Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact no longer exist, so what is the purpose of NATO? Its current shape, future and changing transatlantic partnership raise concern.
London: Fireworks? Well perhaps. Whenever President Donald Trump attends a NATO meeting, sparks always begin to fly. On Tuesday he will attend NATO’s 70th birthday celebrations in London. The North Atlantic Treaty was actually signed on 4 April 1949 in Washington DC, but this meeting will be the summit when the 29 heads of state mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary. This should be a reason for celebrating NATO’s great historic successes, but everyone appears concerned about its current shape, about the future and about the changing transatlantic partnership. French President Emmanuel Macron ruffled feathers last month when he described NATO as “brain dead”, warning Europe that it can no longer rely on America to defend its NATO allies.
NATO chiefs will be hoping to avoid the high drama of last year’s summit in Brussels, when President Trump launched a blistering attack on allies, in particular Germany, for not spending enough on defence. But Trump has a point. At the 2014 NATO summit, there was a binding agreement by each member to spend 2% of GDP on defence, but a look at the figures show that many are failing. Germany, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, spends only 1.2% of its GDP. Spain spends even less at 0.9%. By contrast, the US spent last year a whopping 3.4% of its GDP on defence, coming in at $623 billion. Only 7 of the 29 member states spend 2% or more on their defence, so it is no wonder that President Trump has been unstinting in his justifiable criticism of NATO’s European members, accusing them of freeloading on the protection offered by the US military.
But why should these countries spend so much on defence, when the social demands of their societies are so great and the potential enemy so vague? After all, NATO was created after the Second World War to counter the threat of the Soviet Union and its client states grouped under the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact no longer exist, so what is the purpose of NATO? President Macron argues that NATO continues to view the containment of Russia as its primary strategic objective. The problem is that in pursuing that objective, NATO expanded right up to Russia’s borders, leaving that country without a security zone. The Kremlin argues that this violated the terms of the deal reached in 1990, when in return for its agreement to the re-unification of Germany, NATO agreed not to expand its membership. NATO’s actions aggravated Russia and increased tensions, which paradoxically enhanced the need for its continued existence.
One of the greatest ironies in recent history is that in the 1990s, Russian and Western leaders were pondering on whether Russia might accede to NATO. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, raised the possibility of Soviet membership in NATO no less than three times in 1990, according to the then US Secretary of State James Baker. Later, not only did Boris Yeltsin announce that Russia’s membership in NATO was a “long-term political aim”, but Vladimir Putin actually asked the US President, Bill Clinton, when NATO would invite Russia into the alliance. A 1993 US State Department document even set the deadline of 2005 for Russia’s, and Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Baker described Russia’s membership of NATO as a win-win for both Russia and the alliance.
Eventually, however, waves of NATO expansion and “colour revolutions” convinced the Russian leadership, rightly or wrongly, that the West, while eager to integrate the post-Soviet neighbours located to Russia’s west and even south, was in no hurry to accept Moscow as an equal into its club. As a result, Russia staged military interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to prevent these countries from advancing towards membership in NATO. Today, the prospects of Russia’s membership of NATO seem to be as dim as they were in the Cold War.
But Russia is not the greatest threat to NATO. The prize for this goes to Donald Trump. Following the tumultuous NATO meeting last year, President Trump suggested a move tantamount to destroying NATO: the withdrawal of the United States. Senior administration officials have confirmed that on several occasions over the course of 2018, Trump said he wanted to withdraw from NATO, as he “didn’t see the point of the military alliance which was a drain on the United States”. “This would be a geopolitical mistake of epic proportions”, said a former US NATO chief, before adding “even discussing the idea of leaving NATO, let alone actually doing so, would be the gift of the century for President Putin”. Conspiracy theorists are linking Trump’s behaviour on NATO to his efforts to keep his meetings with Putin secret from even his own aides. “What hold does Putin have over Trump?” they ask. Echoes of the infamous Steele report!
President Macron cited an alternative rationale for Trump’s behaviour. “In the eyes of President Trump, NATO is seen as a commercial project”, he said in his interview in the Economist. “He sees it as a project in which the United States acts as a sort of geopolitical umbrella, but the trade-off is that there has to be commercial exclusivity. It’s an arrangement for buying American products, France didn’t sign up for that.’ Macron was trying to create a powerful wake-up call for Europe to provide more of its own defence within the organisation of the European Union. He was unimpressed by some European leaders whom he saw as closing their eyes and covering their ears, hoping that they’ll get through the Trump era until a more “sensible” President is elected.
This “hope” is unjustified, however, as the weakening of ties between Europe and America didn’t start with President Trump. Trump has simply amplified them using his characteristic megaphone. The real hope, promoted by President Macron’s leadership, is for closer European integration, including the introduction of new EU defence initiatives, such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and European Defence Fund (EDF). Both are in their early stages, but are potential game changers. PESCO operates as a platform for groups of member states to cooperate on defence capability projects, while EDF, backed by substantial European Commission funding, has the potential to spur and incentivise collaboration on the development and acquisition of new capabilities between member states.
Critics of such initiatives worry that if Europe becomes stronger, the less will be America’s perceived need to maintain the alliance, citing the Trump administration’s concerns about duplication and interoperability. On the contrary, the US should welcome the prospect of a stronger EU security and defence role. If well designed and executed, European defence projects will make valuable contributions towards strengthening NATO by helping to bring about more military capabilities and investment.
NATO leaders should also think outside the box and realise that there are other important areas in which NATO can work in the interest of world peace. Already France has strong defence ties with India, as shown by the huge naval exercise carried out earlier this year. France’s military exercises with India began back in 2001. Set against the growing power of China and what the projection of that power means for the future security of global commerce, the commander of the French fleet said after the exercise, “We think we can bring more stability to a region that is strategic, that has huge stakes, notably for international trade”.
From being reluctant to be visible in global defence, Germany is also now developing defence policies which could be to the advantage of India. In a thoughtful and far ranging speech at the Bundeswehr University in Munich last month, Germany’s Minister of Defence and possible future Chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said: “Our partners in the Indo-Pacific region, such as India, Australia, Japan and South Korea, feel increasingly encroached by China’s claim to power. They would like to see a clear sign of solidarity in support of applicable international law, inviolable territory and free shipping routes. The time has come for Germany to give such a sign to be present in the region together with our allies.”
An organisation already exists which could be developed to achieve such ambitions. For the past five years, senior officials from a group of leading democracies calling themselves the “D 10”, have quietly been meeting once or twice a year to discuss how to co-ordinate strategies to advance the liberal world order. This group, comprising of seven NATO members, with Australia, Japan and South Korea, should be more ambitious and expand to include India, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and perhaps Indonesia and Malaysia.
An expanded D10 could be the seed-corn for the development of a new form of “ad hoc multilateralism”, a kind of “NATO PLUS”. Not only would this be an imaginative purpose for NATO, but would unquestionably have the potential to enhance world peace.