The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation celebrated its 70th Anniversary this month. For seven decades, NATO has stood at the forefront of European defence and guaranteed a lasting peace that many didn’t think would survive in the years that proceeded Second World War. Yet despite its success, now more than ever, we need reminding of the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship. With a resurgent Russia, growing threat of terrorism and populist attempts to either divide, scrap or replace the Alliance, support for NATO is more important than ever before.
The NATO Alliance has stood for the longest time as a beacon of freedom and security for many countries on the peripheries of Europe. With the support of the Americans and Canadians, NATO offers a sense of safety for those living within in its borders. And even as that frontier has expanded Eastwards, the value of NATO membership has not been lost.
The Alliance has undergone huge geographic shifts. In the beginning NATO was focused on Western Europe and bridging the divide between Atlantic partners, bringing together 12 member states. Today it’s an Alliance that spans the entire continent, with the collective might of 29 countries. From the USA to Poland, Canada to Croatia.
Over the last 70 years, NATO has also undergone several huge shifts in policy, to reflect the changing dynamics of its members. From welcoming former rivals, who have become some the alliances closest allies, to the post-cold war pivot that has seen a refocusing of efforts on counter terrorism and jihadism.
An Old Threat
However, since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has shifted its focus from the War on Terror back to countering the threat from Russia. The 29 Member States have become resolute in their commitment to efficiently deter Moscow, and to further strengthen the Alliance’s eastern flank. The annexation of Crimea demonstrated the need for NATO to adapt its strategy when dealing with the Russia, as for too long they had been complaisant.
Not only must the Alliance remain vigilant, it must also upgrade its arsenal to maintain a sufficient defensive posture. NATO ought to invest more in heavy equipment and armaments that will minimize the threat posed by Russia’s latest generations of combat aircraft and anti-submarine weapons, as well as finding smart ways to work around their current salami tactics. The NATO allies need to try their utmost to show Russia that its nuclear blackmail is useless and that they will not bow down to bullies.
They should increase both the frequency and scale of military drills held in the region especially with the NATO Response Forces while boosting combat readiness of all NATO allied units, playing Russia at their own game when it comes to flexing its muscles. The allies should also strengthen their position when it comes to cyber security and safe guards against the dissemination of fake news, perhaps even going so far as to ban Russian propaganda outlets such as RT or VK. Naturally, this is a valid move to protect the Alliance against hybrid and information warfare.
This ought to take place while expanding and enhancing military cooperation with non-NATO members, such as Finland and Sweden, that are also at great risk from Russia. The post-Soviet area, along with the Balkans, should now be where the Alliance focuses its attention, ensuring that all of these young states can live in peace.
Of course, like all families, there is strife inside NATO. The primary internal conflict in the Alliance is a financial one. Following his election to the presidency Trump continued to put forward the view that “NATO is unfair economically to the U.S.” and that U.S. taxpayers “are getting ripped off by every country in NATO.” President Trump repeatedly pointed to Germany as an example of a rich European country that “owes vast sums of money to NATO and the U.S.”
During debates in the U.S. Senate on the admission of the latest member country, the Balkan state of Montenegro, U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) stated on the floor of the Senate that he doesn’t “see how the accession of Montenegro, a country with a population smaller than most congressional districts and a military smaller than the police force of the District of Columbia, is beneficial enough that we should share an agreement for collective defence.” The sentiment of Senator Lee was echoed by then candidate Trump, who during his election campaign described NATO as “being obsolete and disproportionately too expensive (and unfair) for the U.S..”
Trump was not the first U.S. President to echo these sentiments, in-fact his predecessor President Obama pressured then U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to increase defence spending, which he did, after Obama had called him out saying “free riders aggravate me” and threatening that the U.K. would no longer be able to claim a special relationship with the U.S. unless they “paid their fair share.”
In 2018, following a contentious NATO summit, President Trump came out declaring victory, stating that “NATO now is a really a fine-tuned machine. People are paying money that they have never paid before.” He also claimed these countries “are happy to do it” and that the U.S. was “being treated much more fairly.” In fact, no new commitments were made, the two percent of GDP target had been agreed to in 2006 and re-affirmed in 2014. Trump had asked for concrete steps to show a willingness to spend two percent by early 2019, however, a recent decision by the German cabinet to keep defence spending as low as 1.25% of gross domestic product for the next five years could re-open the debate and possible lead to further splits within the alliance. The German decision was not driven by any fiscal urgency, on the contrary, Germany is running balanced budgets with a surplus last year of 11 billion euro, its fifth annual surplus in a row. Not only Trump but President Obama as well as former presidential candidate Senator McCain have singled out Germany for its unwillingness to reach the NATO spending commitment.
Berlin deciding not to increase its defence expenditure is a clear signal to the US that NATO is no longer as important to Germany as it used to be, instead they are trying to pivot towards an autonomous European defence capability. There is also a split in the German coalition government, with Chancellor Merkel and her Defence Minister both vowing to meet the two percent target by 2024 and the SPD questioning the target. At the same time Franco-German calls for the establishment of an EU-army are seen as partly driven by what they consider to be an introvert and unreliable U.S. administration. President Trump called the proposal for an EU army to protect against threats from Russia, China and even the U.S. “very insulting.”
In Europe only the UK, Poland, Estonia and Greece meet the 2% target and the Eastern European states are pushing for a stronger and better-funded NATO, causing an East-West split within the alliance in Europe.
The second, and maybe more important, internal conflict is the falling popular legitimacy for defending other countries in the Alliance. New polls show that less than half of Americans support the 70-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization and backing has dropped among key Western nations as well. The YouGov survey, released on the 70th anniversary, showed 44% of Americans support the nation’s place in the agreement; 10% oppose NATO membership and 29% are unsure.
According to the poll, support for NATO membership among European allies has dropped since 2017. The support in Great Britain has dropped from 73 to 59 per cent; in Germany from 68 to 54 per cent; in Denmark from 80 to 70 per cent; in Norway from 75 to 66 per cent; in France from 54 to 39 per cent; and in the United States from 47 to 44 per cent.
In other findings 58 per cent of those who grew up at the beginning of the Cold War support America’s continued participation in NATO; and 56 per cent of that baby boomer generation believe the treaty continues to serve an important role in defending Western nations. However, only 35 per cent of millennials and 33 per cent of Gen X members support America’s participation. And only 41 per cent of French citizens said they would defend America.
There are other threats to cohesion. Italy, recently joined the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, a 2,5billion euro deal that calls into question Italian commitment to the western hemisphere. Another similar example is Turkey’s decision to buy S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia.
Seventy and Still Going Strong
In seventy years, the Alliance has consistently grown stronger. From 12 members in 1949 to 29 allied states in 2019. With a new wave of Balkan enlargement bringing Montenegro into the alliance in 2017, as its newest member. It is perhaps also appropriate that this year also marks 20 years since Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance, a symbolic moved that reaffirmed their right self-determination after leaving the Soviet Empire.
As an Alliance, NATO has gone from strength to strength, not only through welcoming new members, but by being ready to embrace change, and stand united whilst doing so. If NATO can continue to maintain that unity of purpose moving forwards, then Europe will continue to enjoy its lasting peace.