Home inFocus Alliances: American Interests in a Changing World (Fall 2016) NATO: Present and Future

NATO: Present and Future

Matthew Rhodes Fall 2016
NATO Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs meet at the organization's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is America’s preeminent alliance.  Since its founding in the late 1940s it has served as the central pillar of the broader transatlantic relationship. With Montenegro’s impending accession, NATO will soon count 29 members within its core area plus another 40 formal partners from Morocco to New Zealand. Its durability and strength have reflected Americans’ understandings of their country’s global role, Europe’s importance to that, and Europe’s own commitment to cooperation.

Yet even as renewed challenge from Russia and a range of other threats have reemphasized NATO’s utility, each of the preceding factors has fallen into question. International turbulence makes a robust, balanced NATO as relevant as ever. Addressing the latest debates about its place in U.S. policy will thus be critical for the recent Warsaw summit to prove a milestone toward extended vitality rather than a fleeting high-water mark for the alliance.

U.S. Global Engagement

America’s relations with Europe are in part a function of its broader approach to the world. Up to the 1940s, the isolationist tradition in American foreign policy mainly focused on security interests within the Western hemisphere. Generations of U.S. leaders followed George Washington’s farewell admonishment to avoid Europe’s intrigues and “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”

The experience of two world wars and the Great Depression brought a shift to a more ambitious strategy of liberal internationalism. Together with complementary efforts to contain Soviet communism, this involved active American leadership to establish and maintain a stable global order based on multilateral institutions, formal alliances and forward troop presence, and economic assistance through programs such as the Marshall Plan. While debate persisted on details, bipartisan consensus embraced this approach as the best way to prevent repetition of the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century.

More recently, however, factors such as the post-2008 economic crisis, the rise of other powers, and the long military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have raised questions about the United States’s continued ability and interest to play this type of role. President Obama has adhered to liberal internationalist goals but argued for more selective deployment of American power on their behalf as well as correspondingly greater contributions from partners. In the context of NATO’s Libyan intervention in 2011, an administration official characterized this adjustment as “leading from behind.” Meanwhile among the broader public, a December 2013 poll by the Pew Center found for the first time in half a century of asking the same question that a majority of Americans agreed with the statement that the country should “mind its own business” in international affairs and let other countries fend for themselves.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) the following year partly moderated this sentiment, but the current presidential election campaign has still featured more circumscribed approaches to national security. For the first time in living memory, for example, the most prominent candidates from both major parties have outspokenly criticized foreign trade agreements. While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is otherwise traditionally liberal internationalist, her Republican counterpart Donald Trump has voiced a broader critique of foreign policy “globalism,” pointedly including perceived expensive, unreciprocated commitments to overseas allies.

U.S. Commitment to Partnership with Europe

The above developments notwithstanding, European states remain America’s closest group of allies. The standard list of reasons includes historical ties, intertwined economies, and shared democratic values. The transatlantic bond also reflects institutionalized civilian and military links through NATO, which lend the alliance unmatched mutual familiarity and depth. Few countries elsewhere can provide comparable support for U.S. objectives around the world.

Underlining these points, the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy of February 2015 stresses America’s “profound commitment to a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace,” embrace of a “strong Europe” as an “indispensable partner…for tackling global security challenges,” and “iron-clad” backing for NATO’s Article 5 collective defense guarantee.  The continued presence of more than 60,000 U.S. military personnel on the continent, increased tempo of rotational training and exercises since the Russia-Ukraine crisis (now to include “persistent presence” of a battalion within Poland), and recently quadrupled funding for the Defense Department’s European Reassurance Initiative reflect the same sentiment.

However, Europe as such has grown less strategically central to America’s global concerns since the end of the Cold War.  In a negative sense, this reflects long-term trends of economic stagnation and demographic decline compared to surging growth and populations elsewhere. As noted by British journalist Gideon Rachman, Asia is already home to three-fifths of humanity, and United Nations projections forecast both it and Africa to add another billion people by the middle of this century even as Europe’s population shrinks by five percent. Similarly, in 2014 the International Monetary Fund announced that China had surpassed the United States as the world’s largest national economy in purchasing power terms, with Japan and India following in third and fourth place.

More positively, since NATO helped end the Balkan wars during the 1990s, Europe has until recently appeared less subject to serious threats and more capable (or potentially so) of providing for its own security. The expanding roles of the European Union, a body with an integrated economy bigger than America’s, have reinforced those conclusions.

Perceptions along these lines contributed to the Obama administration’s “pivot” (or rebalance) to Asia from late 2011. Defense-related impacts on Europe included withdrawal of two of four remaining American combat brigades by mid-2013.  Observers on both sides of the Atlantic questioned NATO’s remaining purpose beyond conclusion of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Russian hybrid warfare in Ukraine and elsewhere has returned defense and deterrence to the fore of NATO’s work. The Readiness Action Plan adopted by the alliance at its fall 2014 summit in Wales, as well as the “enhanced forward presence” agreed this summer in Warsaw, have headlined initiatives to concretize this shift.

