Herbert London: NATO Redux
It has been said time and again that NATO is indispensable as a defense of the West. Even Trump accepts this assertion. What he doesn’t accept is the U.S. burden to sustain the treaty. A combative President Trump has made it clear member states must meet their obligation to spend at least two percent of gdp on defense. The U.S. presently spends 3.6 percent or about twice the average expenditure.
Trump noted as well the irony of Germany’s reliance on a new $11 billion pipeline to import Russian natural gas into Western Europe when a significant portion of NATO’s defense budget is to buttress against Russian ambitions. How odd he notes to pay Russia and at the same time defend against Russia.
Chancellor Angela Merkle – who grew up in East Germany when it was controlled by Russia – speaks passionately of a united and free Republic of Germany today, a sound debater’s point but distraction from Germany’s defense spending. Although not always said explicitly, the allies hope that Trump will sign off on a summit deal to deter Russian aggression. It also appears as if Trump’s jaw-boning has had some effect since eight new nations are about to meet the two percent threshold. How this will unfold remains unclear. An alliance that is indispensable must be sustained. My guess is that NATO nations including Germany will be playing a more active defense role than has been the case heretofore. This will be a test of Merkle’s political skill with elections just over the horizon.
If NATO were to fail, the continental defense structure would be anarchic with one nation after another marking the best possible deal. Many of the institutions in the West created to maintain global balance seem moribund, but NATO has the ability to resuscitate itself through advanced technology. Warfare – of the future – will be a cyber and space exercise with air-land battle strategy a condition of the recent pact. Hence NATO is evolving, and the budget must evolve with it.
Trump may be heavy handed in his approach, but it seems to me, he is right. In fact the Europeans do not like this style. But a president is not aiming for style points. It would be wise for European leaders to concentrate on the content of Trump’s proposal rather than his haircuts.
There are many areas of collaboration with the Europeans that have not been explored. Dare I say it: there may be concerns the Russians and U.S. share including anti-terrorist activity that should be examined. In the present febrile environment that may not be possible, yet history often moves in unpredictable directions. It is also true Merkle, Macron, even Putin may disappear from the public square leaving leaders with an unconventional mind set.
Historical paths have not been determined. As I see it that will never be the case. Individuals can change the course for a time. But when erstwhile President Obama argued the arc of history is moving in our direction, it was a statement of hope, not reality.
NATO should see itself as a flexible organization capable of changing courses rapidly. That stance invites the future. Now if only the Europeans can overcome the stultifying precedents of the past, a new day and a host of opportunities will emerge.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made it clear that from 2018 to 2020 the alliance will engage in a complete overhaul including a review of cyber capabilities, rail guns, space warfare, neuron detection among other issues. This is an opportunity if NATO leadership seizes it. While there are no guarantees about the future, here is where the future for NATO commences.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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