Does NATO Have a Future?    – Foreign Policy gnewsplus24

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. Welcome to NATO summit week in Washington! The alliance’s leaders are here to celebrate its 75th anniversary, bringing lots of Europeans—and lots of extra traffic—to D.C., along with the incoming head of the alliance, former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who will be making his first official appearance.

This summit will be celebratory, with leaders singing the alliance’s praises. But I have to wonder if it isn’t the last time we’ll have a big birthday party for NATO. The question of what the future holds in store for NATO remains open: Donald Trump, U.S. defense budget constraints, the rise of China—it’s not at all clear that the United States will remain committed to NATO for the long term.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! It is a big week indeed. The Atlantic Council is honored to have been selected by NATO as an official think tank partner for the NATO Public Forum, which will take place alongside the leaders’ summit.

Before we debate NATO’s future, I think it is helpful to look back at what NATO has accomplished over the past 75 years. It won the Cold War and expanded the zone of peace and prosperity in the trans-Atlantic space to include more than 30 countries and nearly half of global GDP.

There is a reason why it is often considered the most successful military alliance in history.

EA: I thought Ronald Reagan won the Cold War?

MK: Reagan dealt the final knockout blow, but the United States and NATO put him in good position by containing and outcompeting the Soviet Union for a half-century first.

EA: Look, I won’t deny that NATO has had some significant successes. It was extremely effective in bringing together European states and keeping the United States invested in European security in the face of the Soviet threat. But that threat disappeared 30 years ago. NATO’s history since then has been a lot less successful.

We’ve got NATO expansion, which had pros (helping to integrate Eastern European states into Western Europe politically and economically) and cons (antagonizing Russia and potentially contributing to wars in Georgia and Ukraine). There was NATO’s brief flirtation with questionable out-of-area missions, most notably in Libya, Afghanistan, and the first such mission in the Balkans. And there’s the clear slide toward making the United States entirely responsible for the security of 30-odd countries in Europe, even more so than at the peak of the Cold War.

NATO, to my mind, is an organization that has lost its way. No wonder the summit is expected to talk about crazy things like tying NATO into the Indo-Pacific.

MK: Far from crazy, NATO is rightfully taking more of an interest in the Indo-Pacific, given the global nature of the China challenge and given that democratic allies in that region, such as the Indo-Pacific 4 (Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand), are helping NATO to counter Russian aggression.

Moreover, NATO has a new sense of purpose, and it is coming back to its roots with the renewed Russian threat to Europe. At this summit, it will make progress in implementing the new family of regional plans—essentially NATO’s first serious defense plans since the end of the Cold War.

Allies are also stepping up their contributions to the alliance, with 23 of the 32 allies expected to hit their 2 percent defense spending target this year. It is still not enough, but the trend lines are in the right direction.

EA: I’d argue that the fact that NATO is only now presenting its first serious defense plans since the end of the Cold War is a staggering indictment of policymakers over the last three decades, who often made decisions about the alliance without even thinking through the defense implications. Did you know that NATO expanded into the Baltic states in 2004, but didn’t start making contingency plans for how to defend them until 2008? Policymakers treated the alliance like a way to do social engineering in Europe over the last 30 years—no wonder it is struggling to provide a viable and sustainable path to European defense.

MK: Well, if we want to look back again, you are right that there was no real plan to defend NATO’s Eastern flank. But to be fair, as late as 2010, the U.S. National Security Strategy described Russia only as a partner for cooperation and never as a potential threat. The security environment has changed greatly in the past 15 years.

I would repeat that NATO expansion has been a success and certainly has been good for the new NATO members. Estonia’s GDP, for example, is 10 times larger than what it was at the end of the Cold War.

And I disagree that expansion provoked Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin would have wanted to reconquer Ukraine with or without NATO expansion. In fact, he probably would have done it sooner without NATO expansion. The only threat NATO poses is to his imperial ambitions.

But turning back to the present and future, I assume you would agree that it is good that the alliance is now adopting serious defense plans even if it is too late in your view.

NATO is also expected to announce new measures to help Ukraine win the war and the peace that follows, including with plans for a “bridge” to NATO membership.

