.S. leadership and the efficacy of Western institutions built over the past 70 years.
Although these problems aren’t about NATO alone, the poor state of trans-Atlantic relations has spilled into the alliance. If political disagreements lock up NATO decision-making, it will make little difference how ready and capable the alliance’s military forces are when allies can’t agree to deploy them. Many of Russia’s tactics in Europe, including cyberattacks and information operations, are designed to be ambiguous, complicate attribution, and delay decisions. That makes it urgent for allies to come to grips with political issues outside of NATO in order to restore unity.
At the meeting, NATO members at the behest of France and Germany agreed to convene a to discuss what the alliance’s future political structure could look like. But this could serve to aggravate NATO’s problems.
For example, the United States would likely send representatives who were unhelpful, if not destructive, further exposing the rifts plaguing the alliance. It would therefore be best to wait for the election season to settle down, especially in the United States, before any such group formally convenes. If it does move forward, such a group should have a mandate broader than just NATO: If the group is really to get at the root of the trans-Atlantic issues that have infected alliance politics, it must address head on the United States and Europe’s expectations of each other. Those expectations should remain modest. Given the political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, there is only so much that NATO can do to insulate itself from the effects of broader tensions.
The bar for success this week in London was low. Although worst-case scenarios did not play out, the tense exchanges that did occur make it hard to classify the 70th anniversary celebration as a full success. At a minimum, the meeting underscored the malaise in trans-Atlantic relations and has hopefully prompted real thinking about how to ensure that turmoil in the political side of NATO doesn’t undermine the military one.
Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security's Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Twitter: @jteurope