Even before taking office, Donald Trump made the North Atlantic Treaty Organization one of his prime targets. In the same vein as his desire to wreck longstanding trade agreements, Trump has attacked the transatlantic pact as being outdated and manipulative of the very nation that led the charge in creating it. Somehow, this narrative has gained a life of its own — despite the fact that NATO has proven itself over and over again to be one of the wisest decisions our nation has ever made.
Certainly, NATO has its flaws. What creation of mankind is perfect, though? The problems with NATO are not so much failures as they are the price of working among democracies. NATO can be cumbersome, and the organization can often grind to a halt if a single state protests a decision. However, addressing needs across the world fosters stronger allied cohesion, making NATO’s unified front genuine and lasting. Plus, NATO honors our shared democratic values by solving conflict with words in council, rather than on the battlefield. Ultimately, the United States does not always get what it wants, but such is the nature of diplomacy and fair deal-making.
Besides, what other option is there? Should the United States turn NATO into the Warsaw Pact, where the greatest military power forces all other into vassalage? Absolutely not. To do so is antithetical to our values and would probably result in the dissolution of NATO.
Nevertheless, NATO draws a lot scrutiny, particularly on the subject of burden-sharing. It is indisputable that there are nations in NATO who do not contribute as much as their peers, especially when measuring by the benchmark of which states honor the pledge to contribute 2 percent of their GDP to defense expenditures. As an American who studies and previously worked at NATO, I will be the first to admit this is incredibly frustrating. Yet, I understand that NATO is an alliance of free states. Some states cannot spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense due to long-standing concerns over militarization, or the need to invest in civic improvements or social welfare programs. It may make us grind our teeth in frustration, but an alliance of democracies does not dictate domestic policy to one another.
Nations such as Poland have proven their commitment to NATO by not only exceeding the 2 percent pledge, but also serving on the front lines of multiple NATO missions. Likewise, the Baltic nations have met their goal, albeit in an interesting manner: While they invest in their ground forces, they have asked help in defending their airspace. This allows Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to meet their goals while providing an opportunity for allied nations to work together as a cohesive unit in a tight airspace, enhancing the capabilities and posture of the Alliance. Meanwhile, nations such as the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Greece have spent well above the 2 percent pledge for years. Yet, these facts are willfully overlooked by critics who would rather attack our closest allies than lift them up.
To put it simply, NATO struggles with how to assert its relevancy on the world stage. In the face of criticisms about it relevance, defenders choose to point out what has not occurred as a result of NATO’s existence: A revanchist, nuclear-armed Germany never came about in the 1950s; the complete eradication of Bosnians and Albanians never occurred; the Fulda Gap was never crossed by a single unit waving the hammer and sickle; outright war between Greeks and Turks never happened. However, these arguments mean nothing to the Trump Administration, which is stuffed with hawks who view America as an exceptionality and have no time for engaging in “what ifs”. More importantly, these claims carry no water for the average American, either.
It is more effective, therefore, to focus on how NATO has concretely contributed to the peace and security of the world. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Alliance stopped the worst massacres since the Second World War and built the institutions necessary to ensure stability and prosperity as Yugoslavia imploded. On the high seas, NATO is active in stemming the flow of fissile materials and halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In Afghanistan, women have returned to schools and elections are held regularly. Even more importantly, NATO has promoted long-standing enemies to learn to work together. Greeks and Turks work alongside one another, as do French and Germans. NATO has waged a long peace in Europe that would have been incomprehensible at its founding.
Beyond the net benefits of the Alliance, the sudden mistrust and openly dismissive tone taken towards NATO by the Trump Administration is even more disgusting when you take into account NATO’s finest action. The only time that collective self-defense has been invoked was less than 24 hours after the attacks of 9/11. Seventeen years later, our allies continue to fight alongside us in Afghanistan. Our allies have sacrificed alongside us. To say that NATO is worthless or outdated is to insult an alliance forged in fire and sealed with spilt blood.
In this light, the criticisms of NATO wither in the face of an unassailable fact: When we needed NATO to work, it worked perfectly as it had been designed. Our allies in Canada and Europe acted immediately and have stood by our side since. Disparaging the sacrifices made by our allies is as disgusting and morally repugnant as it is ignorant and shortsighted. In an era of increased uncertainty and upheaval, why should we willfully undermine the bedrock of the international order Americans constructed years ago? This is a time to build new connections and re-forge proven connections. NATO is proof positive that the United States and its allies are a sum greater than their individual parts.
Daniel Green is a Political Partner with Truman National Security Project. He previously worked in the American mission to NATO. Views expressed are his own.