by Steven Metz

July 27, 2018

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

U.S. President Donald Trump

at the end of the NATO summit

in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018.

Photo by Bernd von Jutrczenka

for DPA via AP Images

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that if elected, he might withdraw the United States from NATO largely because, in his words, the other member states "aren't paying their bills."


At the time, this didn't receive as much attention as Trump's other statements on the campaign trail.


Candidate Trump said so many peculiar, often offensive things that this one got lost in the shuffle, and few people at the time thought that he stood a chance of winning the election anyway.


Even his supporters assumed that if he did, he would temper his more extreme positions once he learned more about U.S. foreign and security policy.

Now, two years later, Trump as president continues to sow doubts about America's commitment to the Western alliance, reportedly joking about withdrawing from NATO with the leader of Sweden and later questioning the wisdom of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.


For Trump, the crux of the issue is the failure of many NATO members to move toward the goal of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense, which they have pledged to do by 2024.

Trump is not the first American president frustrated by the unwillingness of many NATO member states to increase their defense spending, but this issue is simply the most visible sign of deeper problems in the alliance.


While the idea of security cooperation among Western democracies remains as important now as it was when NATO was created in 1949, the organization's structure has not fundamentally changed since then, even though the strategic and political environments have shifted dramatically.


Over time, this ossification has become less and less tolerable.

What NATO needs now, then, is reimagining...


It is a time for big ideas, to debate how the community of Western democracies can equitably pursue their shared security goals in the 21st century's complex security environment.

To do so will require the best efforts of security experts and political leaders not just in the United States and Europe, but beyond.


It is impossible to predict with certainty where this reimagining of NATO might lead. But it is possible to identify several transformative ideas that should be considered.

One might be to flip NATO's basic configuration. When the alliance was created at the start of the Cold War, the United States was the world's dominant economy. It had by far the most powerful military in the West.


Under threat from Soviet military power, the allies saw a need to ensure that the United States remained involved in the defense of Western Europe and that Germany did not again threaten it.


Given these conditions, it was logical for the United States to lead the alliance as first among equals; a U.S. general has always been NATO's overall military commander.


In military parlance, America was the "supported" nation, and the other member states the "supporting" ones.

Over time,

even the best-designed organizations

reach a point where modest adaptations

and Band-Aid fixes

are no longer enough...

Today, this arrangement no longer makes sense.


The combined economic strength of NATO's European members is as great as America's. The United States has many security commitments outside Europe, particularly in the Middle East and across Asia.


The United States is still important to the security of Europe, but not to the extent it was during the Cold War. Trump, like ex-President Barack Obama before him, is right that Europe could shoulder more of the burden for its own defense.


Trump simply frames it more bluntly...

NATO should instead consider an arrangement in which the United States is the "supporting" rather than the "supported" nation, with the position of Supreme Allied Commander finally shifting to a European general. America could be Europe's backstop rather than its primary defender.


Might Americans even ultimately consider a NATO in which the United States is formally affiliated, but not a full member?

Another transformative idea might be to move beyond the geographic limitations of a Western alliance and build a global community of democracies to cooperate on security.


This would reflect the idea that free market democracies share overarching strategic objectives and face similar security threats, whether,

  • the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction

  • the conventional military power of revisionist nations

  • cyberattacks

  • the nexus of transnational crime and extremism

Rather than reorganize NATO, then, it might be better to use it as the foundation for something bigger and more comprehensive, reflecting the idea that security today is global, not regional.


The unifying factor in such a new organization would be a commitment to democracy, not geographic location.

A third big idea might be to rewrite the NATO treaty and drop Article 5, which enshrines the alliance's commitment to collective defense.


Trump has suggested that Article 5 could lead NATO's smaller nations to be more provocative toward nations outside the alliance than they otherwise would be, knowing that if they miscalculate, the United States and NATO's other major powers - Britain, France, Germany - would bail them out.


He may be right. Rather than weakening NATO, abandoning Article 5 might make for a more flexible and prudent alliance.

Of course, like all transformative ideas, each of these has risks and requires analysis and rigorous debate. While other big ideas should be on the table, the need for deep changes in the Western alliance is pressing.


NATO's underlying assumptions - that because democracies share values, they also share security objectives, and that they are stronger promoting these together than individually - remain valid.


But even though NATO has served the United States and its allies well for decades, so much has changed in the world that the alliance has to change, too.


Over time, even the best-designed organizations reach a point where modest adaptations and Band-Aid fixes are no longer enough.


The sooner that reimagining starts, the better.