American Leadership Is on the Line

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, in black dress shoes, walks with U.S. Army leaders across a NATO logo, April 2017.

About every 10 years, Washington resonates with a debate on the relevancy of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Then-candidate Donald Trump revived this debate during the 2016 campaign, declaring the organization “obsolete” and blaming its members for not “paying what they should.” Yet, since the inauguration, the vice president, secretary of state, and the secretary of defense all affirmed the significance of NATO to U.S. national security and its importance in the current and future security environment—and their hedging in favor of NATO soon paid off. Following the Trump administration’s military actions in Syria in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, America’s NATO partners quickly rallied behind President Trump. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement of support backing the U.S. president, saying, “President Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the crimes the Syrian regime has committed against its own people cannot be ignored.” The leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Italy, and Poland all lined up with similar statements of support.

Shortly after this outpouring of international support, President Trump met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House. In a joint press conference with Stoltenberg, the president offered a sharp change in his opinion of NATO: “It’s no longer obsolete.” However, the president reiterated that NATO members need to contribute necessary levels of investment in the security partnership. This point is well made and has been voiced by bipartisan leaders in Washington for many years.

A chaotic first 100 days in Washington, especially concerning the White House and the Russians, has been met with a fumbled response from the administration. With stays in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Italy already in progress, the president visits Brussels on Thursday for a NATO meeting. Trump is expected to underscore his support for the organization at the meeting. But Trump’s recognition of NATO’s importance, welcomed as it was by the Washington policy establishment, is far from a clear-cut strategy. Significant security challenges face the West and the alliance, and once again, American leadership will be essential to ensure its continued significance. The Trump administration must show that it is ready to lead and engage—a challenging assignment given the mess it has created in Washington.

Developing a NATO engagement strategy has never been simple: The organization itself was a product of dispute and chaos. With the guidance of President Harry Truman, NATO took form amid the intense domestic and international policy debates that followed the end of World War II. In the Pentagon, the Army and Navy were unable to agree on their annual budgets, even as war raged on the Korean Peninsula. In the Senate, a significant isolationist faction not only opposed the creation of NATO but also wanted to block plans to keep any U.S. troops overseas in peacetime unless specifically authorized by Congress. In Europe, the Cold War was in its opening chapter between East and West, while France and Germany were at odds over the terms of NATO membership.

Nevertheless, President Truman, his Secretary of State Dean Acheson, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, their bipartisan successors, and the NATO partners managed to eschew these divisions and form a lasting coalition. NATO has since responded to regional and global need through peacekeeping, humanitarianism, deterrence, counter-terrorism, and resiliency. Under the leadership of the United States, NATO supported a healthy German democracy that eventually unified the country; managed the pressures of the Cold War; resisted genocide in the Balkans; supported silent revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia; engaged Afghanistan twice; deployed forces to the Middle East; helped create the conditions for President Reagan’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and witnessed the peaceful end of the Soviet era. The end of the Cold War pushed NATO in new directions, including the Partnership for Peace, led by then-Supreme Allied Commander John Shalikashvili, that moved NATO members to include Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic among their ranks. In the 1990s, NATO exercised a historic peacekeeping mission in the Balkans and continues to contribute troops to the current mission in Afghanistan.

This is not to say that NATO has not had significant issues. In addition to vast financial burdens, the organization has faced growing security threats that have sometimes weakened its credibility. NATO is, by design, limited in its enforcement capabilities and dependent on member states to provide troops for collective security. There have been constant discussions of improvement: debates regarding member investment, organizational capabilities (or the lack thereof), and burden-sharing.

As the world has changed, NATO has remained a stalwart institution. But member nations must work together to help NATO evolve to match a new series of regional and global developments that will test its leadership and vision. Information technologies now link a global community and provide for the exchange of knowledge and ideas in ways previously only imagined. These technologies share dreams of progress and hope but also spread the darker thoughts of prejudice and fear.

In order to effectively address the state of the world today, NATO’s new tasks must include:

  1. Developing a solution for burden-sharing and investment in national security. In 2014, NATO countries pledged to reach a 2 percent of GDP goal for security investment, yet in 2016, only 5 out of the 28 members of NATO met this target. A simple formula may not be realistic for all member countries, but countries must recognize that sharing the burden of security has given the West a center of collective gravity on security policy.
  2. Updating the alliance with an integrated approach to fighting terrorism. In the effort to defeat Al Qaeda, NATO supported U.S. efforts in Afghanistan at the beginning of the war. In fact, NATO’s largest military operation was launched in Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001. Since then, it has continued its support as regional strategies shift to defeat the Islamic State. The next step, however, will require building further collaboration of multiple law enforcement agencies against the lone wolf threat and strategies that protect citizens and liberties.
  3. Working with Russia where engagement is possible while maintaining support for a healthy democracy and independence throughout the West when required. In the words of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) at the Munich Security Conference in February 2017, we must help Western values “endure” and “refuse to accept the demise of our world order.”

Following President Trump’s visit to the Middle East, he will attend the NATO and G-7 meetings. The organizations will gather together in a new global context: one of economic populism that is tied to dissatisfaction with a global economy that produces wealth for some without creating the work that builds a dynamic prosperity for its citizens. The rise of U.S. nationalism and retreat from global trade is only one example of the profound effects that economic instability can have. But breaking off to go it alone is not the answer; in a world more interconnected by the day, the United States follows isolationist tendencies at its own peril.

The Truman and Eisenhower legacy remains a solid basis for the 45th president to carry forward as he heads to Europe and the NATO summit. The world will watch and measure America’s engagement in a new era. President Trump would do well to invest his energy in supporting the organization’s transition to adopt 21st century capabilities, sharing the burden, dealing with terrorism and cyber security issues, and standing up to Russian aggression with unity. At the same time, NATO members must also reflect on their contributions to the organization in order to ensure that all remain equally engaged and committed to its success.

Rudy deLeon is a senior fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Stefanie Merchant is a special assistant at the Center.