70th Anniversary of NATO: The Transatlantic Alliance in Crisis?

Carl Michel Reischel, European Horizons Sciences Po

On the 3rd and 4th of December, heads of state and government officials gathered in London for a summit on the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with German Chancellor Merkel and President Trump both describing the two day event as a great success. 

NATO allies agreed on a joint final declaration in which they emphasized mutual commitment, and underlined the continued salience of the military alliance. Whilst NATO is still very much perceived to be a fundamental aspect of transatlantic defence, they also acknowledged the new challenges posed by China and Russia, and made explicit encouragement to strengthen the dialogue with both. Trump appeared constructive at the summit, still insisting on burden sharing in military expenditure, albeit softer on questions concerning North-Stream II and taxation of German export goods to the U.S. 

Despite this balanced political dialogue, the summit was nonetheless underscored by differences between NATO partners and the debate on the future of the military alliance as certain relationships between members begin to falter. This comes at a time when Europe is weakened from within; be that by Brexit, right-wing nationalism, populist leadership, or the growing cleavages in perceptions around European values. Indeed, Europeans certainly contend with a U.S. president that does not value Europe as much as his predecessors, at times describing NATO as “obsolete”, and at others making assurances of protection entirely conditional on countries’ meeting the 2% defence spending target - despite only nine of NATO’s 29 members currently attaining this threshold. 

Moreover, the retreat of U.S. special forces from Northern Syria (without consulting NATO allies prior), as well as Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces, raise troubling questions about the shortfall of political coordination between members. Turkey’s threats to block NATO decisions regarding the defence of Eastern European and Baltic States, if NATO members do not recognize the Syrian Kurdish militia as a terrorist organisation, only add fuel to the flame.

Yet, even where political dialogue seems difficult, and lacks unity of direction between members, the technical part of the alliance continues to flourish: military expenditures are rising all over Europe; allies are working together on new initiatives to counter hybrid and cyber-threats; and the alliance has agreed to launch a common space policy. Still, the importance of a strong political will and coordination cannot be overstated - it is crucial for a defence union to be able to act rapidly and efficiently to external threats. 

Indeed, it is this very disunity that French president Emmanuel Macron spoke of in calling NATO “brain-dead” in his November interview with The Economist. Germany and the United Kingdom have quickly distanced themselves from Macron’s critique, but his argument should not be overlooked: “If [Europeans] don’t wake up [...] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run [Europe] will disappear geopolitically, or at least that [Europe] will no longer be in control of [its] destiny. I believe that very deeply.” 

Don’t get me wrong. NATO is essential for European and U.S. defence, and everything should be done to conserve an alliance that is needed today more than ever, but the implication is not that the promise of Europe’s defence should rest exclusively with the United States. Europe should take steps to strengthen its own military capabilities, including meeting the 2% expenditure goal that Trump so strongly advocates. If European countries can enhance the interoperability, readiness and infrastructure of its armies, it can only be to the benefit of the overall defensive capabilities of NATO. And it is true that the EU has taken steps in recent years to intensify these military capacities, strengthening relations between member states, with projects such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the European Intervention Initiative (E2I); an ostensibly dramatic growth in transnational projects.

Many Europeans fear that the strengthening of Europe’s autonomous defence may undermine NATO and the transatlantic alliance, but the European Union and NATO have shown in the past that they are already working closely together on issues of common interest, and it is as important as ever to recognise that the U.S needs Europe as much as Europe needs the U.S. Europe will, and should, rely less on NATO, without neglecting its importance or the strengthening of engagement in the military alliance. 

Carl Michel Reischel, Paris, 06.12.2019 

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