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To save NATO, destroy it

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

The transatlantic alliance needs more than a rethink. It needs to be reborn.

At the close of what leaders across the West billed as a “historic” summit, which included dinners in the Spanish capital’s sumptuous royal palace and the spectacular Prado museum, superlatives were flying fast and furious.

Calling the summit “transformative” and “far-reaching,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg predicted at the close of the three-day affair that the decisions made there would “ensure that our Alliance continues to preserve peace, prevent conflict, and protect our people and our values.”

Look beyond the staged backslapping, bonhomie and self-congratulation in Madrid, however, and one can see that while the alliance’s unity might be a mile wide, it’s also only an inch deep; its collective sense of purpose as varied as its 30 members.

Start with the issue at hand: That the leaders managed to declare Russia — which has been threatening European security since at least 2007 — the “most significant and direct threat” to security, peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area is more of a sign that they are masters of the obvious than of grand strategy.

The other signal achievement cited by Stoltenberg was a much-heralded deal to bring in Sweden and Finland. This was less the result of high diplomacy and mutual defense than what might politely be called extortion on the part of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish President held the pair’s accession hostage over his desire to buy new F-16 fighters from the U.S. — and got what he wanted.

Such back-room machinations make NATO look like more of a protection racket than a community of values. And for what? Erdoğan’s belligerent treatment of allies prompted the United States to weigh abandoning the strategic Incirlik air base in southern Turkey less than two years ago. Does anyone really believe he can be counted on to send troops to help the Baltics in the event of a Russian invasion? Hardly.

The membership in the alliance of the wannabe sultan and Hungary’s strongman-in-waiting Viktor Orbán don’t just undermine NATO’s claim to be a community of liberal values; they make a mockery of it.

And they’re not the only ones undermining NATO‘s legitimacy.

Up until Russia’s February 24 assault on Ukraine, France and Germany were still fantasizing about “strategic autonomy” — the notion that Europe should liberate itself from the American security guarantees that allowed the Continent to flourish in the postwar era, and instead seize the reins of European security for itself.

Indeed, just weeks before the Russian invasion, prominent German politicians, including Annalena Baerbock, now foreign minister, were demanding that the U.S. withdraw all of its nuclear warheads from German soil.

As ever, Russia ultimately had more sway over Germany’s thinking than Washington.

Whatever one thinks about Russian President Vladimir Putin, he did convince Germany to change back. Overnight, the same German leaders who had for years ignored U.S. pleas to stop starving Germany’s military of resources and start contributing more to NATO defense were transformed into true believers.

Yet like all foxhole conversions, Germany’s come-to-Jesus moment smells more of fear than of conviction. While all military alliances are forged to varying degrees out of fear, NATO has become consumed by it. The glue that binds it is not a unity of vision, but the instinct to cower under America’s nuclear umbrella.

That’s not enough to hold it together — especially if Washington starts to suspect it’s being left to do most of the heavy lifting.

Look at the patchwork response to Putin’s war on Ukraine. One would have thought an alliance founded on a promise “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples” would have little trouble forging a common approach to the greatest threat to that ideal since World War II.

Instead, much of the European public remains divided on how far to go in confronting Putin, in part because their own governments have shied from acknowledging the degree to which all of the Continent is at risk.

While some countries — in particular Poland, the Baltics, the U.S. and the United Kingdom – have been particularly generous, others have delivered nowhere near what they could have, especially in terms of tanks and other heavy weaponry. If Ukraine continues to lose territory and lives because it can’t properly defend itself, responsibility for the failure will lie squarely at NATO’s feet.

Such an outcome wouldn’t bode well for the future of the alliance — especially in Washington, where outside the White House frustration with NATO allies’ overreliance on the U.S. security guarantees remains palpable.

After four years of living in quiet terror under U.S. President Donald Trump, Europeans have lulled themselves into a false sense of security under Joe Biden. A lifelong transatlanticist, the U.S. president came into office intent on reversing the more belligerent approach towards allies that marked his predecessor’s tenure.

The risk is that Biden, whose prospects for a second term look increasingly shaky, may well end up being more of an outlier on Europe than Trump.

The U.S. spends about 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, more than double the rate of most NATO members. With the U.S. pledging to commit even more troops and resources to Europe, American leaders will be under immense pressure to justify the expense to the public, especially if, as many anticipate, the country slips into a recession. Regardless of who succeeds Biden as American president, it’s a safe bet that person is unlikely to share his soft spot for Europe.

That doesn’t mean that Washington is likely to pull out of NATO, as Trump threatened to. But as the challenges the U.S. faces with China become more acute, the days of coddling European allies will have to come to an end.

That’s why NATO doesn’t just need the rethink heralded by the likes of Stoltenberg. It needs to be completely reborn.

Instead of making vague promises as it did this week to “share equitably responsibilities and risks for our defense and security,” NATO would be wise to pursue more radical reform. That not only means leaning less on the U.S. but also redefining what NATO is and isn’t and practicing what it preaches.

Put simply, if members don’t adhere to basic democratic norms, they should be forced out. Similarly, those not willing to contribute to their own defense should be encouraged to seek their security guarantees elsewhere.

In military circles, the tactic of “destroying a town to save it” is controversial. In NATO’s case, there’s no other option.

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