Trump rattles sacred cows as a matter of habit; whether it’s purposeful or prompted by sheer ignorance depends on the occasion. One shibboleth even his own Vice President won’t let him get away with shaking too hard is NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is as firmly entrenched and established a global institution as they come. To threaten it is, for many, to threaten the entire global order as it stands.
But viewing the organization as so sacrosanct it’s impervious to criticism, even if it comes from the Big Mac sauce stained hands of President Cheeto, is patently absurd. Trump’s claims may be hollow, ignorant, Putin-approved, valid, invalid or something in between all those options. To say we shouldn’t constantly be asking questions of our most ostensibly venerable institutions, however, is ridiculous. If NATO can’t survive the burden of rational criticism or ethical evaluation, then it’s not worth keeping around in its current incarnation or maybe even at all. In the meantime, suggested revisions to the organization do not mean a rejection of its stated goals.
So what are those stated goals? They certainly have changed a lot since the alliance network was founded in 1949. After World War II, two things were becoming apparent to most Western countries: they didn’t want to wind up fighting each other again and they definitely didn’t want to end up defeated by the increasingly powerful Soviet Union. The Allied powers made nice with Italy by the initial formation of the organization and West Germany got in on the new framework by 1955.
After Stalin died, the USSR actually asked if they could join NATO in 1954. To understate, it was awkward. Their argument revolved around the Germans being the real problem. After all, it wasn’t like Nazism just disappeared overnight and we’d been buddies during the fight against Hitler, right? Don’t forget Uncle Joe! Shouldn’t Russia and the US should reunite West and East Germany and keep a close eye on them together? Shouldn’t we team up with Putin to fight ISIS? But I digress. Ultimately, the Secretary General of NATO at the time, Baron Ismay, refused because “the Soviet request to join NATO [was] like an unrepentant burglar requesting to join the police force.” After which the Russians formed the Warsaw Pact with a variety of Eastern powers and the Cold War entered its full-swing phase.
Up until the Cold War’s end, NATO’s purpose was pretty clear: if the Communists try to make any of us Communists, we’ll all get together to knock the crap out of them. Preventive measures were taken as well: nuclear weapons were disseminated to western Europe, fingers were wagged when Russians went into Afghanistan, etc. But that was about as bad as it ever got. The war stayed cold and NATO never really had to make good on its promises to make the world safe for democracy.
This is perhaps the organization’s central irony: it didn’t really become active until after its initial goal had been achieved. The USSR crumbled, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the wall came down on the West’s terms. And then everything got really messy.
In 1990, the US either deliberately double-crossed the dissolving USSR, the Russians concocted a lie they’ve now been using to justify aggression in Eastern Europe for decades after or both parties were privy to one of our current epoch’s defining miscommunications. The subject was NATO expansion into former Soviet territory. Mikhail Gorbachev, James Matlock (then US ambassador to Moscow) and Hans-Dietrich Genscher (the German foreign minister present at these talks) all say Russia was promised NATO would not expand eastward. The same year, Manfred Woerner, then Secretary General of NATO, said publicly, “The fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.”
James Baker, the Secretary of State at the time, contends this is all a fabrication and so has every president from Bush I through Obama. NATO issued a statement in 2014 saying “no such pledge was made, and no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced.” The information on all this is muddy and there are far better sources than this article to help you wade through the mire of intrigue on this issue. What we know for an absolute fact is whatever was said at those meetings was informal, no agreement about NATO’s allowing for or prohibiting expansion into eastern European countries was set down officially.
Regardless, expansion, aggression and military action soon became the norm for NATO. The organization’s forces only began engaging in combat after these initial talks in 1990. After NATO joined in with controversial Clinton-era interventionism in Bosnia and Kosovo, Article 5 of the NATO charter was invoked for the first time after 9/11. It reads as follows:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
It’s easy to see how the verbiage here required all members of NATO to respond to 9/11. Whether or not a direct invasion of Afghanistan was the most effective manner of retaliating against such an attack is a question for another time. The terms of the agreement as per this article meant NATO forces were required to respond to the 9/11 attacks. Still, one has to wonder what would’ve happened if, say, France or Germany decided to invade Tunisia after it became known the terrorist truck drivers responsible for dozens of deaths in their native lands were Tunisian. Would the US have followed them into combat then too? If terrorist attacks by Saudi Arabians can lead the Western world to invade Afghanistan, we’re already operating on the grounds of pretty flimsy pretexts for war.
After this first deployment, the justifications for future action stopped being covered by Article 5. The US-led invasion of Iraq fractured the alliance because it wasn’t based around the certainty of attack but conjecture about possible danger. France and Germany, for instance, were no more required under NATO terms to enter this conflict than the UK.
Perhaps the most starkly unjustifiable moment in NATO’s history was the 2011 operation in Libya. As tensions rose in the country between Gaddafi and various protesters, the UN decided someone would need to impose a no-fly zone over the region. NATO decided to volunteer their services. This ultimately led to the deposition and fall of Gaddafi and further Middle Eastern destabilization. Justifying this particular action requires a radical redefinition of NATO’s initial charter.
The US population’s support of NATO is sitting just under 50% these days. Maybe that’s because the alliance continues restructuring itself to be more and more hands-on despite the adverse effects such policies are having on global stability. The organization started out as a purely defensive one and only began flexing an offensive arm after its initial goals were achieved.
If NATO wants to remain relevant, it’s going to need to clarify what kind of network it intends to be. When the organization was formed, it had a cohesive vision and praxis: stop the Soviets from expanding and don’t bully each other. Now it’s mired by inconsistencies: member states didn’t all intervene in Iraq but did in Libya despite the latter being even harder to justify than the former, only five of the 28 NATO countries contributed 2% of GDP toward defense and there is hardly a consistent viewpoint among all the members about how to deal with Soviet-sized issues like terrorism, a reenergized Russia under Putin, climate change and the like.
Trump’s still off-base on a lot. Calling the organization obsolete may be kind of on the mark but it’s too devoid of nuance to be taken seriously. His tweets suggesting Germany owes the US money are also baseless. There’s no backpay and the “2% of GDP toward defense” thing is more gentlemen’s agreement than codified law; NATO seems to have a bad track record with those sorts of things.
But just because Trump is being, well, Trump doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious issues with NATO in need of rectification. Tension-roiling expansion into historically Soviet territories, preemptive interventionism in the Middle East and a lack of consistent or compelling purpose are making it harder to justify the alliance’s efficacy and relevance. This organization isn’t immune to criticism but it sure is acting like it. If even Donald Trump is kind of right about you needing a tune-up, it’s time to take a deep breath and ask how the hell things got so off track.