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NATO: 70 Years On

“Hence, NATO should devise a strategy to address President Trump’s visions about the alliance in order to maintain (as much as possible) its stability.”

Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam Conferences were held among the leaders of the Soviet Union, United States and Great Britain, where the three Great Powers debated military and political questions ranging from the ongoing war against Nazi Germany to post-war provisions. The final agreements were vital to the coordination of strategies that led to the defeat of the Axis Powers. The agreements also reflected the military, economic and political priorities of each of the global leaders. On February 10, 1947, the Paris Peace Treaties were signed to establish the terms by which more minor Axis powers, such as Italy and Hungary, would re-integrate into a post-Nazi world. The Second World War was truly over. But what had seemed to be the beginning of a balanced and secure world was anything but.

After the destruction of the Second World War, the European countries struggled to rebuild their economies and national security. Because of this, the United States designed a program called the Marshall Plan to provide aid to Western Europe, which granted more than $15 billion dollars to help rebuild the fragile continent. Between 1947 and 1948, regional events caused the nations of Western Europe to become concerned about their security, resulting in the United States becoming more involved in their affairs. Nearby conflicts threatened the still-weakened countries, such as the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) during which Greek communists unsuccessfully led an army against the government to take control of the country. At the same time, tensions in Turkey increased as the Soviet Union pressured the Turkish government to allow free access through its straits connecting the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and the Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 established a communist government until 1989. 

To prevent Europe from negotiating with the Soviets to solve its security concerns, the Truman Administration proposed forming a European-American alliance that would commit the United States to bolstering the security of Western Europe. Thus, the bipolar world became more evident, leading to the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.

In this agreement twelve countries stated a key provision: the so-called Article 5 regarding collective defense, which asserts that, “an attack against an Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” That effectively put Western Europe under thenuclear umbrella,” and NATO became a central pillar of Euro-American military cooperation. Article 5 has only once been invoked, on September 12, 2001, following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.

Paradigm shift: the End of the Cold War

NATO has grown to an alliance of twenty-nine members, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, the Republic of North Macedonia, and Ukraine have declared their aspiration for membership. Although formed in response to the Cold War, the alliance has lasted beyond the end of that world order and remained the largest peacetime military alliance globally. Still new challenges take place in our current entropic context, where the rise of populism, economic crisis since 2008, new technological security affairs, and regional tensions are forcing the organization to evolve and reassess its procedures, relevance, and effectiveness. Donald Trump’s victory has called into question NATO’s purpose and function, defying an alliance that has long watched out for the security of its members. 

Before taking office, President Trump called  NATO “obsolete” and soon after a tumultuous summit in July 2018 questioned, “whether the United States would honor the alliance’s founding principle of mutual defence for newest member Montenegro.” American officials have stressed that, “Washington is fully committed to NATO and mutual defence,” but President Trump continues to reproach Europeans of  free-riding on the United States’ military muscle, taking particular aim at Germany.

The United States alone accounts for the vast majority of NATO defense spending. In 2017, the United States accounted for 51.1 percent of NATO’s combined GDP and 71.7 percent of its combined defense expenditure. That is to say, “the U.S. contributed more funds to NATO than Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and Canada combined.” For this reason, President Trump has frequently dressed down NATO counterparts and threatened to reduce military support if allies do not increase their contributions.

70th anniversary

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of NATO, in April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a meeting with ministers of member countries in the same hall where former U.S president Truman signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pact in 1949. “No military alliance in the world can remotely do what we do,” Mr. Pompeo said, hailing NATO’s success. But the opposite forces within the alliance are evident everywhere. As NATO deploys thousands of troops and equipment to deter Russia and seeks solutions to fast-evolving new threats such as cyberattacks and hybrid warfare, NATO is facing a number of challenges. 

Mixed signals from NATO’s most powerful member hinders allies’ confidence that the United States will commit to the principle of collective defense, undermining deterrence to external threats. Two former U.S. ambassadors to NATO, Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute, wrote in a report released in February that President Trump, “is regarded widely in NATO capitals as the Alliance’s most urgent, and often most difficult, problem.” In a warning to President Trump to not to withdraw from the NATO military alliance, the United States House of Representatives in January approved legislation seeking to prevent that possibility. The NATO Support Act has now moved to the Senate. 

Tensions between the U.S. and its NATO allies over their defense spending levels has been an urgent affair. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, allies made a commitment to move towards spending two percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Nevertheless, members like Germany probably will not meet the target. Last March, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Germany will spend 1.5 percent of its economic output on defense by the given date. 

Russia In 1994, Russia officially signed up for the NATO Partnership for Peace program which aimed to build trust between NATO and other European—and former Soviet—countries. But by 1999, it became clear that NATO and Russia had opposite views about the future of the post-Soviet republics. Thus, the alliance “turned into a security challenge” for the Kremlin, according to  Ambassador Vesko Garcevic. As the years went on, nostalgia for the Soviet Union became more apparent. In 2005, President Vladimir Putin famously said the breakup of the Soviet Union, “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” This situation poses a critical challenge to NATO and its members as Russia’s foreign policy aims to secure its influence in the post- Soviet area. 

The Kremlin has  stated that NATO is a, “security threat in Eastern Europe” and perceived it as a “hostile military bloc.” Last year the Russian president warned the alliance against cultivating closer ties with Ukraine and Georgiacountries of Russia’s close exteriorsaying that, “such a policy was irresponsible and would have unspecified consequences for the alliance.”

