NATO at 70: Not a happy anniversary

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is visiting the United States on the occasion of NATO’s 70th anniversary. He has met with President Trump at the White House, speaks to a joint session of Congress today, and this evening Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo: Countries should reject China's demands to repatriate Uighurs Trump says he will consider releasing transcript of Ukraine call White House officials, Giuliani come to Trump's defense on Ukraine allegations MORE will host a reception for him at the State Department. On Thursday, Stoltenberg will lead a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that also will be held at State.

Other than marking its anniversary, however, the alliance does not have much to celebrate. Despite his meeting with the secretary general, the leader of its most powerful member has little that is good to say about the organization. Another of its powerful members, the United Kingdom, is in the throes of national self-immolation. It has yet to determine how, and in what way, it will exit the European Union; in the meantime, it is becoming increasingly clear that whatever the denouement with the EU, Britain’s defense budget is unlikely to grow, and could well shrink.

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Since the country already contributes barely 2 percent of its gross domestic product to defense, such a development hardly will endear it to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE, who is fixated on percentages. Perhaps that is how he views the nature of alliance contributions to the common defense.

Thus far, at least, Britain has reached the president’s 2 percent goal. Other NATO states are not faring nearly as well. According to the authoritative Military Balance that the International Institute for Strategic Studies issues annually, none of the other major NATO allies — France, Germany, Spain and Italy — reached the 2 percent mark in 2018. Germany, once NATO’s bulwark in continental Europe, managed to achieve only 1.13 percent, with no improvement over the previous year.

The pressures of feeding, housing, educating and providing for the health of thousands — and in Germany’s case, hundreds of thousands — of refugees from the Middle East promise to constrain military spending in these nations for the foreseeable future.

As if budgetary shortfalls were not enough to dampen NATO’s celebrations, the schism in the alliance wrought by Italy, Hungary and Turkey are far more threatening to its future cohesion. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has made much of his close relationship with Vladimir Putin, and has signed a number of cooperative economic agreements with Russia. The recently elected Italian government has proclaimed its own desire to reach out to Moscow.

Perhaps of greatest concern, however, is Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s determination to press ahead with the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems, the first time a NATO nation actually has acquired major systems from Moscow.

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Washington has threatened Erdogan with cancellation of the sale of the F-35 Lightning II (better known as the Joint Strike Fighter) to Ankara. The Pentagon has halted the transfer of fighter equipment to Turkey, and on March 28 a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation to block the fighter’s sale. Turkey has a major stake in the F-35: its industry has participated in its development and production and is slated to play a role in sustaining both the plane and its F135 engine. Moreover, Turkey was approved for producing its own F135 engines and the city of Eskisehir was selected as the site of the F135’s first European maintenance facility.

Despite his country’s having so much to lose, Erdogan is pressing ahead with the S-400 buy, an indication of Turkey’s increasingly close relationship with Moscow. So, too, is Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran to achieve a peace agreement in Syria, in what has come to be known as the Astana Process (named after the Kazakh city where representatives of the three countries met), even as the United States has been relegated to the sidelines of this tri-national effort.

NATO requires the consensus of all 28 of its members to act upon Article 5, which states that any armed attack against one member of the alliance is an attack against them all. Cozying up to Moscow on the part of Hungary, Italy and Turkey calls into question NATO’s ability to respond to a crisis, whether in Europe or outside it, in the face of Russian opposition. Given President Trump’s attitude toward NATO, even the United States might not necessarily be guaranteed to invoke Article 5 should Russia attack a NATO member.

NATO has survived many crises. For example, during the 1960s, tensions within the alliance rose as a result of American plans for a Multilateral Nuclear Force (MLF), the war in Vietnam and the coup of the Greek colonels. The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed major European opposition to the proposed deployment of American Pershing and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) on the continental mainland. The Iraq War prompted deep divisions between Washington and what then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld termed “Old Europe.”

One can only hope that NATO will get past its current crisis — in some respects the sharpest of them all. The United States, in particular, must trust that this will be the case. After all, America is the only country for which the NATO allies ever invoked Article 5 (after 9/11), and allied troops fought and died alongside those of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq for well over a decade. Hopefully, when NATO celebrates its 80th anniversary, the smiles and toasts will be genuine and not, as perhaps they are this week, artificial and forced.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.