Donald Trump deeply upset the Europeans when he raised the possibility that NATO is obsolete and that the European Union is failing.
But this isn’t the first time these issues have been discussed. I wrote about it last year, and the conversation has only continued.
What Trump has done is simply bring into the open the question of Europe’s relationship with the US.
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The missions and motives of NATO and the EU
NATO was an alliance with a single purpose: to protect Western Europe from a Soviet invasion.
The basic structure of NATO didn’t change when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It simply grew to include the former Soviet satellite states and the Baltic states.
The motive behind the expansion was to bring these countries into the framework of the Western defense system in order to give them confidence in their independence. And help support the development of democracies.
The motivation was roughly the same for expanding the EU. The bloc was primarily an economic union. Simply being an EU member was believed to enhance prosperity, so that even the economically weakest country would become strong after attaining membership.
The real goal was to expand the EU as far as possible. As with NATO, EU expansion had less to do with the EU’s primary mission than with political and ideological factors.
NATO is obsolete if it can’t support the US’ interests
The EU question is ultimately a European problem.
But NATO is an alliance. The US has important and legitimate interests. But there are questions.
First, with the Soviet Union gone, what is NATO’s purpose?
Second, how does NATO serve the American national interest?
Third, given that the EU has almost as large a GDP and almost 200 million more people than the US, why isn’t its collective contribution to NATO’s military larger than the US?
The automatic answer to the first question is fairly basic: NATO’s purpose is to guarantee its members’ security.
On the second question, it cannot be argued that NATO has served American interests since 1991.
It is true that NATO’s area of responsibility is focused on Europe. The US’ current wars are outside of this area. But from the American point of view, having an alliance with a region where large-scale warfare is unlikely makes little sense.
NATO must evolve with the needs of its members. If it can’t, it can be seen (as Trump put it) as obsolete.
This brings us to the third question, the size of the European force. A military alliance needs a military.
Many European countries, in times of wealth as well as constraint, have chosen not to create a force large enough to support American interests.
Even when NATO commits to fighting alongside the Americans, European capabilities limit their contribution. There is no automatic support from NATO. The countries that want to participate, fight with as much or as little as they choose to send.
This is their right as sovereign states. But this radically changes their relationships with the US. They would participate in a US-led war if it was in their self-interests.
Nations have the right and obligation to carry out their foreign and military policies as they wish. But an alliance holds nations to behave in a certain way given certain events.
Europeans must face two facts
First, the wars that matter to the US are being fought in the Islamic world. Second, Europe is not struggling to recover from World War II. Its military capabilities should be equal to those of the US.
NATO is obsolete if it defines its responsibility mainly to repel a Russian invasion. Especially since it refused to create a military force capable of doing that. It is obsolete in that it regards the US as the guarantor of Europe’s security when Europe is quite capable of incurring the cost of self-defense.
If European nations are free to follow their own interests, then so is the United States.
When we step back, we see a broader truth. First, the European Union is breaking. Europe is in no position to do unanimously supported NATO operations. For the Europeans, NATO is important because it means that, in the rare chance of a European war, the US must be there.
The United States wants to stop Russian hegemony over the European Peninsula. But the US can deal with that by placing limited forces in the Baltics, Poland, and Romania. The Europeans have devolved NATO into bilateral relations between the US and each NATO member. So, the United States can do the same. Also, the US can accept the status quo in Ukraine, written or unwritten. The US is not going to war in Ukraine. Russia is not going to war there either.
Trump’s approach to NATO has been forced on the US by the Europeans. NATO doesn’t work as an alliance. It is a group of sovereign nations that will respond to American requests as they see fit. The US knows this and at some point, someone was going to point out that NATO is obsolete.
The matter can be summed up the following way. What is the commitment of European countries to the United States? And what is the US commitment to Europe?
It is not clear that there is a geopolitical basis for this commitment any more. Interests have diverged. NATO is not suited to the realities of today.
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