NATO: Too big to fail, too small to matter?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the world’s leading military alliance for nearly 70 years, yet the most common headline in the days leading up NATO’s first summit meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE seems to be, “What is NATO?”

Some of my friends asked me the same question when I moved from the United States to work at the alliance’s headquarters in Belgium two years ago. And Trump’s comments earlier this year implied this question when he called NATO “obsolete.” After all, if we do not know what NATO is, can’t we assume what it does must not be very important? 

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The national security and foreign policy establishment moved quickly to correct this impression and the president, once more fully briefed, was moved to pronounce NATO “no longer obsolete.”

 

The administration’s focus now on encouraging the European allies to increase defense spending to the agreed target of 2 percent of gross domestic product is consistent with nearly every U.S. administration’s policy since Eisenhower (who, incidentally, served as NATO’s first Supreme Allied Commander Europe in the early 1950s). The Trump administration’s call for NATO to do more to fight terrorism is also consistent with the policies of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Many allies and institutional leaders in NATO support this agenda also.

But the chief danger to the transatlantic alliance is not that it will fail to do enough, but that what it can do remains so thoroughly unknown. NATO should see as a warning the result of the Brexit referendum in the U.K., after which “What is the European Union?” became a trending Google search among British citizens who had just voted to leave it.  

Too many national security elites regard NATO as too big to fail, while too many citizens see it as too small to matter.

NATO must, therefore, redouble its efforts not only to do more but also to communicate more effectively what it is doing. In this respect, the agenda for this week’s NATO summit meeting in Brussels gets it right. Whatever the 28 heads of state and government agree of substance (and they’ve already agreed to an ambitious long-term agenda at a summit in Warsaw less than a year ago), the most important moments of this week’s meeting are likely to be photo-ops meant to inform and generate debate among leaders and citizens about what NATO is and does.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled a portion of the Berlin Wall at NATO Headquarters, intending to demonstrate the role of the alliance in striving to make Germany and Europe whole and free during the Cold War and thereafter. The United States can be rightly proud of its leading contributions to this achievement.  

More importantly for the 21st Century, however, was the unveiling by Trump of twisted metal from the point of impact at one of the twin towers on 9/11.  

The first and only time that NATO countries have ever formally invoked their treaty commitment to defend one another occurred after the attacks on New York and Washington. European troops continue to fight in the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan nearly 15 years after NATO took command of operations there.

The NATO summit this week can be at least partially successful if this and other facts about what NATO is and does become more widely known.  

Yes, NATO played an important role in the 21st Century. But it has also been the institution of choice for the United States and its Western allies in combating the threats of the 21st Century, currently playing a role in cyberspace, missile defense, counter-piracy, and the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups — not to mention the continuing defense of its members’ territory.  

The first president to call NATO “obsolete” was Charles de Gaulle of France in 1966. What has allowed NATO to endure in the 50 years since that time is not only its extraordinary capacity to adapt, but also its commitment of national leadership to see the alliance live up to its potential and public confidence that it could.

Seth A. Johnston, Ph.D., is a Major in the U.S. Army, recent assistant professor of international relations at West Point, and author of How NATO Adapts: Strategy and Organization in the Atlantic Alliance since 1950 (Johns Hopkins, 2017). 


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