Still, the extent to which the latest moves from Russia overturn prior assumptions remains uncertain. Skeptics point out that by standard statistical measures, a unified EU would seem well-positioned to deal with its neighbor to the east; as one saying puts it, “Why do 500 million Europeans need 300 million Americans to defend them from 150 million Russians?”

European Commitment to Partnership with the United States

Questions concerning European capabilities lead back to questions of Europe’s commitment to transatlantic partnership. These issues also are not new. Since NATO’s creation American policymakers have sought to balance confidence and support for U.S. leadership with greater burden-sharing and self-sufficiency by European allies. However, periodic intensified pushes for the latter have usually been carried out with limited insistence and results.

As noted, President Obama has nonetheless again made this goal a priority. Already as a candidate in summer 2008, Obama pledged to “strengthen NATO by asking more of our allies.” In an interview with The Atlantic monthly this spring, Obama more bluntly described engagement with Europe as an “anti-free rider campaign.”

In addition to the usual challenges that burden-sharing initiatives have faced in the past, current efforts have occurred during serial international crises of once- a–generation–proportion. These began with the global economic downturn at the end of 2008, the sharpest contraction in growth since the 1930s. Much of Europe, including the southern Eurozone, was especially hard-hit. Eight years later, recoveries remain slow and uneven on both sides of the Atlantic.

Divergent initial responses signaled that Obama’s personal popularity with European publics would not assure backing for his policies from European governments. Prior to Obama’s first official trip to Europe in spring 2009, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek (then holding the EU presidency) condemned U.S. fiscal stimulus as “the road to Hell.”  Other northern European leaders less colorfully agreed.

Meanwhile, the downturn accelerated defense reductions within NATO. On top of previous declines, European allies’ military budgets fell by another $50 billion, or 15%, from 2009 to 2014. That year, only three members on the continent met the NATO target of two percent of GDP for defense.  Even with parallel U.S. cuts after 2010, American spending accounts for nearly three-quarters of NATO’s total.

In a farewell speech at NATO headquarters in June 2011, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously warned that such trends were politically unsustainable. Three years later in Wales, allies recommitted to raise defense investment by 2024. Subsequent progress has been decidedly mixed, though NATO now expects a modest net increase this year.

Budget numbers are partly symbolic, but they relate to real gaps in capabilities. They help explain why burden-sharing vis-a-vis challenges on Europe’s eastern and southern flanks has proven more successful in cases where Europe could apply economic and diplomatic power than in those requiring hard military assets.

Although NATO allies have shown impressive cohesion and endured real sacrifice in recent operations, glass-half-empty analyses emphasize imbalances. In Afghanistan, American forces tripled from 35,000 when Obama took office to 100,000 by late 2010, while other allies added only another 7000 and maintained restrictive caveats on their use. Within the coalition against ISIS, Europeans have joined efforts to restrict financing and flows of foreign fighters, but Americans have carried out two-thirds of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and 90% of those in Syria.

Indirectly, in addition to its impact on U.S. politics, the financial crisis’s effects have interacted with other factors to reshape the respective roles of individual allies. The United Kingdom retains the most interoperable military and closest intelligence ties with the United States, but military downsizing, less reflexive policy support, and the distractions of referenda on Scottish independence and EU membership, have weakened the “special relationship.”  Meanwhile, underappreciated improvement in French-American ties following France’s return to NATO’s military structures in 2009 and counter-terrorism cooperation in places such as Mali has been offset by decline in France’s political and economic capacity for continental leadership. Partly by default, this has left the U.S. to look more to Germany, an island of stability whose previously hesitant policy elite have come to accept a more prominent security role. However, further progress toward the first President Bush’s vision of the United States and Germany as “partners in leadership” also faces barriers such Germany’s proportionally low military spending, German public skepticism, and uncertainties created by the recent surge of migrants into Europe, including more than one million to Germany itself. Among other allies, fallout from July’s failed coup in Turkey has intensified political strains and subjected NATO’s second largest military to far-reaching purges and reorganization.

The Way Ahead

The NATO alliance is deeply rooted and resilient, but neither the external nor internal challenges it faces are likely to disappear soon. It lies within the abilities of the United States and Europe to address these in ways that preserve and adapt transatlantic ties far into the future, yet complacence would be misplaced.

Recognition of the gravity of current threats presents a basic starting point. The United States will likely remain the world’s top power for some time to come, but neither neo-isolation nor nostalgia for past eras of primacy offers a promising path to security. NATO offers a useful framework for addressing many but not all of the emerging issues. Meanwhile, even as members focus on the most immediate challenges, they should also do more to consider collective approaches toward developments such as security competition in Asia.

Effective implementation of alliance decisions is similarly essential on both practical and political grounds. This prominently includes smart investment in defense capabilities, solidarity in commitments, and Warsaw summit pledges for closer work with the EU in areas such as resilience and partner capacity building.

Finally, NATO members must address the sources of popular dissatisfaction within their societies. In this respect, responsive politics and broadly shared growth have security dimensions. As the alliance is also a community of values, over the long term a shared sense of successful democracy will be the ultimate glue keeping it together.

Matthew Rhodes Ph.D. is a professor of national security studies at the George C. Marshall Center.