A new security alliance might be better than NATO free-riders

A new security alliance might be better than NATO free-riders
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Is NATO fit for purpose, and what price should America pay for its survival? These questions assume significance as President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE meets with the leaders of U.S. allies at the NATO summit in Brussels. Although NATO’s raison d’etre was questioned after the Soviet Union’s collapse, President Trump’s frustrations with NATO and his criticism of “free-riding Europeans” has given a renewed urgency to the alliance’s future.

Trump’s anger stems from allies’ refusal to abide by a commitment made at the Wales Summit in 2014 to contribute 2 percent of GDP to defense. At present, only the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia, Romania and Poland contribute more than 2 percent — the latter two just barely.

Major allies such as France and Germany are in deficit. After oral reprimands fell on deaf ears, Trump wrote to the leaders of eight NATO allies in June, expressing his growing frustration that “some allies have not stepped up as promised.”


He told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that America spends “more resources to the defense of Europe when the continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.” It’s difficult, he said, to “justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security burden while American soldiers continue to sacrifice their lives overseas, or come home gravely wounded.”

It’s not the first time the U.S. president has criticized European Union states for free-riding. In a June 11 tweet, he noted that Germany pays 1 percent of its GDP towards NATO, while the United States pays 4 percent of a much larger gross domestic product. “Does anybody believe that makes sense? We protect Europe (which is good) at great financial loss, and then get unfairly clobbered on Trade. Change is coming!”

Trump is not alone in wondering why America subsidizes the cost of security for rich European states such as Germany that boast favorable trade balances with the United States. There is little reason for American taxpayers to protect free-riders when there are more pressing domestic concerns.

The president’s critics argue that NATO is valuable to the United States because it protects Europe and enables trade in goods worth $717 billion. They say it protects “American values,”  promotes intelligence sharing, and allows the United States to deploy military bases in Europe that are vital for missions in Africa and the Middle East. Further, they argue, NATO contributes to U.S.-led missions in places such as Afghanistan, and aids U.S. interests against threats such as terrorists and pirates. Most importantly, it deters Russia from aggression in Europe.

But these claims are overstated. First, trade with Europe is not predicated on NATO. Second, many Europeans have moved away from “American values,” and public opinion in some NATO countries is hostile toward America. As demonstrated by the Iran nuclear deal impasse, American values count for little when European commercial interests are at stake. The EU is even prepared to lend money to Iran to frustrate U.S. sanctions.

Third, while in theory the size and scale of military capabilities is great, in practice America bears most of the burden in terms of lives sacrificed. Intelligence sharing and foreign bases can be established through other intergovernmental agreements and, realistically, should include non-NATO states to be meaningful.

So, is NATO fit for purpose? The preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty expresses members’ “desire to live in peace with all peoples” and their determination to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy.” Its goal was to “promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area” through collective defense and unified efforts for “the preservation of peace and security.”

In terms of obligations, article 2 recites vague promises that members will contribute toward “the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions.” Members also “seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration.”

The provision with bite is article 5 — that is, members agree “that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” and in response, NATO will assist by taking “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” Yet, even this provision is not that strong. It doesn’t commit members to take military action in all cases of armed attack against a member. For example, Germany is not obligated to attack Russia if the latter invades Estonia. Collective self-defense is subject to pragmatic considerations of expediency and self-interest.

In other words, while NATO might provide limited deterrence against Russian adventurism, this is largely predicated on adversely impacting U.S. self-interest. Put differently, Russia is not so naïve as to be deterred by the prospect of a military response from Europeans when U.S. interests are not affected. Russia knows that the Germans and French are unlikely to sacrifice their troops or commercial interests and go to war if Russia acts aggressively against, say, Poland. Therefore, if deterrence is the goal, America must decide what price it is willing to pay to save Poland — and who should foot that bill.

At present, European states are gambling on the U.S. paying, even though they have more to lose than the United States from Russian aggression. It may be time for Trump to call that bluff and make them pay up if they really care about security. If they don’t, the United States might be better off creating a new alliance of willing states that are prepared to contribute to collective security against modern threats including cyber attacks and other forms of warfare. That might guarantee better protection for Poland and Estonia than do their free-riding neighbors.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.