EA: “A Bridge to NATO” sounds like a terrible Hallmark Christmas movie, featuring a 30-something American woman experiencing her first European Christmas.

Seriously, though, the idea of a bridge to NATO is yet another half-measure to cover the fact that alliance members are ambivalent about Ukrainian membership. In fact, a recent poll from the European Council on Foreign Relations suggests that a majority of citizens in European states actually view Ukraine’s membership in NATO as a potential bargaining chip with Russia rather than something that is inevitable.

I think they’re right: It’s an obvious bargaining chip that would be foolish to simply take off the table, yet policymakers are so unwilling to question the notion of NATO’s “open door” that they can’t think strategically about it.

Do you really think that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the next decade?

MK: A decade is a long time in international politics. NATO members already agreed at the 2008 Bucharest summit that Ukraine would join the alliance one day. This promise was repeated at the Vilnius summit last year with the tautological addendum that it would join “when Allies agree and conditions are met.”

You are right that this is a divisive issue in the alliance now. Many Nordic and Baltic countries favor a near-term invitation to NATO membership. The United States and Germany are among the more cautious members because they fear that inviting a country in active conflict to join would essentially be a declaration of war against Russia. But once the current bout of fighting dies down, as it inevitably will, I think there is a real path, or “bridge,” to NATO. And the planned bridge includes helping Ukraine to do the things it would need to do to eventually join, such as improving military interoperability with NATO countries and opening a new NATO office in Kyiv.

EA: That is so typical of the NATO bureaucracy. There’s a genuine prospect that the next U.S. president will pull back U.S. forces in an attempt to make the alliance a more genuine partnership of equals in which European states pull their weight—yet Brussels is prioritizing opening a new office in Kyiv.

To be clear, I think NATO does have a future. But that future is as a much more European alliance, one in which the United States is mostly hands off and European states provide for their own defense. The strongest voice for European sovereignty and defense is undoubtedly French President Emmanuel Macron, although his attention is probably now focused on domestic politics after the French snap elections left him with a hung parliament. He may not be as strong on this issue as usual, and if he is forced to work with a far-right parliamentary bloc, he will find it more difficult to “Europeanize” French foreign policy.

But it’s not just the French who want a more European NATO. Did you know that 82 percent of Americans want Europe to be primarily or solely responsible for its own defense? It’s over 90 percent among Germans and Britons. But that’s not what I expect to hear from this summit.

MK: Did you know that 36 percent of Americans believe in ghosts? Leaders don’t set foreign policy based on polling data. And if some 90 percent of Germans want to lead on defense, then they should start spending like it.

I agree that Europeans need to spend much more on defense. Indeed, I have heard credible estimates that providing the capabilities for the new regional plans will require all allies to spend more like 3.6 percent of GDP on defense.

But NATO won’t work without U.S. leadership. So, yes, European (and Canadian!) allies need to do more—but alongside the United States, not instead of it.

EA: The only thing Europe is being haunted by is the ghost of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who still can’t figure out why U.S. troops are in Europe 70 years after he first wanted to withdraw them!

I think you have too little faith in Europeans. There are a variety of ways European states could respond to American retrenchment, some good and some bad. But the idea that there is no alternative to U.S. leadership in Europe is just wrong.

If NATO is going to survive until its 100th anniversary, then it needs to become an alliance of equals, with Europeans providing defense for their own continent, freeing up the United States to worry about the Indo-Pacific.

MK: Who can lead NATO if not the United States? Eastern flank countries don’t want to be led by France or Germany. No other country has both the hard and soft power to do it.

Rather than dividing Europe and Asia, the United States should lead in both, Europe and Canada should do much more for the defense of Europe, and NATO should help out with Indo-Pacific challenges.

EA: Well, here’s a final statistic for you: Only 6 percent of Western Europeans think the United States is a very reliable guarantor of European security. It’s unlikely that the United States is going to be able to do everything in coming decades. The sooner Washington acknowledges that and plans for it, the better the outcomes will be.

Of course, we won’t hear that at the NATO summit; leaders will be too busy celebrating.

MK: Do you think we’ll get to see Joe Biden pop out of a giant birthday cake?

EA: Only if it’s during his regular work hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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