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NATO’s Troubles Are Not Going Away After Trump


Last Thursday, Joe Biden tweeted an ad saying that the world is laughing at President Trump. What he failed to mention is why someone from Kansas or Indiana would care if a Frenchman or a Canadian laughs at the American president, when those countries massively benefit from the generous security burden Americans bear.

Yes, Trump lacks what is called a message discipline. His diplomatic sensibilities and historical restraint are as deep as a real estate guy from New York is expected to have. But that is beside the point.

In fact, the optics of Canada’s Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte guffawing symbolize current Euro-Atlantic relations. It reminded me of that scene of the French emperor smirking at John Adams’ lack of sophistication in the television series. The sophisticates like mocking the uncouth, even now, in this changed world, when the uncouth pay for the security of the sophisticates.

Nevertheless, in real terms, the percentage gross domestic product contribution in defense by Canada and Netherlands are 1.27 percent and 1.35 percent, respectively, and are unlikely to increase to the requisite 2 percent ostensibly required of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members anytime in the near future.

That, my friends, was the crux of the rift that started it all, and the recent NATO summit in London was no different. The outcome was typical: a measured response to hide a fractured alliance, and a renewed struggle to find a purpose. What was evident from the recent summit was that these differences are here to stay. There are two differing factions emerging within, and the internal dynamic will determine the future of NATO.

The first faction is the home countries, Britain and the United States, the two foundational members of NATO, and the two major powers that are showing major retrenchment tendencies. Both are maritime great powers, and their interests are primarily in trading across the world. Historically, Britain was only minimally attached to continental Europe, only interfering when necessary, just like America, but those ideas changed since 1945, when peace in Europe was institutionalized by having the superpower have a permanent presence.

This was an important event, as it also institutionalized American hegemony in Western Europe, which was a design, and not just a flaw. The idea was simple. Even though people don’t like talking in imperial and balance of power terms, the logic behind this move was old-fashioned realpolitik.

America, the ultimate guarantor of peace, would enjoy ultimate authority, the proverbial power to bring down the hammer if needed, as a first among equals in a continent that would essentially be a permanent fiefdom under Washington. Preventing outright hegemony in Europe was an old British, and subsequently American, grand strategy.

If all of Europe were dominated by one single great power, then, if not militarily, at least economically they would be a peer competitor, and could throw their weight behind rival powers (i.e., China). That is an impossible scenario to perceive, so the structure would be designed in such a way that that situation never becomes possible.

The reason Euro muscle atrophied is that Uncle Sam will always be there to break the glass. Even now, the majority of rotating patrolling forces in East Europe, over the Baltics, and in the Mediterranean are from either the United States or Great Britain. This is a paradox.

The second faction is old Europe, led by France and Germany. It baffles me when historically challenged people think Euro-Atlantic security is at its worst under Trump. Only those who don’t remember the French and German opposition to the Iraq invasion can blindly claim that.

That’s because, for old Europe, the reason to exist as a coherent unit has disappeared. Make no mistake, there are still tall claims about the robust health of NATO and the alliance, and all that, but underneath it is a hollow husk.

There are two reasons for that. The vision of France and some other Western Euro powers are for NATO as a defense alliance. What are the main threats facing France, or Luxembourg, or the Netherlands? It is not thousands of Russian T-90s rushing through the Belgian meadows. It is Islamic terrorism and human trafficking in the Mediterranean. Added to that, the majority of Western Euros do not want to go to war for another country, even for allies, especially when there is no end to NATO and European Union enlargement.

The French idea is therefore to immediately stop all expansion, and consolidate and preserve what’s already there. There’s no reason to add Macedonia or Montenegro to NATO, just as there’s no reason to add Mozambique or Mongolia, because when push will come to shove, there won’t be a Western cavalry over the hill. That’s something the Georgians and Ukrainians are realizing every single day.

This French vision is at odds with the primary driver of Europe: Germany. Germany, despite all the opprobrium it invites, is the most successful state in Europe, simply because of a careful buck-passing strategy that has seen the frontiers move further east, the threat from Russia recede with EU enlargement and buffer states in between, and the economy improve, all with the security burden being borne by idealist Brits and Yanks.

For all their lofty lectures, the Germans still practice Bismarckian realism. Why on earth would Germans want to spend a single dollar extra when they can lecture the Anglo-Americans sanctimoniously on subsidizing green energy and social security? The Germans naturally not only want to continue their inexorable march eastward under the EU flag, they also want an EU army alongside a NATO, to subsidize their security further.

In the long term, this is unsustainable, with or without Trump and Brexit. The original purpose of NATO was, in Lord Ismay’s timeless words, to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out. In reality, it is the Russians down, the Germans in charge of expansion, and the British and Americans on their way out, at least rhetorically.

But, per the laws of geopolitics, with greater NATO and EU expansion comes greater dilution, and a diluted institution is as good as dead, as there will never ever be a sense of internal cohesion.

International relations theorists did not just come up with these assumptions on a whiskey-induced afternoon siesta. The logic behind alliance formation and alliance atrophy is simple. No one likes to go to war for another, unless one’s own interests and future livelihood are also threatened, or unless one feels a certain special kinship and cultural affiliation. Neither of those two factors will be there in the future with a bloated, bureaucratic, ever-expanding entity.

There is a reason political blocs and spheres of influences organically develop. Thus global governance under ever-expanding institutions and alliances will be a utopian dream, bound to be paralyzed by reality.