Does NATO still matter for the United States? Many of America's top leaders think so. Last week during a speech to his NATO counterparts, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hailed the Alliance as a "fundamental bedrock for the United States and the transatlantic community." Vice President Mike Pence and Senator John McCain delivered similar messages of Atlantic solidarity at last week's Munich Security Conference.
And, yet, even while America's senior officials are underscoring America's unwavering commitment to NATO, there is considerable disquiet about the firmness of this commitment given statements by President Donald Trump, both before and after his election, which called his commitment to NATO into question. Although some recent statements have been more supportive, the two themes of the campaign -- that NATO is "obsolete" and that our Allies aren't paying the bills for their defense -- continue to find resonance in President Trump's discussions of the Alliance. Both criticisms warrant some clarification.
Let's start with the claim that NATO is obsolete. This has been a common criticism since at least the end of the Cold War, when the essence of NATO's mission -- defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union -- was ostensibly accomplished. But this ignores the role that NATO played in the immediate post-Cold War era, as well as the critical new role it plays today. After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO turned its focus toward creating a Europe that was more whole, free, and at peace by extending the stability Western Europe had long enjoyed to Central and Eastern Europe. And after 9/11, NATO invoked its collective defense provision for the very first time and has focused on dealing with the threat of terrorism ever since, most importantly by deploying troops for more than a decade fighting the Taliban. In fact, NATO has expanded the range of its operations to include active forces on three continents, in conflicts from Bosnia to Somalia to Afghanistan. Today, given Russia's actions in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin's attempts to undermine the West, and the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, NATO's core commitment to collective defense remains as essential as ever.
What about the problem of NATO Allies not paying their fair share? This, too, is not a novel criticism. I should know -- for four years I argued as US ambassador to NATO that Europe needed to spend more on defense, improve its overall capabilities, and bear a greater share of the overall burden of ensuring Europe's security. President Trump is right to insist that the European commitment to spend more on defense, last reaffirmed at the 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit. But the singular focus on spending levels provides only one measure of the value of our NATO Allies. Richard Fontaine makes this point well in a recent piece that argues for a broader view of our Allies' worth, including their will to stay engaged in grinding fights, as well as the niche capabilities they bring to the Alliance. It's also important to note that because the United States pays a higher share of the costs, it is able to exercise more authority over key strategies and decisions. While our formal vote is no bigger than Albania's, our informal voice in NATO is far louder than that of any other member of the Alliance.
The bottom line is that NATO today remains an essential tool in advancing both American and transatlantic interests. The challenge moving forward is to ensure that the trust that underpins the Alliance is not unraveled by mixed messages and uncertainty coming out of Washington. This Weeks' Reads explore the current state of the transatlantic Alliance and some of the internal and external challenges it confronts.
Julian E. Barnes and Anton Troianovski/The Wall Street Journal
"NATO is at a crossroads," write Julian Barnes and Anton Troianovski. Russian belligerence and President Trump's insistence that members of the 28-nation Alliance increase their military expenditures are testing the Alliance. Germany has become the focal point for US officials' criticisms because the size of its economy, the quality of its equipment, and its geographic importance make its leadership vital. Yet while the United States spends $644 billion annually on its military, or 3.61 percent of GDP, Germany spends $40 billion, or 1.2 percent of GDP. "How member countries resolve their differences will go a long way toward determining NATO's future and usefulness," the authors note.
Richard Fontaine/Center for a New American Security
The Trump administration is focused on increasing the number of NATO Allies currently meeting defense spending targets (2 percent of GDP), which currently stands at five of 28. Although Trump's warnings may pressure some states to bridge spending deficiencies, it is far from certain that those nations will spend wisely. Says Richard Fontaine: "The new team should pursue a broad program of activity, one aimed at redirecting funds toward niche capabilities, redeploying eastward to deter Russia, and enhancing NATO's readiness to deal with crises." Budget numbers are limiting, Fontaine argues, and "a broader measure of worth would also look at Allies' reliability and their will to stay engaged in grinding fights."
