America’s NATO Problem: We’ve Forgotten Why We’re a Member
President Donald Trump will meet with NATO leaders in Brussels on May 25, his first direct encounter with an alliance he has alternately praised and disparaged. Supporters will say he has shaken up the organization and spurred our European allies to contribute more to NATO’s defense. Detractors will find much to criticize in Trump’s approach to U.S. allies and partners: his focus on European defense spending to the exclusion of nearly everything else on the transatlantic security agenda; his reluctance to criticize Russia, feeding suspicion that he seeks to appease Russia at Europe’s expense; his misunderstanding of how NATO works and his fallacious assertion that our allies “owe” Washington arrears for past defense underspending; and his assertion that NATO is obsolete, followed by the false claim that he saved the alliance in a matter of months by changing its focus to fighting terrorism. His posturing spreads uncertainty among our allies and raises doubts globally about the reliability of American security guarantees.
But America’s NATO problem did not originate with President Trump. It has roots that well pre-date the 2016 election campaign and go deeper than the president’s “allies owe us” statements. American leaders in both parties have failed in recent decades to explain the strategic benefit of NATO to the United States. As a result, they are now debating the president on his terms—how generous or frugal the United States should be toward Europe—rather than considering the bigger picture for U.S. security interests.
It is important to recall why the United States created NATO in the first place. In 1949, Washington sought security against threats from the Soviet Union and the benefits of a prosperous global economy and a favorable international political system. The immediate Soviet aim at the time was to dominate the Eurasian landmass, but the ultimate threat was to the security of the United States through the possibility of military conflict with the world’s other superpower. The North Atlantic alliance was built to keep the United States safe—not just Europe—by preserving the freedom of Western Europe and after 1955 by anchoring Germany in the Western world.
Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, lacking the latter’s aspirations for global ideological leadership and its military capabilities. But Russia is nonetheless a threat to Europe and the United States. Russia maintains essential nuclear parity with the United States and undertakes increasingly risky and bold actions at sea and in the air to remind us of that fact, while violating international agreements with the United States such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russia’s military arsenal is complemented by its cyber, information, and other tools of malign influence to discredit and undermine democracies. Moscow does not shrink from employing these instruments against the United States and several of our European allies and partners, as we have witnessed painfully in the past year.
Russia occupies significant portions of sovereign Ukraine and Georgia and supports separatists and anti-European and anti-American parties in several other countries. Today, as in 1949, it is in the U.S. interest that the European continent not be dominated or destabilized by any adversary—not only for international stability under accepted principles of international law, but because the U.S. economic relationship with Europe is the largest in the world, far greater than U.S. trade and investment with China. Protecting U.S. economic and national security depends on stability in Europe.
To ensure U.S. security in modern circumstances, we require different tools than in 1949, but the same approach: to build common defenses with Europe, to foster coordinated civilian action to make ourselves impervious to malign foreign influence, and to build our shared prosperity. In defense terms specifically, the United States needs to be able to monitor Russian nuclear attack submarines, which access the North Atlantic through the waters between Iceland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway. We depend on our NATO allies, who share the burden of undersea warfare and put their maritime patrol aircraft, surface ships, and submarines at NATO’s disposal. Likewise, an essential component of U.S. air defense is the NATO integrated air command, which incorporates sensors stretching from Norway to Turkey and provides NATO—and the United States—with an air picture that is essential to our defense. And NATO’s land forces, including the new forward presence along the eastern flank, help deter potentially destabilizing moves by Moscow in vulnerable regions.
American leaders dismayed by President (and candidate) Trump’s statements on NATO have reacted in a variety of ways. Some resort to the platitude that NATO is “the most successful alliance in history” or a vague affirmation that NATO is “as important as it has ever been” or is “indispensable to global security.” These are valid but increasingly empty arguments that miss the most important point for the American people: NATO makes the United States more secure and safe by monitoring, constraining, and potentially countering Russian conventional and nuclear platforms; by ensuring stability in the United States’ largest foreign market; and by providing a means to assemble multinational, interoperable forces to act in the security interests of Europe and the United States (whether in Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Mediterranean, or elsewhere). It is a means of protecting and advancing U.S. interests alongside many of the most advanced and militarily capable countries on earth. The U.S. discourse on the transatlantic alliance needs to return to the foundational point: NATO is us.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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