NATO’s Make-or-Break Moment

NATO Dragoon Ride 2016 Latvia, cc Flickr Kārlis Dambrāns, modified,

The recent meeting and subsequent signing of the Treaty of Aachen by President Macron and Chancellor Merkel is indicative of a growing rift within the Western collective defense system, as if the political fracturing was not enough. In their meeting, the two leaders gave further steam to the idea of establishing an EU army, which in the words of President Macron would defend the Old Continent, “with respect to China, Russia, and even the United States of America.”

This development comes at a time when the West is gearing up to mark the 70th anniversary since the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO – one of the most enduring, cohesive, and sophisticated collective defense formations in history. With the original intent to serve as a bulwark against the threat of communism, the core national interests of some NATO members began shifting with the dissipating threat emanating from the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived the member states of their overarching uniting purpose. Since the early 1990s, NATO’s mission evolved beyond military cooperation, taking on a new set of responsibilities including upholding human rights, democracy, and freedom globally. Ironically, this newfound noble quest has become a double-edged sword as it has ensured the continuity of the alliance, but in the meantime has not proven to be strong enough of an incentive to keep the organization bound.

Trends like the rise of illiberal democratic governments in some central and eastern European states, the reluctance of wealthy members to meet their own NATO defense spending obligations, lukewarm support from some capitals for NATO missions, as well as Turkey’s flirtation with Russia and China reflect cracks in the alliance that have long been overlooked. In light of these developments, the earlier hopes for NATO’s complete transformation into a fully-fledged security organization seem to be evaporating.

History has demonstrated the impermanent nature of classical military alliances. The international system is dynamic and ever-evolving, forcing states to constantly adapt to new geopolitical and domestic realities. It is only natural and expected that over time NATO, similar to all other military alliances, would come under stress due to this fact. In addition, the 141% increase in membership over the past seven decades has further complicated the consensus-forming mechanism within NATO. One just needs to ask how long it would take the alliance to mobilize and respond in the case of a surprise external attack, especially against a smaller member of the pact. This in fact is NATO’s “make-or-break” moment, where the alliance would need to find a new internal consensus to stay relevant and unified. This new consensus, among other topics, would include crystalizing the organization’s purpose, ensuring a more equitable burden sharing, undertaking some structural reorganization, and (re)committing to shared values and ideals.

The alliance should draw lessons from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), NATO’s Asian analog. Despite its structural weaknesses and cultural differences, SEATO was called on to essentially carry out the same security obligations in Asia, by halting Soviet and Chinese advancements. Granted, SEATO did not have its own military force and the member states were eventually consumed by internal insurgencies. Nevertheless, it was the failure of member states to achieve a consensus and uphold their common purpose that led to the organization’s demise. France and Pakistan grew increasingly disenchanted with America’s intervention in Vietnam, resulting in both withdrawing from SEATO. The organization as a whole ceased to exist in 1977, and it is essentially the US-Japan bilateral treaty that has assumed the role of “Asian NATO” in the Pacific ever since.

The establishment of an EU army and/or NATO’s waning could repeat the SEATO scenario, in which the United States would embark on formalizing bilateral security commitments with willing parties instead; a process that has arguably already begun. In particular, Poland and Romania stand out  with their eagerness to forge closer military ties with the U.S.

As the driving force behind NATO, the United States has singlehandedly kept the alliance afloat. Despite the overall support for the pact from both Washington and the U.S. public-at-large, recent years have witnessed a growing backlash against the U.S. issuing blank checks. Economic shifts within the United States have contributed to this sentiment, making it more politically costly for the political establishment to justify this practice. The Europe of today is incomparably better off than when NATO was founded. As such, calls from Washington for more contributions are not only warranted, but can be expected to intensify over time. President Trump has received a lot of heat for his harsh and blunt rhetoric towards NATO and allies, but his words are the symptom and not the cause of the crisis. The United States having bankrolled the organization since its creation is now looking for a more equitable participation from allies. In short, for this military alliance to remain, Europeans need to roll up their sleeves.

Conversely, European countries seem to have grown tired of America’s demands and wish to drift off on their own. Never mind the financial, logistical, and organizational challenges of an undertaking of such magnitude. Instead of starting from scratch and exerting immense financial and other resources into creating a so-called EU army, a simpler solution has always been on the table. That is: beefing up the already-existing NATO, which has a rich record of joint military operations and structural foundations propped up by American military prowess. Rather than European capitals complaining over Washington’s heavy involvement in driving NATO’s internal conversations, they would be better served in increasing their own voices, partially to be achieved through a fair and more reasonable support for the alliance.

Notwithstanding NATO’s record – especially in regard to deterring armed aggression and developing military capacity – the European response to American criticism is borderline childish. A healthier and more pragmatic response would be increasing defense budgets under the auspices of NATO, not only to satisfy U.S. requests, but also gain a stronger voice within the organization. Instead, the Franco-German plan is to walk away from previous arrangements in exchange for unrealistic aspirations, at least in the short-term. Although not a new idea, the EU army concept has been gaining more support in recent years. The fact that the idea has been welcomed by the Russian President Putin and condemned by senior NATO officials is telling enough.

This being said, a few questions arise:

  • What happens to NATO if the EU army idea comes to fruition? Keeping NATO as a parallel organization would mean duplication of effort and immense waste of resources. Disbanding NATO would be even more devastating for the global security architecture.
  • Would a separate military bloc exacerbate the already evident fragmentation within trans-Atlantic and trans-European relations?
  • Given the bureaucratic nightmare of EU governance, how viable and legitimate would Brussels be in commanding a continental army? The refugee crisis exposed the incoherence in addressing this humanitarian tragedy. How confident are European leaders that they will be able to come up with a solution in times of serious military crisis?
  • What would be the fate of EU member states who have an official neutral policy as well as NATO members that are not in the EU? Would EU neutral states get a deal similar to UK’s ‘rebate’ where they get to opt-out from the security mechanism and free-ride at the expense of the rest?

These are just a few serious hurdles that the European Union would have to tackle within its bureaucratic labyrinth. For over a century, the United States has demonstrated time and again its resolute commitment to defend the continent. In fact, Europe would not be able to achieve this level of prosperity without the American security umbrella. Like most international agreements (e.g. NAFTA), NATO is destined to be renegotiated at some point. Perhaps now is the right time for allies committed to preserving the Western-led security arrangement to work in adapting NATO to modern realities and challenges quite different from those of the Cold War.


Armen V. Sahakyan is the executive director of the ERA Institute. Mr. Sahakyan holds M.A. degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University SAIS. His research interests include international political economy and Eurasian affairs.

Erik Khzmalyan is an M.A. candidate in Statecraft and National Security Affairs at the Institute of World Politics (IWP). Mr. Khzmalyan is a Senior Fellow at the ERA Institute. His research primarily focuses on U.S. national security and foreign policy.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect the official position of or any other institution.

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