After the Cold War, many people felt NATO was superfluous. The alliance lived on, and has once again become a bulwark against Russia. That is exactly why we still need it, says DW’s Bernd Riegert.
The party for NATO’s 70th anniversary is bound to be overshadowed once again by the tiresome issue of finances. The United States’ short-sighted dispute with many of its allies over the size of their defense budgets obscures the key achievements of the oldest and strongest military alliance in modern times. Spanning the Atlantic, NATO provided protection for its European members with the US nuclear umbrella. Its deterrent effect has remained an indispensable anchor of stability to this very day. During the Cold War, the economically strong alliance of the Western-oriented countries triumphed over the Soviet dictatorship and its satellite states.
Russia: From strategic partner to opponent
Not all of NATO’s 29 member states have always been democracies. Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey were at times veritable military dictatorships, and the new NATO members that emerged from Soviet rule were one-party Communist states for decades. Today, all but Turkey, under autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have become democracies. NATO has also increasingly become a community of political values, not just a strategic military alliance. That is why nations including North Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine aspire to join it. Today NATO offers protection against an increasingly aggressive Russia under President Vladimir Putin — the same Putin who in 2001 considered Russia’s membership in NATO a possibility. He instead chose a different path. Unfortunately, NATO and Russia once again see each other as enemies rather than strategic partners.
NATO offers support in an increasingly complex world — one in which China and India are on the rise and the Middle East remains a powder keg. A look at the past shows that many of NATO’s missions beyond its own borders have been successful, including the stabilization of the Western Balkans. But there have also been setbacks, such as the never-ending deployment in Afghanistan. Twenty years ago, NATO viewed itself as an international police force, but that has fundamentally changed. Now domestic security is at the top of the agenda again. Once more, discussions focus on the Kremlin, and not Kabul.
NATO is a functioning multinational institution, but after 70 years its continued existence is threatened by its leading member. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the alliance, which he sees mainly as a money collection agency for defense expenditures unfairly shouldered by Washington. So far, there has yet to be a big bang. The US will probably not terminate the alliance, as the military and foreign policy experts in Washington — not including Trump, his daughter and his son-in-law — understand that NATO is important for the Americans, too. NATO allows them to project their power over Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan, to Asia.
Backing for a world power
As a world power, the US needs this network of military bases and support. However, the egomaniac president in the White House could withdraw from more international agreements and commitments than he already has, such as the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement and various UN institutions. Could the World Trade Organization, the G20 and the G7, or even NATO, soon find itself in crisis? Trump is intent on isolation. He will have to be taught that that is not how the world works in the long run. The more the US withdraws, the more Europe must take care of its own defense. After having relied on the Americans for decades, the European side of NATO has a lot of catching up to do. Without the US, Europeans would be deaf, blind and paralyzed on the military stage and that kind of dependence can’t be changed quickly.
The European NATO allies, above all Germany, are well advised to adhere to their financial pledges on defense spending. By falling short of those pledges, Berlin has set itself up for Donald Trump’s wrath. If the ominous target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense cannot be achieved (the rationale is certainly disputable), it must be on the agenda for discussion in the alliance and revised if necessary. In any case, the US is hugely frustrated with the Germans, who are not willing to pay up. The parties are talking at cross purposes and that shouldn’t happen at a birthday party.