Already President Trump’s visit to Brussels for a NATO summit and the United Kingdom is engendering considerable controversy, with a further summit meeting on Monday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to come in Helsinki. How successful is Trump’s course? Does NATO remain a vital component of American national security strategy? Or is it being downgraded by Trump?
To examine such pressing questions, the Center for the National Interest convened a panel of foreign policy experts speaking at a lunchtime panel on July 12. While there was broad agreement that NATO is vital to America’s national security interests, not all of the panelists believe that it was wise for the United States to have extended the alliance into Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union itself in the aftermath of the Cold War.
Indeed, to negotiate effectively with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the forthcoming Helsinki Summit on July 16, U.S. president Donald Trump will need to negotiate from a position of strength. To that end, the United States needs a strong NATO alliance behind it, Richard Burt, who served as ambassador to Germany and as an assistant secretary of state for Europe and Canada during the Reagan administration, said. A strong relationship with Germany—the “linchpin” of Europe—is especially important. “NATO is not an impediment to working with the Russians, it is a precondition,” Burt said.
“NATO is essential to U.S. national interests,” Dimitri Simes, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, said during the panel discussion in Washington D.C. “With all of its imperfections, NATO is a key component of American power. And to give up this component would be reckless especially if there is no overriding need.”
Nevertheless, NATO can also be problematic for American interests— as any such alliance structure can be for its principal guarantor. Simes noted that if one looks back to the ancient world--specifically, Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War--smaller allies can often draw a great power into conflict through reckless and self-serving actions. As Athens continued to expand its alliance structure, some of its new allies acted on their own parochial interests and contributed to war with rival great power Sparta. “Alliances can greatly enhance your power and credibility,” Simes said. “But unless you are careful and analytical, they can also provoke wars. Go back to the Peloponnesian War, that’s how that war started.”
Pushing the NATO alliance towards Russia’s borders—towards the “suburbs of St. Petersburg”—has predictably drawn a strong reaction from Moscow, Simes said. While the Russian reaction does not necessarily make sense given Western intentions, Moscow—Simes noted—sees NATO moves in the Baltics as inherently threatening. It would be the equivalent of Russia holding exercises in Canada or Mexico if Moscow were allied to those nations. “I don’t need to tell you what the reaction in the United States would be,” Simes said.
Burt agreed that NATO is vital to American geopolitical interests. However, Burt said that NATO expansion became an end unto itself during the 1990s in the immediate aftermath of the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union when the alliance was trying to find a new purpose for itself. Many Washington think-tanks—particularly the Atlantic Council—dedicated themselves to inventing a new purpose for NATO during that period when the alliance was searching for relevance in the post-Cold War-era, Burt said. “That’s when you make mistakes,” Burt said. “That has led to our current relationship with Russia. NATO expansion sort of became an end unto itself. It didn’t have a strategic rationale as much as it had a democracy promotion rationale.”
According to Burt, NATO overreached. Had there been a coherent strategy, Burt said, the alliance would have figured out a place to draw a line on how far East the alliance should have expanded. Ultimately, NATO expansion pushed too far into what had been the former Soviet Union by crossing into Georgia and Ukraine by saying that those two states would eventually become part of the alliance during NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit. “In my mind, when George W. Bush went to Bucharest in 2007 and proposed the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia, that was a bridge too far,” Burt said. “We’ve been dealing with the consequences since then.”
Burt suggested that Russian revanchism has provided NATO with a strategic purpose, which is to defend the alliance from military aggression. Nonetheless, the alliance is still dealing with the issue of “freeriders,” which President Donald Trump emphasized at the NATO summit in Brussels. It is unclear if the president will succeed in persuading European members of the alliance to raise their outlays as substantially as he hopes, but it seems very likely that the NATO allies will have to boost their defense expenditures in coming years to meet the agreed upon two percent of gross domestic product by 2024. “It appears to me that we are coming to grips with that issue,” Burt said.