There are really only three ways NATO could end:
-- The United States, NATO’s most powerful member, could walk away.
-- Europe, led by one of the continent’s larger and more ambitious nations, could break off to try and fend for itself.
-- Or an outlying member could throw a wrench in the alliance’s decision-making process, which requires unanimity, therein vetoing the organization into paralysis.
All three threats lurked on the horizon as allied leaders headed to London earlier last week to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary. Would President Donald Trump make good on his threat at the last summit to walk away from NATO if allies still weren’t spending enough? Would French President Emmanuel Macron succeed in convincing his European partners that NATO was suffering from “brain death”? Would Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan veto NATO’s plan to defend Poland and the Baltic states as he had threatened to do?
In the end, none of these worst fears materialized. Trump, surprisingly, arrived to celebrate NATO’s “great purpose,” while chastising Macron’s statements as “very, very nasty” and “very insulting.” Macron was unmoved and stood by his critique, but NATO leaders responded to his complaint that the alliance had focused too much on burden sharing and not enough on its geopolitical strategy by ordering a forward-looking study. And Turkey withdrew its opposition to the NATO defense plans for Eastern Europe, allowing planning to move forward.
Even so, the 24 hours in London demonstrated that NATO suffers from significant fissures. For President Trump, the alliance remains fundamentally transactional, where the value of an ally corresponds directly to how much it spends on defense. Those who spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense are praised; indeed, the president hosted what he called these “2 percenters” for lunch. Those who do not are condemned as “delinquents.” Worryingly, Trump refused to say whether he would defend them if they were attacked and threatened them with trade sanctions instead.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, concerned that Trump would again disrupt the proceedings as he had in years past, made sure to credit the US president for all the improvements that had been made. He gave Trump full credit for the $130 billion more that allies have spent on defense since 2016 and for the additional $240 billion they had pledged to spend by 2024, the year allies agreed to reach the 2 percent target. He also got allies to increase their share of spending on the common NATO budget that funds civilian personnel, the headquarters and some military capabilities so the 16 percent US share would be the same as Germany’s.
Trump’s transactional approach to NATO wasn’t the only source of division in London. Macron’s talk about “the brain death of NATO” has also been deeply disruptive. The real purpose behind this statement is to sow doubt about NATO among European allies in order to make France’s case for building a European defense capability separate from NATO that would have France’s conventional and nuclear forces at its core.
The problem for Macron is that no one in Europe is buying it. To be sure, European partners such as Germany and Poland support strengthening European defense cooperation. But they see this as a means to bolster NATO, not as a way to undermine it. Thus, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected Macron’s “sweeping blow,” emphasizing that “NATO is in our interest. It is our security alliance.”
While Turkey’s Erdogan succeeded in staying largely offstage in London, Ankara’s actions in recent years have also torn on the fabric of NATO’s cohesion. There have long been differences over the threat posed by the Kurds, but Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria against the Kurdish forces has opened up a wide gulf between Ankara and other NATO countries.
The same is true for its decision to align more closely with Moscow, not only in Syria but also in buying advanced air defense missile systems and possibly combat aircraft that cannot be integrated into NATO operations. So far, these differences have not led to any permanent rupture, but there is increasingly less room for compromise between Ankara and its NATO partners.
Allied leaders left London with the knowledge that despite these major differences, they are better off working together than standing apart. But the differences are growing, and the divisive personalities of key leaders make reaching compromises increasingly difficult. In London, Stoltenberg deftly kept the allies together, taking on the leadership role normally played by the United States. If NATO is to celebrate its 80th birthday, however, all of its members will need to remember that what unites them is far stronger and more important than anything that divides them.
By Ivo Daalder
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to NATO. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. -- Ed.
(Los Angeles Times / Tribune Content Agency)