To Be or Not to Be? The Existential Crisis of NATO

“NATO has not treated us fairly but I think we will work something out. We pay far too much and they pay far too little”, Donald Trump told Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor during the 2018 Brussels Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The US President has never shied away from scorning NATO with the argument that the alliance members’ lack of defence spending comes at the US’ expense. Right from the days of his Presidential campaigns in 2016, he has been questioning the need for the presence of NATO. These scathing remarks included “And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO”. Another point forwarded by many who subscribe to Trump’s idea of NATO becoming “obsolete” is that it is no longer fit for purpose. They believe that since NATO was founded to combat the Soviet Union’s expansionist policy during the Cold War, its relevance has subsided with the principal adversary’s disintegration in 1991. While the ones in favour of its existence extend arguments which include advancing the idea of collective defence, increase in the extent of Russian power in Europe, extreme regionalisation of security, and loosening of defence relationships between the US and its European allies. To consider both sides of the argument, it is important to trace the origin of this military alliance.

The History of NATO

The NATO was founded in 1949 with a total of 30 members. The members include nations from North America (Canada and the United States) and 28 of the European countries. Its military nature is profoundly indicated by Article 5 of the treaty which states that in the occurrence of an attack against any one of the member states, it shall be understood to have been an attack against all members. This ensures the assistance of all the other member nations against the common adversary.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) formed what was known as the Warsaw Pact in 1955 that included the Eastern Bloc Socialist Republics of Central and Eastern Europe. It was a collective defence treaty created as a reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO. After the end of the Cold War and consequent nullification of the Warsaw Pact, NATO added 14 more member nations – 10 of them included in the Warsaw Pact and 4 former Yugoslav Republics. Some of the important operations undertaken by NATO include the defence of Denmark and Norway during September 1952, Exercise Longstep in the Mediterranean sea, Exercise Campaign Reforger which was an annual exercise by NATO states during the Cold War, and Exercise Strikeback which was a naval exercise that took place over a ten-day period in September 1957. The Northern Wedding had been another significant naval military exercise aimed at examining NATOs ability to reinforce Europe militarily during the Cold War in 1978. The latest development arrived in the form of DEFENDER-Europe 20 which was a US-led multinational exercise which included NATO’s participation. Notably, it was the largest deployment of US-based forces to Europe in the last quarter of a century. It included the participation of 20,000 soldiers deployed directly from the US to Europe.

Casting Aspersions on NATO

The ascent of Donald Trump in US national politics birthed a characteristic nationalistic, isolationist tendency, popularly termed as the ‘America First Policy’. It has been manifested in his scathing takes on multilateral organisations which include the United Nations (UN), and more recently the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the background of the coronavirus pandemic. Thus it comes as no surprise that he had been a stringent opponent to the very fundamental notions that have contributed to the formation of NATO. The New York Times had reported that President Trump had on more than one occasion expressed desires to pull the US out of NATO. There are three primary reasons for his efforts to distance the US from this treaty - nearly 70% of the total spending on defence by NATO governments is accounted for by the US. In terms of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the US spent roughly 3.4% on defence in 2019, while the average in European NATO countries and Canada was 1.55%. Naturally, Trump considers NATO to be an extra drain upon the military budget. NATO is funded by a common funding arrangement determined by each country’s national income. NATO had stated that the civilian and military budget for 2019 was $1.84 billion, out of which the US was paying 22%, France and the UK paid around 10.5% and Germany about 14.76%. The other alliance members contributed for the rest. This had caused bilateral relations between the US and Germany to worsen, as Trump, while referring to the burden shouldered by the US criticised the Germans for being “delinquent” in their payment to NATO. Trump further stated that the US shall move 12,000 troops out of the country. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General had stated, “We have now agreed (on) a new formula for sharing costs. The US will pay less. Germany will pay more”.

The second problem lies in the fact that the US, being a global superpower, has military commitments around the world and is not restricted to the geographical area of Europe and North America.

Thirdly, the US deploys tens of thousands of active-duty personnel in Europe including in Turkey. The US diplomatic commitments in Europe also include a missile defence system run by NATO members. This is designed to shield against potential long-range ballistic missile attacks from outside the continent. Thus, the active presence of both men and arms is required on the part of the US. For the US President, all these factors are more of a display of magnanimity than a tool of diplomatic leverage.

However, it is important to note that a Chicago Council Survey in 2014 said that 78% of the American public supports NATO, 66% believed that the US commitment to NATO should remain as it is, as opposed to 7% supporting the possibility of a withdrawal. Thus the question of whether it is time to ring the death knell of NATO has its fair share of nay-sayers and aye-sayers.

Possible Consequences in a World without NATO

In the possible dissolution of the 71-year-old organisation, there will be a risk of Russian aggression. Many diplomats believe that had the post-Soviet Baltic nations which did not join NATO would have already been occupied by Russian expansionist aims. In the absence of NATO, mutual security interests such as combating ISIS and other global defence attempts emanating from coalition operations would be severely jeopardised. NATO’s retirement has the possibility to exacerbate divisions within Europe, especially in a post-Brexit, weakened European Union. The disappearance of NATO might make America’s Asian partners side with a rising China. Moreover, it will greatly strengthen the Russian Federation, which will reclaim the East European states which were formerly a part of the USSR. The clear political gainers would be Russia and China.

Thus the question remains: To be or not to be? Amer-Exit from NATO and the consequent dissolution of NATO? Or a fundamental rebuilding exercise is that shall salvage the organisation that has maintained relative stability in the trans-Atlantic region?


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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