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April 4 is the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which began with the signing of the so-called Washington Treaty by 12 founding nation-states, mostly Western European nations along with the United States.  The pact was an expansion of the Brussels Treaty that preceded it, drawing the U.S. into the alliance as a necessary guarantor of security for Western Europe. The mission was to form a stronger coalition to prevent a repeat of the circumstances that led, predominantly in Germany, to the two world wars and also deter the expansionist aspirations of the newly formed communist Soviet Union.   

Seven decades on, NATO has grown to include 29 nations. But its strength, and the commitment of its members to mutual security, is very much in question, as a new poll commissioned by CKI and RealClearPolitics to mark the anniversary makes evident.

To be fair, the United States’ own entry into the alliance was not without reservation, a reluctance with deep historical roots.  (In his farewell address, George Washington spoke of his concerns about alliances dragging nations into someone else’s wars.) Secretary of State George Marshall had expressed concerns to British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, insisting: “Show what you’re prepared to do for yourselves and each other, and then we’ll think about what we might do.”

However, after deliberations and careful wording of the treaty, wariness about Soviet militarization and expansion compelled the U.S. to join NATO in what would become the Cold War strategy of containment.

In response, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact – formally known as the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance — comprised of Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Decades later, some experts in the field of international relations see modern parallels between Western nations’ security expansion and a Russian response. University of Chicago Professor John J. Mearsheimer, commenting in 2014 on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contended that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”

Though this sentiment was not widely held, both President Obama and now President Trump voiced concern over the transatlantic alliance – primarily in ways that echoed  Marshall’s.

Obama’s relationship with NATO declined as his frustrations grew over European allies’ lack of response to the turmoil in Libya, prompting him to refer to them as “free riders.” Although the 2 percent of GDP spending for NATO is only a guideline, not a requirement, for member states, Europe’s contribution has fallen perilously short. Obama’s critique of Europe’s response to the Libya situation exposed a perhaps more significant shortcoming among NATO nations than just spending: a lack of resolve.

Trump’s harsh rhetoric has taken the NATO debate to an entirely new level. Throughout much of 2018, he went so far as to threaten to pull the U.S. from the alliance.

The recent CKI/RCP poll, conducted by YouGov, provides insights into why both Obama and Trump have called the European commitment – especially that of Germans surveyed — to the NATO alliance into question.

The poll found that a majority of Germans are indifferent to the security provided by the organization. Most striking is that 48 percent of German respondents think they should not provide military support to a NATO member state if Russia attacks it, with an additional 28 percent saying that they don’t know if support would be warranted. (Curiously, most Germans also think that their own nation falls short of providing their security.) A majority are also against providing military support to the United States if it were attacked, a stark contrast to French and British respondents, among whom only about a third are opposed.

The reason for Germans’ indifference may be reflected by another finding: Germany no longer perceives Russia to be the great threat it once was (to a lesser extent, neither does the rest of Western Europe).

A majority of Germans even go so far as to say they perceive the U.S. to be a greater threat to their security than Russia. Though many attribute this to Trump’s threats to pull out of NATO, the CKI/RCP polling suggests that more is involved. When asked if Russia were to invade any NATO country, only a quarter (in Germany and France) to a third (in the U.S. and U.K.) think their countries should provide a military response to defend that country.  On the flip side, about a third (in the U.S., U.K. and France) and nearly half (as already cited, 48 percent) of Germans think their country should not respond.  Though not a majority, these numbers represent a significant rebuke of the NATO charter’s Article V, which stipulates mutual defense, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Obama’s frustration, and now Trump’s openly critical brand of diplomacy, highlight what is perhaps a consequence of the Cold War peace dividend — the Western military rollback resulting from the reduced threat after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  Further stressed by the global financial crisis of 2008, the European NATO states have become introspective, focused most on internal security and cautious in their spending.  Notwithstanding Russia’s intensive cyber and information operations, Europeans largely no longer perceive it to be the great threat of generations past.

History shows that they do so at their peril. With the 70th anniversary of NATO at hand, the disinterest in honoring the organization’s guiding principle of mutual cooperation and security should be seen as a clarion call to revisit the alliance — before the next crisis occurs.

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