Last week’s summit of NATO leaders has already inspired a great deal of serious analysis and criticism, and has provided an important opportunity to think about the Alliance’s history and purpose.
As part of FPRI’songoing coverage of NATO, we have also devoted the latest in our series of FPRI Video Primers to the Alliance, which we hope will provide the basis for broader public understanding and enrich discussions of NATO going forward.
Famously devoted, in the semi-facetious words of its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, to the goals of keeping “the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down,” NATO successfully linked the United States to the democracies of Western Europe and provided a security guarantee against possible Soviet aggression. NATO also built a framework within which Germany could contribute to Western security and proceed on a path of economic and political development that has transformed its relationship with its neighbors. The Alliance succeeded in maintaining both European security and transatlantic solidarity through the Cold War, accomplishing its primary mission and making it perhaps the most successful alliance in history.
Better historical understanding of NATO offers reasons for both concern and hope. This is not the first NATO crisis, and it probably will not be the last. U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing criticism of Alliance members for failing to spend more on their defenses, focusing especially on Germany’s persistent underspending, reached a crescendo over those two days in Belgium. Although his grasp of the details surrounding the issue remains shaky—NATO members have committed to raising their individual national defense budgets to two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024, and this has nothing to do with membership dues or anything that the Europeans specifically owe the United States—President Trump is not wrong to raise the question of how NATO members should share the burden of their common defense strategy. He is also not the first American official to complain about the European willingness to rely on American hard power to maintain the Alliance. Any discussion of the future of the Alliance has to be honest on those points.
As far back as 1956, the United States actively intervened (economically and diplomatically) against the actions of their closest allies, Britain and France, in Suez. During a few tense weeks that fall, Washington actively made common cause with Moscow against Anglo-French efforts to topple the Nasser government in Egypt. More importantly, however, after the French and British troops withdrew, President Dwight Eisenhower quickly pivoted to restore harmony within the Alliance. Indeed, the very first NATO summit in December 1957 was called both to present an image of unity to the broader public and to provide a forum within which NATO countries could work out their differences.
In the more than six decades since that first summit, NATO members have argued about how to organize their common defense, how to negotiate with the Soviets about nuclear weapons, and how to manage their economic relations with Russia. The current debate over gas pipelines is itself an echo of a similar controversy in the early 1980s, when the United States tried (and failed) to stop Britain and West Germany in particular from helping the Soviets build their first pipelines to supply Western Europe.
At each moment of disagreement, informed observers wrung their hands about the possible breakup of the Alliance and the dire consequences that would follow. Thankfully, NATO survived each of those crises, providing a stable basis for managing the end of the Cold War and continuing to play its vital role as a transatlantic link between Europe and north America.
Does that mean there is nothing to worry about today? Certainly not. Past success in calming disagreements should provide reason to hope that wisdom will prevail in managing current upheavals, but should not encourage complacency. Created in an era when its members agreed broadly on the need to stand together in defense of the West against a common threat, the Alliance today faces a much more fluid international situation and must confront significant questions about its purpose and the sacrifices each member is willing to make to keep the Alliance alive.
NATO is an alliance of sovereign states, committed to maintaining mutual security, but also to serving the interests of its members. If it is to be true to its stated commitment to freedom and democratic development, it must be open to vigorous and respectful debate among its members. Those members, in turn, must be willing to provide and maintain the resources necessary for the Alliance to thrive.
No matter how successful any organization has been, future success is never guaranteed. The greatest lesson we can learn from NATO’s past is that if allies remember what bound them together in the first place they can manage their differences in service of the common good.