By Christine Keilholz
Today, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is celebrating a big birthday: It’s been 70 years since the world’s most successful military alliance was founded.
But the festivities will be relatively muted. In Washington, DC — the city where NATO was established — foreign ministers, not heads of government or state, will gather alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
The absence of top leaders underscores how NATO’s status has evolved in a world order that has changed dramatically since 1949 when the alliance was formed. It also highlights Washington’s ambivalence towards the alliance since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016.
NATO countered the Warsaw Pact.
NATO was created in the wake of two World Wars to ensure the collective defence of Western powers and promote the “community of values of free democratic states.”
Its purpose was to restrain the rising influence of the Soviet Union in Europe. NATO’s first secretary general, British diplomat and general Hastings Ismay, summed it up well. NATO was supposed to “Keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”
The treaty imposed an obligation on all 12 founding states to come to the mutual defence of fellow members: Any attack by the Soviet Union or any other external party on a member would be considered an attack against all NATO members and would trigger an obligation on them to respond.
During the Cold War, the treaty proved instrumental in countering the influence of the Warsaw Pact — a collective defence treaty between the Soviet Union and the communist states in Central and Eastern Europe.
There are cracks in NATO’s foundations.
But while the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, NATO has only grown since then, adding 13 new member states from Central Europe, the Balkans and the Baltics. The latest to join was Montenegro in 2017. The next candidate is North Macedonia.
But NATO’s growth to 29 members conceals some cracks in the bloc’s foundations.
First, there is the matter of funding. In principle, all members are expected to spend at least two percent of gross domestic product on defence to ensure contributions are commensurate with their economic power.
In practice, 21 members fall short of this guideline: Spending money on the military is not popular in many cash-strapped European countries.
What is more, Trump has been sharply critical of NATO, and Washington’s security concerns under the controversial leader have been directed more at China.
Russia annexed part of the Ukraine.
Trump has suggested that NATO is useless and has threatened to pull the country, long NATO’s linchpin, out of the alliance if its European allies do not increase defence spending. Washington’s message to its European partners is this: Pay your fair share!
NATO has failed to curtail Russia’s continental ambitions. President Vladimir Putin is keen for Russia to reclaim world power status and its dominance over countries that once belonged to the Soviet bloc.
Putin’s designs became glaringly apparent in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. NATO and Kiev decried the move as a violation of international law. NATO cut off cooperation with Russia and beefed up its forces in Europe.
But Moscow said it was defending itself against NATO’s advance into its own sphere of influence. This past February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced a “rampant expansion of NATO” and promised that Russia would continue to defend its own interests.
What is NATO’s future?
NATO is watching Russia extend its influence outside of Europe, notably in Syria, where Moscow is backing dictator Bashar al-Assad, and in Africa. Trump’s pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria has some NATO member states worried that that Russia will strengthen its toehold in the Middle Eastern country.
All of these challenges raise questions about NATO’s future.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is at pains to emphasize NATO’s continued importance. “We should never forget that we have founded NATO not just as a military alliance but as a community of values in which human rights, democracy and the rule of law are the guideline for joint action,” she told the Munich Security Conference in February.
But without action, those words are not as reassuring as they may sound. Germany, like many NATO member states, is cooperating with non-members in security issues. And it balks at paying more into the NATO treasury.
(For a “decoder” on NATO, click here.)
Christine Keilholz is a political journalist based in Dresden, Germany. She writes about German policy for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Welt, Cicero and others. She has studied History and German at the University of Leipzig. Currently she is in Toronto as a Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs.