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The long NATO gravy-train may soon be over for Europe

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As President Donald Trump continues to complain about NATO, specifically whether U.S. allies are sharing the associated security and financial burdens, he seemingly joins the ranks of nearly every U.S. administration since the organization was founded. While boisterous in his own way, Trump’s assertions are simply the latest iteration of American leaders exhibiting a love/hate relationship, which sometimes leans toward the latter.

President Trump and former President Barack Obama often criticized NATO members for their inability to meet minimum defense spending guidelines. As Trump stated, “we’re the schmucks for paying for the whole thing” and Obama fumed “…sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defense.” Both Trump and Obama even accused NATO members of relying far too much on American citizens and free-riding of the U.S. security umbrella.

{mosads}During the Cold War, U.S. presidents were equally frustrated. President Dwight D. Eisenhower accused Western Europe of “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam.” President John F. Kennedy stated, “we cannot continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the NATO states are not paying their fair share and living off the ‘fat of the land.‘” NATO’s history seems to suggest that the U.S. has always been more invested in European security in the face of Russian resurgence than wealthy European governments themselves.

But the complaints, which have amounted to little substantive change over the past half century, are amplified in the current climate. As America’s focus is likely to swing more toward the Pacific and the growing competition with China, Europe may soon be more on its own than at any point in recent memory.

While all 28 NATO members agreed in 2014 to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, only the U.S., Greece, Estonia, United Kingdom, Latvia, and Poland are meeting the minimum guideline. The U.S. is the largest single contributor to NATO, spending roughly 3.5 percent of its GDP on its armed forces, down from previous years. NATO estimates show that the U.S. will account for 67.5 percent of all NATO defense expenditures in 2018. In addition, the U.S. exports more to and invests more in the European Union (E.U.) than any other region in the world. While still important, this is an untenable and unsustainable level of U.S. support when more focus must shift to the Pacific.

While Trump and his predecessors have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with NATO, the alliance does afford the U.S. some key benefits. Secretary General Lord Hastings Ismay’s statement that the core mission of NATO is “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” is as relevant as it was during the Cold War. Even today, NATO prevents Russia from expanding its sphere of influence in Europe.

More important, NATO and the U.S. military presence in Europe have prevented European states from balancing against one another and engaging in the same aggressive behavior that led to World War I and World War II. NATO has mitigated the risk of the U.S. getting dragged into another European war. A stable European order translates into a stable international order. Moreover, NATO has supported U.S. interests by invoking Article 5 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and contributing tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan.

But presidential criticism of NATO raises deeper questions about relevance and legitimacy. While it does serve as a counterweight to Russia, NATO has also provoked Russia time and again. It was NATO expansion following the collapse of the Soviet Union and pulling Ukraine and Georgia closer to Brussels and Washington that led Russia to intervene in Eastern Ukraine and annex Crimea in 2014. U.S.-led regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya led Russia to secure Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The prospect of Hillary Clinton, one of the key architects of U.S. regime change policy, possibly becoming president was enough for Russia to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

As we move further away from the Cold War and the U.S. looks to contain China as its peer geopolitical competitor, future U.S. presidents will be forced to strike a delicate balance between getting wealthy European allies to shoulder more of the burden within NATO and ensuring that NATO and the E.U. are on America’s side in the Asia-Pacific.

Dr. Chris Dolan, Chair of History, Politics and Global Studies and Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., is the author of “Obama and the Emergence of a Multipolar World Order: Redefining U.S. Foreign Policy.”

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