Foreign Ministers from 29 member-nations of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are meeting on April 4 in Washington D.C. to commemorate seventy years of the Washington Treaty.
Signed on 4th of April 1949, it had established the world’s largest and longest surviving military alliance that sought to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” and is often credited for ensuring post-World War II international peace and stability.
Initially, the alliance was created amongst no more than twelve nations. While Britain had been its main driver, other founding members included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and, of course, the United States. The US was soon to emerge as its lynchpin and leader that has singularly ensured its survival and success through multiple existential crises.
Greece and Turkey joined in 1952 followed by Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982. Thirteen more have joined it since the collapse of the former Soviet Union with Montenegro being the latest to join it in 2017. North Macedonia seems all set to become the 30th nation to join NATO.
NATO has been a politico-military force to reckon with; winning the cold war, spreading democracy to Eastern Europe, stabilising the Balkans and demonstrating staying power in Afghanistan.
It has also had its share of existential crisis: from dealing with General Charles de Gaulle’s continued discomfiture and final pulling out of NATO during the 1960s to dealing with counter-intuitive impulses of detente and the disarmament splash of the 1970s followed by anti-nuclear protests, freeze-movement and the Euro-missiles during the 1980s.
The challenges of 1990s included persistent “whither NATO” debates. Its seeking refuge in eastwards expansion in the new millennium was to throw up a whole new range of new challenges to its post-cold War relevance and identity.
However, its very survival over seven decades and the recent expansion show that NATO has managed to evolve and stay relevant.
In adopting to changing ground realities, the first post-cold war combat action of NATO was seen in 1994 when it sent US fighter jets to interdict Serbian planes that were raiding Bosnia. All four Serbian planes, violating the no-fly-zone, were destroyed in the NATO airstrikes.
In 1995 NATO deployed its peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 1999 launched a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia to end its siege of the Kosovo province that was placed under UN administration with NATO deploying 40,000 troops to provide stability.
The biggest NATO operation was to happen following the 9/11 attacks. As President George Bush Jr launched his global war on terrorism he invoked Article 5 of the NATO Charter that talks of “armed attack on one…shall be considered an attack against them all” and this led to their combined force being deployed to eliminate Al Qaida and oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This longest and largest NATO deployment lasted from August 2003 till December 2014 and, at its peak, had over 130,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Th last two years of President Donald Trump have once again heightened NATO’s existential crisis. What is unique about these crisis this time is that it no longer comes from its distractors or adversaries but from NATO’s very central pillar and progenitor, the United States.
President Donald Trump’s election campaign had already declared NATO as “obsolete” and he has been extremely critical of America’s military involvement overseas which he finds both cumbersome and expensive. He has repeatedly threatened various American allies to bill them for hosting U.S. troops and this has seen South Korea agree to a manifold increase in its financial contribution towards the deployment of US forces on its territory.
In the case of NATO as well, President Trump has questioned the “collective defense” thesis of Article 5 of its Charter saying he will only protect countries that have paid enough money to the United States or worst, simply walk away from Europe that may mark an end of a long-standing partnership. Trump remains angry with NATO members for not contributing enough for their own defense and often talks of the NATO members as ‘delinquent’ owing Americans ‘massive amounts of money’ for having sustained NATO over all these years.
There is no doubt that the United States contributes nearly two-thirds of NATO’s annual budget and that several constituencies inside the U.S. have been raising concerns on whether they should continue to bear the cross forever. These sentiments have gradually gained ground following the collapse of former Soviet Union and strengthened in face of continuing global economic slowdown since 2007.
At their 2014 Wales summit, therefore, all NATO members had pledged to increase their defense allocations to at least 2 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) by year 2024. However, the estimates for 2017 show that only six of the 29 members — Britain, Greece, Estonia, Poland, Romania, the Untied States — had achieved this feet.
President Trump has been especially angry with Germany — which is today Europe’s most powerful economy — that spends on its defense no more than 1.2 per cent of its GDP.
In January this year, the New York Times had reported that “several times over the course of 2018”, President Donald Trump had privately told his top advisers how he wanted to withdraw from NATO. Such skepticism has been further reinforced by two former US ambassadors to NATO, Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute who, in their February 2019 report titled NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis, have underlined how Donald Trump “is regarded widely in NATO capitals as the Alliances’ most urgent, and often most difficult, problem.” They also explain why thes commemorative meeting on 4th of April 2019 had to be downgraded to foreign ministers meet saying “they feared President Trump would blow up a meeting into controversy as he has done each time he has met with NATO leaders during the past two years.
The sentiment is widespread across NATO allies that President Trump’s policies are constantly weakening NATO’s resolve against expansionist Russia and in its fight against terrorism.
NATO is today facing a deeper crisis of credibility where allies are becoming suspicious about President Trump’s leadership especially in exigencies arising from President Putin’s adventurist policies.
Unending controversies about the alleged Russian connection to President Trump’s election and his refusal to criticize President Putin have begun to germinate whispers of discomfiture, even simmering suspicions, amongst NATO allies.
The current commemorative meeting, therefore, was not only downgraded to foreign ministers — so that President Trump is not the host — but also postponed to December and its venue shifted to London that, as a NATO press release says, “was the home of NATO’s first headquarters.”
In short, American commitment and leadership of NATO have defined the very essence of this politico-military alliance. It was aimed at protecting its European allies from the Soviet Union just as much as it was to rein in American impulses of ‘isolationism’ that were no longer feasible in the face of looming nuclear and ideological threats from the Soviet Union knocking at the doors of America’s European allies.
With the return of ‘America First’ theme to mainstream politics, President Trump’s reluctance to take on global responsibilities is likely to outlast his presidency. For example, none of the candidates for 2020 elections are advocating taking global responsibilities. This revival of Americas ‘isolationist’ impulses may therefore see future U.S. presidents at best being more polite about it. The NATO allies will have to deal with these emerging new contours of American leadership and set the price they are willing to pay for it.
(Author is professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka (Colombo).