NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was an invention of necessity. Following the Berlin Blockade of 1949, NATO was conceived as a military and collective defense alliance between twenty-nine North American and European states to counter expansion of the Soviet bloc. The principle of collective defense is enshrined in Article 5 of the original charter, which states that “an armed attack on one or more of the parties is deemed to include an armed attack on [all parties].”
Since its inception, NATO has become a bedrock for the Western-led global order by helping to maintain the existing international distribution of power. However, President Donald Trump’s hard line on the alliance threatens this balance. On various occasions, he has stated that the United States pays more than its fair share toward the organization, and that it will only provide military support to member states who contribute proportionally to the budget. During his May 25th address to NATO leaders in Belgium, President Trump made a last-minute decision (without knowledge or approval from his security council team and advisors) to omit the section of his speech reaffirming U.S. commitment to Article 5, the most fundamental aspect of the alliance. While he did eventually affirm U.S. commitment to collective security, his statement of support came several weeks after his original speech in Brussels. These small but significant political maneuvers regarding the alliance have set NATO adrift. It is unclear to member states and other stakeholders whether or not the U.S.’s commitment to protect its Western allies is credible. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, even said that, “traditional alliances [are] no longer as steadfast as they once were” and that Europe should, “really take our fate into our own hands.”
While President Trump’s assertions regarding budget payments are correct—the U.S. does contribute more to the alliance than any other member country—the rhetoric is misleading. To be clear, individual member states do not give money to a communal fund that finances NATO’s operations. Member states have entered into funding agreements requiring each state to spend at least two-percent of their Gross National Income (GNI) on defense. Instead of a communal budget used to increase NATO’s military strength as an organization, each member state is meant to strengthen their own defense capabilities, which will fortify NATO as a whole. While only five member states— the US, Greece, Poland, Estonia, and the U.K.— currently meet the two-percent defense spending threshold, the U.S. spends a much higher three-and-a-half percent of its GNI on defense yearly. While it is fair to hold NATO countries accountable to funding agreements, the U.S. cannot expect member states to surpass them in order to meet America’s globally unprecedented levels of defense spending. Requiring fellow NATO countries to match U.S. defense spending percentages to secure continued American involvement in the alliance is unreasonable. Additionally, only considering the financial aspects of alliance membership is shortsighted. The main goals of NATO, and its main successes, have nothing to do with equitable and balanced budgets; rather, they have everything to do with international stability and security. Focusing solely on the numbers when considering the value of the alliance comes at the cost of decreased national and international security.
Since the collapse of the USSR, the world has been guided by the U.S. and its allies. This system is not perfect, it has not minimized war nor eradicated violence, but it has championed liberal governance. This system has led to the rise of an open, rule-based international order, an increase in institutionalism seen in the UN, IMF, World Bank, ICC and other organizations, and a strengthened commitment to stabilizing norms such as multilateralism. This structure fights against the formation of blocs, increases in violent inter-state rivalries, and mercantilism. NATO is the fist that protects and legitimizes this global system. While these institutions, norms, and orders are not without serious shortcomings, in the words of John Ikenberry, “This liberal international order has been one of the most successful in history in providing security and prosperity to more people.”
Shaky U.S.-NATO relations ultimately affect the stability of the U.S. and the world order. NATO forfeits its role as the main military body defending the current distribution of power when the commitments holding it together lose their credibility, and any decrease in the power of NATO negatively affects U.S. security. Additionally, increasing distrust and instability within the alliance may disrupt international commitment to major multilateral institutions that have tangibly increased safety and quality of life for a number of regions across the globe. Because of these serious implications, it is irresponsible for U.S. policymakers to think of American participation in NATO as existing within a vacuum. The U.S. needs to reevaluate long term human security and traditional security goals, and pursue an agenda to credibly reaffirm commitment to NATO in support of its partners and shared mission.