NATO has new sense of purpose. Not long ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was wondering about its relevance in a post-Cold War order. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, however, NATO has found a new mission. Or, rather, it’s re-found its old mission. After all, aren’t we back in an age of spies, murky assassination plots, constant propaganda, and nuclear brinkmanship?
At the same time, NATO has been a target for US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. While on the campaign trail in 2016, he famously labelled the organisation “obsolete” (though, once in office, he reversed his position). Even as recently as July 2018, President Trump was blasting his NATO allies as “delinquent” for failing to meet their spending obligation of 2% of GDP on defence. Of course, Trump isn’t the first US president to criticise the Europeans for not pulling their weight militarily, but under his presidency transatlantic relations have sunk to an absolute low. Is Trump right to openly question the value of NATO? And what has NATO done for us?
On 20 September 2018, our sister think tank, Friends of Europe, is holding its annual Policy Security Summit in Brussels, the flagship event of their peace, security & defence programme. Speaking at the event will be (among many others) Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General; Jose Alberto de Azeredo Lopes, Portuguese Minister of Defence; Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norwegian Minister of Defence, and Julian King, European Commissioner for the Security Union. Debating Europe will be at the event and putting some of your comments and questions to participants!
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Jthk, who thinks the Cold War would have been lost without NATO (and the US would never have achieved the status of a superpower). Is he exaggerating its importance? What has the North Atlantic Alliance given us, and what would the world have looked like without it?
To get a response, we spoke to Rose Gottemoeller, Deputy Secretary General of NATO. How would she respond?
That’s a very good question and it is one I have reflected upon a lot since I took this job as NATO Deputy Secretary General almost 2 years ago. I believe that actually NATO played an extraordinary role in consolidating the gains in security that were achieved by the end of the Second World War and then was able to adapt as an organisation to carry this forward in tackling the challenges of the Cold War. So, I do think that the unity of the alliance, the resolve, the way that we were able to develop defence over time but also, again, adapt to new threats and challenges, was also extraordinarily important in bringing to a successful close the Cold War as well. Your question is a very good one – I hope you think my answer was as well.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Anders Schröder, Defence Spokesperson for the Swedish Green Party. Sweden, which follows a policy of neutrality in foreign affairs, is not a NATO Member State (though since 2016 it has been a “NATO Affiliate”, and it did deploy troops to Afghanistan to support the NATO-led mission there). So, what is his position from outside the Alliance? And would he want Sweden to consider joining?
Well, I’m sure NATO was important for a number of different countries during the Cold War. As a Swede, I’m looking at it from a Swedish perspective. Our perspective is that, while we can see the benefit for many other countries, for us it has been more beneficial to stay out of the alliance.
Next up, we had a comment Ivan, who thinks that Trump’s aggressive approach to NATO will actually save it from irrelevancy by forcing European Member States to increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP. So, in a way, is Donald Trump a good thing for NATO?
How would Deputy NATO Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller respond?
Ivan, there’s no question that President Trump’s policy of delivering a short, sharp shock to the NATO allies has been effective in getting many countries who need to be spending more on defence, and on bolstering our share defence – getting them to take their commitment to the Wales Investment Plan seriously. I do like to emphasise that the President’s very strong approach to this is one that has resonated with the leadership of the allies in their capitals. I think that has been important.
I also like to point out that the Defence Investment Pledge was reached in 2014, at the Wales Summit. It was a watershed year in the alliance because in 2014 we faced a newly aggressive Russia, with Russia seizing the Crimea and destabilising the Donbass, and the rise of ISIS in that year [with its] seizure of Mosul and the establishment of their Caliphate. So that year was a big wake-up call for the allies, so the Defence Investment Pledge came in. It was that year that the cuts stopped to defence budgets across NATO. Cuts stopped, the budgets started to turn around and increase.
But I think it’s valuable that President Trump has pushed the allies even harder and faster. So I think that there are benefits to sometimes some ‘tough love,’ as we say, but at the same time I do believe that the allies had gotten the message beforehand and that it was the geostrategic situation – the renewed challenges that NATO had to face – that started the process rolling.
We also put the same question to Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. How would she respond?
Numerous American leaders – including Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton – encouraged Europeans to increase their defence spending. At the Wales summit in 2014, all members agreed on the need to spend two percent of their GDP on defence by 2024. Trump is right that allies must share more of the burden and take steps to improve their own capabilities. However, his bellicose rhetoric and threats against countries that don’t meet the target are unhelpful. The upward trajectory in alliance defence spending began in 2015 and has continued since Trump’s election: five members met the target last year, three more should meet the target by the end of this year, and 15 countries plan to reach two percent by the 2024 deadline. It is also worth remembering that allies contribute to NATO in many ways, while defence readiness requires smart spending that enhances capabilities (e.g., investment in equipment rather than higher pensions).
Finally, we had a comment sent in Pedro, who doubts whether Europe can still rely on US commitment to Article 5 (the “collective defence” provision in the North Atlantic Treaty). What would Rose Gottemoeller say?
Pedro, I don’t think that there is any option for NATO members but to continue to fulfil their commitments under the Washington Treaty. That goes for all NATO members, whether the United States, Canada – those are our transatlantic alliance members – or any member of the alliance here in Europe. Every member signs up to the Washington Treaty. It’s a solemn national commitment to the organisation and a country would have to decide that they wanted to withdraw from that commitment but all the members of the NATO alliance see it as really adding to their net security. Being members of the alliance, as we like to say, is that old fashioned one for all and all for one. In essence, it’s a force multiplier for every country who is a member of NATO and that goes for the United States as well.
So, the President of the United States, of course, has been somewhat critical of NATO in recent times but these are issues that many Presidents of the United States have criticised other NATO members for, not spending enough on their own defence, so I think that those critiques are well founded and have helped to push the alliance in a good direction in terms of spending more on defence but at the same time the commitment of NATO members, including the United States, to the mutual defence pact that is enshrined in the Washington treaty, I think that commitment remains and is very strong.
Is NATO worth saving? What would the world have looked like without it? And will Donald Trump’s presidency ultimately be a good thing for NATO? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!