The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, is arguably the most successful national security alliance in history.
Initially made up of the United States, Canada and 10 European nations, NATO was created in the wake of World War II and as the Cold War deepened. Its purpose was to provide a collective defense for the West against a potential attack from the Soviet Union.
This critical strategic partnership achieved its goal: NATO helped unite Europe and deterred aggression by the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it grew to its current 29 member countries and expanded right to Russia’s borders, generating tension with Russia.
Today, NATO comprises a total population of over 500 million person across 29 countries. The international environment has changed drastically, of course. Now its focus is on preventing nuclear attacks, intelligence sharing, facilitating humanitarian aid, and keeping its guard up against Russia, China and other potential adversaries.
More broadly, it is asking the question of what’s next for NATO?
Europe is stepping apart from the United States and less certain that it can rely on American leadership. French President Emmanuel Macron recently referred to NATO as “brain dead.” He has been promoting security initiatives that are separate from NATO, and has said, “America is cutting Europe loose.” He says he cannot be sure that an attack on one NATO nation would trigger a united response.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected this view and continues to embrace NATO as important to European security.
The United States was a driving force behind NATO’s creation and has been its unquestioned leader. We Americans have seen NATO as a cornerstone of our national security policy. NATO has provided us with the immense benefits of peace and stability in Europe.
While the alliance has been successful, there have been tensions along the way. NATO is a provocation to Russia. Our military commitments cost a lot of money. Because our foreign policy must adapt to others’ priorities, we give up some autonomy. NATO has heightened European military dependence on the United States, and its decisions have sometimes put our forces at risk.
The foreign policy establishment in the United States has been strongly committed to NATO and to European defense. Congress has consistently shown bipartisan support through resolutions and other actions.
But President Donald Trump has questioned NATO’s value. He emphasizes “America First” and has said on occasion that the alliance is obsolete. Trump is not the first U.S. president to call for more defense spending by our NATO allies, but he does so stridently and repeatedly.
Trump is certainly not the cause of all the present tensions over NATO. The issues precede him and go much deeper. But his questioning of NATO has exacerbated America’s differences with Europe.
This raises questions about whether the United States and Europe will continue to work closely together to use our economic and military power to meet global challenges. European leaders worry about Trump’s ambivalence toward NATO and don’t want to depend on an unreliable president. Without doubt the relationship between Europe and the United States has taken a down turn. Europe seems to be reconsidering its ties to the U.S.
So, times have changed for this successful national security alliance, and it now stands at a crossroads. Will it remain robust, binding together democracies on both sides of the Atlantic? Or will European countries increasingly go their own way?
My view is that America should remain committed to NATO and to the security of Europe and to the challenges facing the West. We cannot take our cohesion for granted. Together we have to adapt to a changed environment, including new threats like the rise of China and the spread of terrorism. We should work with Russia where we can, and not treat it as an enemy.
America’s allies in Europe have been crucially important to us in the past. They will remain so now and in the future.
By Lee H. Hamilton