Make no mistake, the half-day meeting of NATO leaders in London is a minefield. Most observers will be relieved if the alliance can get it over with without explosive rhetorical exchanges, tweetstorms, or other mishaps. President Trump, in particular, has been long distrustful of the usefulness of the alliance for the United States — though today he said (correctly!) that NATO “served a great purpose.”
Yet, it is troubling that for a NATO summit to qualify as a success these days, it is simply necessary to avoid larger fallouts and to preserve the status quo, or at least its appearances. The “soft bigotry of low expectations” means that long-standing problems continue to fester, making transatlantic security architecture more fragile than it may seem from the rising levels of defense spending in Europe and the military build-up on NATO’s eastern flank.
One of such long-standing issues is the continuing failure of the alliance to confront authoritarians in its midst. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the alliance has been defined not so much by its enemies as by its values. Yet, countries such as Erdogan’s Turkey continue to violate those values — and act against the US and Europe’s interests in practical ways, including through its behavior in Northern Syria and through its purchases of Russian military equipment.
Likewise, Orban’s Hungary has moved markedly in the authoritarian direction during recent years, while simultaneously seeking to undermine the alliance’s efforts to help Ukraine, inviting the Cold War-era, Russian-led International Investment Bank to move its headquarters to Budapest, and normalizing relations with Assad’s Syria.
To tolerate such excesses is to encourage them further. And insofar as authoritarian regimes do indeed behave differently and less predictably in the international arena than democracies, keeping Turkey and Hungary unchallenged, under the alliance’s fold, represents a ticking time bomb.
Another risk to the cohesion of the alliance is the fact that governments on both sides of the Atlantic see their security environments differently. France’s President Emmanuel Macron received a lot of blowback, most recently from Trump himself, for his interview with The Economist, in which he proclaimed the alliance “brain-dead.”
Yet the unfortunate quip reflected a deeper truth: keeping NATO viable is going to be increasingly difficult if, for example, the United States sees China as its primary great power competitor while Europeans continue to perceive it largely as a benign trading partner and a responsible stakeholder in the multilateral system — an image that Beijing is consciously trying to project.
Similar asymmetries are opening even in Europe itself. Macron’s own efforts to “normalize” relations with Russia, which ring alarm bells across Eastern Europe, are a good example. Yet, for the French, meanwhile, instability in North Africa remains a far less esoteric threat than the fears of the Balts or the Poles about Putin’s Russia.
The purpose of meetings such as the one taking place in London tomorrow should not be to do needless damage to the alliance. NATO is not obsolete or “brain-dead.” It is the bedrock of the West’s collective security and a key vehicle for the projection of our values and interests. But the alliance and its leaders have to find the courage to have difficult conversations as well — including about member countries that have strayed far away from the alliance’s core principles, and about the shared strategic outlook and resources needed to respond to threats that might be seen differently from different national capitals.
This article by Dalibor Rohac first appeared at The American Enterprise Institute.