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NATO in the 21st Century and the Challenges of Moving Forward

NATO in the 21st Century and the Challenges of Moving Forward

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By John Ubaldi
Columnist, In Homeland Security

President Donald Trump’s repeated statements about NATO member nations not fulfilling their defense obligation and expecting the U.S. to shoulder most of the financial burden has placed the alliance’s unity into question.

In early December, President Trump traveled to Europe to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the world’s most successful military alliance, but quarrels among member nations and Trump’s statements have left observers wondering about NATO’s future direction .

NATO Has Been the Linchpin of US-European Military Cooperation Since World War II

After being founded to be the bulwark against Soviet aggression in the aftermath of World War II, NATO has been the linchpin of U.S.-European military cooperation ever since. In fact, the alliance has expanded eastward, by taking on variety of roles and missions, such as conducting combat operations outside its normal operational sphere such as in Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia for example.

With the alliance turning 70 this year, new challenges have emerged. Foremost among them is a reinvigorated Russia, which has conducted combat operation in Georgia, Crimea and in Ukraine, in addition to meddling in the internal affairs of NATO members.

In the past few years we have witnessed various quarrels between NATO member countries, some initiated by the United States, many of them pre-date the Trump presidency.

The Quarrels with NATO Began in the Clinton Administration

An alliance quarrel over the direction NATO would take sprang up when then President Bill Clinton decided to expand NATO eastward. That was the beginning of the formal process of democratizing former Soviet bloc countries. This new direction was resisted by various U.S. officials who wanted to decouple the Pentagon’s commitment in Europe because they believed that the threat from Russia had faded considerably.

Our NATO allies in Europe were also dubious of this Clinton administration decision. Britain feared it would dilute the alliance while France believed that expanding the alliance would give NATO too much influence, but France’s overarching concern was not alienating Russia.

Russia Viewed NATO Expansion Eastward with Great Concern

Russia viewed NATO’s eastward expansion with great concern. The Kremlin viewed the U.S. move as a broken promise by the West, especially by the George H.W. Bush administration in 1990 and other Western countries. They had assured Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev the alliance wouldn’t expand eastward if Russia agreed to a unified Germany.

The U.S. and Western leaders dispute this claim. There are no official records of the meetings that show this agreement took place. Nevertheless, Russia still believes the West, especially the United States, took advantage of Russian weakness.

Many defense analysts believed that the Soviet Union’s disillusionment was the right time for NATO to move beyond the concept of collective defense as set out in the NATO charter. Article Five of the NATO Treaty states that “an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Instead, NATO critics preferred that the alliance should focus on the various crises outside its original operational sphere.

Then-Senator Richard Lugar (R–IN) stated in a 1993 speech: “The common denominator of all the new security problems in Europe is that they all lie beyond NATO’s current borders.”

Conflicts in the Balkans, the War on Terror, security assistance to Afghanistan and the removal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi challenged the alliance as never before. NATO’s original mission expanded from protecting against Russian aggression in Western Europe to dealing with conflicts beyond the European continent.

NATO Members Reluctant to Pay Their Fair Share for Defense

Current debates have centered on the reluctance of various member countries to pay the agreed upon 2% of their defense budgets for NATO operations. Only eight of the 29 members have met their defense obligations: Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Trump is not the first president to chastise NATO members for not contributing to their own defense and relying on the U.S. defense umbrella. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, President Obama complained about Europe’s contribution: “Free riders aggravate me. …Recently, [he] warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a ‘special relationship’ with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. ‘You have to pay your fair share.’”

In his last address before NATO, Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated in 2011: “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

The NATO alliance faces serious disagreement over the requisite funding of member nations and what strategic direction NATO takes in the 21st century. This would be a great question to ask the various Democratic challengers for president in the upcoming Democratic debate Thursday in Los Angeles.

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