Moreover, recently President Putin signed a bill to withdraw Russia from the  Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a pivotal nuclear arms treaty with the United States. Even though the Russian leader has stated that, “the collapse of a significant nuclear missile treaty between the two nations wouldn’t prompt an arms race,” this measure brings uncertainty in regards to the future of arms development and an eventual instability in Europe. According to three European officials, “NATO military officers are exploring to upgrade their defenses.”

Turkey

Turkey’s geographical position guards the important southern flank of NATO, and the Alliance has played a central role in Turkey’s security—and contributed to its integration with the Euro-Atlantic community. Following the United States, Turkey has the second largest military in the alliance and is valued as a key strategic linchpin as a nation bordering the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. 

In 2017, Russia started sowing discord by selling Turkey the S-400 air defence system worth $2.5 billion. The growing defence cooperation with Moscow poses a great danger to NATO and to the strength of the alliance. At the same time, military collaboration with the United States has been scaled back. U.S.-Turkey tensions rose after the failed 2016 coup attempt in Ankara, which president Erdoğan claimed was, “instigated by opponents based in the U.S.”

China

“Perhaps the greatest challenge NATO will face in the coming decades is how we must all adjust to the rise of the People’s Republic of China,” U.S> Vice President Mike Pence declared “and adjust we must,” he implored. 

In the last decades, China’s foreign policy has become more and more assertive, notably in the economic field, presenting significant growth and positioning itself as a relevant actor on the international scene. Among this growth, President Xi Jinping proposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been achieving remarkable results in international infrastructure as well as industrial and economic development. As part of the project, China has offered generous financing for infrastructure improvements around Europe. 

The project pillars are trade and development, but the geopolitical issues playing behind the scene are evident. It could be a project of closer relationship among all the participants, bringing along with it new perspectives along every continent, including the European Union, the former Soviet Republics of central Asia, the Balkans, and, last but not least, Russia. Even though China is not a direct military threat to NATO, there are some solid elements that the alliance can worry over, including a growing number of cybersecurity threats, military development, cooperation with Russia, and geopolitical ambition.

Tensions with Iran 

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran’s Nuclear Deal) was a success for NATO, as it removed one potential existential threat. Nevertheless, President Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, has increased tensions in the region and with European partners. The new economic sanctions placed on Iran have led to a fragile partnership and a potential destabilization in the Middle East. Moreover, tensions increased between the United States and Iran when recently two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. American officials blamed Iran, deepening the risk of a major confrontation between the two nations. In the following days, Iran announced it will breach the limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium that was set under the 2015 nuclear deal. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany have warned Iran not to proceed with this decision and have previously said they will have no choice but to reimpose their own sanctions. 

If Iran breach the agreement, a security dilemma will develop as other regional powers and NATO allies would feel threatened, and the country’s nuclear and missile programs would become an evolving risk. An escalation of the current instability in the Middle East could eventually impact the European Union directly when it comes to both security and migrant flows.

Stability in Western Balkans

At the end of 2018, the government of Kosovo approved legislation to launch an important transformation regarding security by turning its 4,000-strong Kosovo Security Force into a regular army. Although this measure will likely take time to come into force, NATO had repeatedly expressed its discomfort, due to the potential risk that will stoke tensions with Serbia, jeopardizing the region’s stability. In addition, NATO’s political differences were evident, as the United States expressed its support for the small country’s sovereign right to develop a force with a mandate for the country’s territorial defense, despite the controversy.

Elsewhere in the Balkans, after the signing of the Prespa Agreement between Athens and Skopje, NATO prepares to welcome North Macedonia as a new member. Additionally, last December, the alliance announced that it was, “ready to move forward with implementing its Membership Action Plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Yet concerns remain about the country’s stability and whether a closer cooperation with NATO will be sufficient to overcome its complex political divisions and ease the fragile national and regional stability. 

Conclusions

Seventy years after its foundation, doubts about the Alliance’s future have been juxtaposed with reminders of its impressive past achievements. Since 1949, the alliance has strived to ensure security not only within its member states, but it has also played a critical role in the protection and promotion of Western principles and values. It has lasted beyond the Cold War, positioning itself as the most solid military alliance worldwide.  

Despite the internal problems among member states and the challenging international scenario we currently live in, cooperation between the members is still important, as it assures security to various countries that rely their territorial integrity on the mechanism. Montenegro, Slovenia, Slovakia and the three Baltic countries are not recurrent on the daily news; yet thanks to Article 5 of the Treaty Organization’s charter, the alliance is bound to defend each of those nations, which—due to their location—are vulnerable to foreign hostilities. Additionally, besides the historically strained relations with Russia, the current geopolitics of Asia and Middle East bring up important challenges in the international scene.

As the external factors can’t be completely controlled, from now on, the alliance’s most important task lies within. Members’ unity and common visions have been the central pillar of its function; thus, a strategy must be developed to address compliance and a sense of being. Although the possible re-election of Donald Trump would pose a test to the members, NATO will continue to be a punching bag to fuel his electorate. Hence, NATO should devise a strategy to address  President Trump’s visions about the alliance in order to maintain (as much as possible) its stability. Throughout history, no international mechanism has proved to be 100% effective. Nevertheless, NATO’s existence is important for ensuring there exists a plan of action when a crisis arises, while, all the while, the organization must consistently consider its role in providing global stability.

Luz Paola Garcia graduated with a B.A in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey. She currently works as a political consultant and as writer for Revista Ciudadania.

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