Time for United States to reassure NATO commitment on world stage

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It is safe to say that the Group of Seven meeting this year went poorly, as fights over both policy and substance led to mutual recriminations between the United States and its closest allies. As damaging as disputes over trade and economic policy are, the NATO summit in Brussels has the potential to open insuperable fissures in the alliance. Losing the cohesion that NATO represents would be disastrous for the much of the world. On both sides of the Atlantic, leaders need to take affirmative steps to solidify the democratic legitimacy of the NATO project and ensure that the vision of cooperative security and a Europe free and at peace endures.

NATO was created to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Its founders understood that the American withdrawal into isolationism after the First World War had created a power vacuum into which the forces of fascism moved. In order to prevent that mistake from recurring, the allied leaders strove to make the defense of Europe tangible for American voters. Famously, one of the drafters set a test for the treaty: It needed to make sense to a “milkman in Omaha.”

{mosads}After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, NATO drifted toward failure of the milkman test. It started when the red menace disappeared, but it accelerated because of choices made by the United States in the war on terror. NATO declared the 9/11 attacks to be an assault on the entire alliance. This was the only time the principle of collective defense was invoked, but the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 divided the allies and inspired grandstanding at home. Since then, many key counterterrorism operations have been run by an ad hoc coalition.

After Russia invaded Crimea and Ukraine, NATO leaders quickly took steps to make the alliance vibrant again for Europeans. The United States allocated billions of dollars to enhance its presence in Eastern Europe through the European Reassurance Initiative, which is now called the European Deterrence Initiative. American leaders also tried to make our commitment tangible to the Europeans by making American presence visible. The most notable instance of this was Operation Dragoon Ride, in which a squadron of armored vehicles drove from Estonia to Germany and made frequent stops for public diplomacy events with locals.

The European members of NATO have also taken important steps to enhance their commitment to the alliance, underscored by the fact that eight of the 29 member states are expected to meet the commitment of 2 percent of gross domestic product spent on national defense, up from three member states in 2014, while 15 member states have plans to meet that goal by 2024. These changes, however, are at the level of high politics and lack the salience to match Operation Dragoon Ride.

This, combined with President Trump’s fraught relationship with allied leaders, helps explain why Democrats have much warmer perceptions of NATO than Republicans, as do those with a college education relative to those with a high school education or less. If opinions of Russia continue to separate along party lines, the alliance could fall into the partisan epistemology that afflicts so much of our political discourse.

For Atlanticists, or those who believe that the close economic, political and military coordination among the United States, Canada and Europe is a cornerstone of global peace and security, this divergence in perception presents a crisis. That is why some of the most prestigious institutions in the field have taken their shows on the road to try and connect with the modern version of the Omaha milkman. In this, they could use help from the European allies. Republican Congressman Michael Turner of Ohio has called this an “American Reassurance Initiative.”

An American Reassurance Initiative need not take the form of a publicity tour of armored vehicles, but it must highlight the ways in which the allies are more than passive recipients of an American security guarantee. Ensuring that every NATO member meets the 2 percent commitment is part of this since dedication to burden sharing would decrease the concern that Europe is free riding, but it is more than that.

Service members from 39 NATO allies and partners are already supporting the mission in Afghanistan. Every NATO member state is already part of the global coalition against ISIS. Finally, NATO remains the most effective forum to advance the cause of democratic values and cooperative security in the world. Ensuring that Americans understand this is critical to winning their support for the next generation.

Every NATO member state needs to work to reinvigorating their relationship to the Omaha milkman. The accomplishments of the alliance are staggering, but their legacy is not enough. Just as the United States has worked to make its commitment to real and tangible, European members now have an opportunity to demonstrate to the American people their commitment to our collective security and invest in the cohesion that NATO needs to thrive for years to come.

Michael Stecher is a senior research fellow and a senior adviser at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.

Tags America Diplomacy Donald Trump Europe Global Affairs Government Military

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