Does NATO Matter? Two Views


Point: Does NATO Still Matter? No!

By John Feffer

Donald Trump hasn’t shown a lot of love lately toward America’s European allies.

On his recent trip to Europe, he dismissed Germany as Moscow’s minion and called the European Union a “foe.” He’s also treated NATO as an alliance to be bullied into submission rather than as the premier method of coordinating security policy with friendly nations. He even threatened to pull the United States out of the alliance.

It’s tempting to stick up for any victim of Trump’s bullying. But NATO’s strong enough to fight its own battles. It will easily shrug off Trump’s insane insistence that NATO members spend 4 percent of their GDP on their militaries, a figure that even the United States doesn’t reach.

Trump’s temper tantrum has made one thing clear, however. NATO is obsolescent.

Nearly 30 years, the United States had a golden opportunity to demilitarize trans-Atlantic relations. The Warsaw Pact disappeared in March 1991, followed by the Soviet Union at the end of the same year. NATO, a bulked-up heavyweight, was suddenly alone in the ring, swinging at nothing but air.

Instead of retiring the alliance at the top of its game, however, the United States insisted on finding new opponents to fight. NATO was drawn into out-of-area operations in the first Gulf War. It intervened in the wars in former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. And it participated in its first full-scale war in Afghanistan in 2003.

However you feel about those wars, NATO was not an indispensable force in the fighting. If NATO had dissolved in 1991, along with the Warsaw Pact, European countries could have decided individually, on a case-by-case basis, whether to partner with the United States in those conflicts.

On the contrary, instead of dissolving, NATO grew. It spread eastward, absorbing the former Warsaw Pact nations of East-Central Europe and encroaching on the borders of Russia itself with the incorporation of the Baltic states in 2004. At least part of the tension in U.S.-Russian relations stems from Moscow’s perceptions of NATO (and Western) meddling in the affairs of its neighbors.

Instead of sticking with NATO, the United States should have helped build an organization devoted to collective security that included Russia as an equal member. However, the George H.W. Bush administration made the deliberate decision to undercut just such an organization — the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — and ensure that it would always be the poorer cousin of NATO.

Today, Europe finds itself caught between a more aggressive Russia and a more unpredictable United States. It has justifiable concerns about Russian actions in Ukraine and its shows of force around the Baltic states. But Europe is also shocked by Trump’s imposition of tariffs on European goods and the president’s open hostility toward European values.

True, Trump may not last more than an additional two years, and even Putin won’t be Russian president forever. Europe’s instinct, at the moment, is to hunker down and preserve NATO. But that’s a mistake.

Instead, Europe should bring an end to its Cold War relationship with the United States. It should stop feeling compelled to fight the wasteful wars the United States starts. It should make its own decisions about how much money to spend on its militaries. And it should stop subsidizing America’s global footprint through a network of military bases from Ireland to Turkey.

By staying in NATO, Europe has done little to temper the worst excesses of U.S. militarism. The United States has gone ahead with wars whether NATO was on board or not, as was the case with the Iraq War in 2003.

Europe has already taken steps to create its own independent military force. In December, 25 of 28 EU member states agreed to finance European military capabilities and begin integrating their militaries. A Franco-German brigade, established in 1989, could serve as the foundation of a European army.

Together, Europe has enough firepower to deal with any external threat. France and Germany together spend nearly twice what Russia does on the military. And without the persistent pressure of NATO’s eastern ambitions, Europe might well be able to negotiate a more cooperative set of relationships with Russia.

In other words, Europe should take advantage of Trump’s overtly hostile attitude to get out of a relationship that has brought more drawbacks than benefits. It’s time for Europe to call Donald Trump’s bluff and strike off on its own.


John Feffer directs the Foreign Policy in Focus program at the Institute for Policy Studies. He wrote this for

Point: Does NATO Still Matter? Yes!

By Dalibor Rohac

From the bluster at the NATO summit in Brussels, through his attack on the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May, to his deference to Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the joint news conference in Helsinki, President Trump’s trip to Europe marked a new low for trans-Atlantic relations. Perhaps the president does not wish to destroy the alliance — but it is not clear that he would behave any differently if he did.

The Helsinki summit was emblematic of the president’s longstanding relativization of differences between democracies and America’s authoritarian adversaries. From asking whether “our country’s so innocent” in a response to a question about extrajudicial killings of journalists in Russia, through calling Putin “fine” and Kim Jong Un “very talented,” to blaming the poor state of U.S.-Russian relations on America’s “foolishness and stupidity,” such rhetoric is dangerous. Until recently, NATO was construed as an alliance based on democratic values. That perception is at risk if Trump holds such values in contempt.

One of NATO’s members, Turkey, has already turned into a full-fledged autocracy. Another two — Hungary and Poland — are moving fast in an authoritarian direction. That is not a new problem for the alliance, as anyone who remembers Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal and the regime of the colonels in Greece can attest. However, at a time when the Western world is not facing only one single and easily identifiable enemy, like the Soviet Union, the lack of common values within the alliance will make it impossible to agree on a shared strategic view of the world.

In its frequent criticisms of Ukraine, for example, Hungary’s government often sides with Russia, much to the dismay of other members of the alliance.

Trump is on more solid ground when he points out Europe’s failure to “pay its fair share” within NATO. Of course, the 2 percent are not being “paid” into a common budget, as the president seems to suggest. Instead, they represent a target for national defense spending that the allies committed to reach at the alliance’s summit in Wales in 2014.

If there is a gap between such aspirations and reality, the president’s remedies for the problem of “free riding” might prove worse than the disease. Specifically, Trump does not hide his disdain for the European Union, supposedly a “foe” of the United States. But in the absence of a strong EU, simple increases in military spending by European countries are bound to revive dangerous national rivalries that defined much of the continent’s history.

Imagine a Germany that is effectively remilitarized. How would the Czechs and Poles react, who lived under Nazi occupation and who are already complaining about Germany’s hegemony in Europe? And how about Greeks who blame Germany for the severity of their economic problems?

If the idea of an interstate conflict in Europe seems farfetched, it is only because of U.S. military domination of the continent for the last 70 years. Europe’s “freeloading” established the United States as an uncontested hegemon of the West, made European nation-states harmless, and helped rebuild Europe in America’s image — also through the EU.

If, today, the United States does not want to carry the burden of global leadership, or to do so alone, its best bet is to promote not Europe’s disintegration but rather help build a strong and autonomous European pillar of NATO, embedded in a reformed EU, which will feature a coherent foreign policy and wield real power on the world stage.

There is a long way to go. The structures underpinning a common EU foreign and security policy are vestigial, plagued by the EU’s perennial problem of reaching agreements in the form of the lowest common denominator.

But even if Trump does not derail the European project, it is already fueling anti-Americanism and risks pitting a united Europe, when it emerges, against the United States.

Poland’s former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, one of his country’s most distinguished Atlanticists, asked on Twitter on Monday whether Polish right-wing admirers of Trump “would like it — if it came to that — to see him defend Poland in the same was as he defended America’s institutions and interests.”

Unless Trump changes course quickly, not only will NATO not adapt to the realities of the 21st century by strengthening its European pillar, it will become irrelevant. Such an outcome would be a tragedy for the world, especially for the United States — its deep bonds of friendship with likeminded allies around the world, after all, have no appealing alternative. And, as Oscar Wilde would have put it, there is only one thing worse than having to deal with allies (“freeloading” or not) — and that is not having any.


Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He wrote this for