Senator John McCain
During his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Senator McCain sharply criticized Trump's worldview without mentioning the president by name. McCain warned that this global security forum has never been "more necessary or more important," as there remain serious questions as to "whether the West will survive." McCain went on to say that the seriousness of this question has been raised due to "turn[ing] away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism; resentment towards immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups; the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies."
Steven Erlanger/The New York Times
At last week's Munich Security Conference, an anxious global audience seeking to gauge President Trump's future policies were gifted little clarity. As one spectator noted, "Trump does not come in with a fixed foreign policy agenda on many issues, so there is contested space and room for influence and maneuver." Given Trump's tendency to vacillate on foreign policy matters, Senator McCain stated, "we've learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says."
Massimo Calabresi and Simon Shuster/Time
"A new battle for Europe has begun," say Massimo Calabresi and Simon Shuster. Putin has begun the process of rebuilding the Soviet empire, attempting to undermine democracies in former communist countries and supporting right-wing nationalist groups across Europe. Despite these provocations, the US response is uncertain, especially given the divide between Trump and his cabinet and even among the wider Republican Party. Although no agreement with Russia is imminent, many, including Senator Bob Corker, are concerned that Trump wishes to stray from the established path.
Julian Borger/The Guardian
The White House is not working with Rex Tillerson's State Department and didn't consult senior State officials on key policy issues such as the executive orders on immigration or the raid in Yemen, says Julian Borger. Moreover, Tillerson's department hasn't held the traditional daily press briefing, and press have been kept out of routine interactions with foreign leaders. Tillerson was embarrassed to learn that Trump rejected his choice of deputy, and swathes of Department staff have either resigned or been dismissed. Ultimately, Borger paints a picture of a mute Tillerson and a lack of educated voices in Trump administration foreign policymaking.
Lesley Wroughton and Yaganeh Torbati/Reuters
President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson share a fondness for concise briefings, or "key facts," perhaps unsurprising given their backgrounds as CEOs. Yet despite similar management styles, concerns exist as to how effectively the White House and State Department are communicating. While Tillerson influenced Trump's return to the "One China" policy, he was not consulted over Trump's reconsideration of a two-state solution in the Middle East. Thus far the White House has seemingly been overwhelmed with setbacks and crises, and merely two of the more than a hundred State Department positions requiring executive branch nomination are filled.
David Brooks/The New York Times
"I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term," writes David Brooks, citing administrative infighting, declining approval ratings, a stalled policy agenda, and FBI investigations. Despite this, Brooks is unable to pinpoint Trump's ultimate undoing, instead suggesting this possibility: "We're going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away." What might that look like? Brooks says the administration will become "passive" and "insular" and will operate in a "decentralized world."
Susan B. Glasser/POLITICO
Senator Corker, widely considered a pragmatic conservative, has yet to dedicate his time as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to making deals with President Trump. Instead, he has been "batting cleanup for Trump's tweets and angry telephone rants" he tells Susan Glasser in an interview on her new podcast. Corker explains that as a public figure Trump has been a "wrecking ball," attempting to reorient US foreign policy even as the CEO inside of Trump demands "deals, deals, deals." This dilemma requires process and consideration of outcomes, as well as organization of the White House power structure.
William J. Burns and Jared Cohen/Foreign Policy
William J. Burns and Jared Cohen write that in order to update traditional tools of statecraft to the digital age, it is imperative to do "away with the habit of separating… physical and digital domains of international politics." This transformation of diplomacy has been stalled in a post-Snowden era of distrust, but they argue that mutual benefits exist in "shaping doctrines, norms, rules, and institutions that can protect our interests and values in cyberspace." The authors then analyze how four tenets of statecraft -- power, coercive diplomacy, alliances, and foreign assistance -- can be revitalized to meet the demands of the modern era.
Bryan Harris, Tom Mitchell, and Jeevan Vasagar/Financial Times
Last week while travelling home to Macau, Kim Jong Nam, the unassuming half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated. The attack, believed to be at the hands of the North Korean government, serves as a reminder of the ruthlessness of Un's regime, which knows "no boundary, whether familial or geographic." Moreover, Nam's assassination represents yet another test of President Trump's resolve in dealing with the rogue state that President Obama warned would become the top national security challenge for the incoming president.