PARIS—Just at the moment members of the House of Representatives were closing in on Richard Nixon like hounds in pursuit of a fox, he decided to run for cover in Europe. That summer of 1974 as he faced possible impeachment Nixon wanted to remind the world and his countrymen that he was a true—maybe indispensable—statesman. And with the advice and consent of Henry Kissinger, he did that fairly well. Among his goals on that trip: to reassure Europe about America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance.
But if the mission to NATO succeeded, the flight from impeachment did not. Six weeks after Nixon’s trip, rather than face the indictment of Congress and put the nation through the ordeal of a Senate trial, Nixon resigned, which may have been his most statesmanlike act of all.
Now we have another president with the hounds of the House hot on his heels, and another visit with NATO leaders, but try as Donald Trump might, when it comes to statesmanship he can’t begin to fill Richard Nixon’s shoes. (It’s also highly unlikely he’ll take the gentleman’s way out of impeachment by resigning.)
On Tuesday, Trump reduced the eve of an already truncated NATO meeting in London to what seemed a contentious gabfest. Through a total of two long hours of photo ops with the Secretary General of NATO, the President of France, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Trump free-associated cranky ideas about world affairs. Among them, his statement that the tariff war with China might carry on until after he is reelected. That sent markets plummeting. But in a contentious exchange with French President Emmanuel Macron, widely noted more for its tone than substance, the two of them touched on something fundamental.
The question before NATO in 2019, as indeed it was in 1974 and has been for much of the organization’s history, is about as basic as it could be: What’s NATO for? Or, put another way: Who needs it?
Many times in the past, Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete,” and despite his platitudes on Tuesday, he probably still believes that. His former national security advisor, John Bolton, reportedly said last month that Trump might pull out of the organization altogether if elected to a second term. Macron meanwhile went one step further when he talked about the “brain death” of NATO in an interview that The Economist published last month. (Trump took that personally, it seems, leading to his acerbic tone.)
They’re both right, in fact. NATO as we’ve known it is obsolete; NATO as it stands with Trump as president of its greatest power is, yes, brain dead.
When the alliance was first established 70 years ago, the question of purpose seemed relatively simple. As famously articulated by General Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general: it would “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
At the time, Europe was devastated by World War II and the Soviet Union loomed large over the Continent. Joseph Stalin was consolidating control over Eastern Europe, including East Germany, and he was building a nuclear arsenal. If he was to be stopped from pushing his Iron Curtain all the way to the Atlantic, an alliance with the still prosperous and hugely well armed United States was an obvious solution, and Washington, flexing its muscles as the world’s first superpower, was ready to shoulder the burden. At the same time, none of the nations that defeated the Nazis wanted to see Germany reemerge as a powerful military force, even as a deterrent to Moscow.
But time and realpolitik soon eroded the simple formula put forth by Ismay. Currents of isolationism were always strong in the United States, even when they were deemed politically incorrect by its leading Cold Warriors. Currents of accommodationism (some would say appeasement) were always an element in European politics, which had suffered through so many exchausting wars.
The central principle of the alliance articulated in Article 5 of its charter is that an attack on one is an attack on all, but there have long been doubts about what might happen if a member acted provocatively and without consultation—especially if that member was the United States.
Nixon’s NATO problem in 1974 grew out of his support for Israel during its 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, and his bellicose confrontation of the Soviets to keep them from coming to the aid of their Arab allies. The rest of America’s NATO partners were terrified they’d be dragged into that fight.
Then, a month after Nixon’s trip, NATO members Greece and Turkey rushed to the brink of war over the fate of Cyprus, the north of which is occupied by Ankara to this day.
But the most fundamental challenge to NATO’s raison d’être came 30 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Moscow’s East European “satellites,” the unification of Germany—and in 1991 the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.
Now the Americans were still in NATO, but tired of spending so much on it, the Russians no longer seemed like much of a threat, and the Germans, while they might not move to become a big military power, were once again big, rich, powerful—their territory stretching across the middle of Europe—and clearly in no mood to be kept down.
Without the Cold War, what was the point of NATO?
The answer through the 1990s was to turn what had been primarily a defensive, deterrent military organization into an expanding political one that, along with the growing European Union, would draw the old Soviet satellites and even parts of the old USSR and Russian empire into the West European orbit of modern democracies.
Many in Russia, particularly old KGB hands like one Vladimir Putin, saw this as a direct threat to Moscow’s power and influence, and felt humiliated.
President Bill Clinton put forth the idea that Poland should be brought into NATO, starting an irreversible process. In 1999, after the wars in ex-Yugoslavia had raged for most of the decade, NATO intervened in the Balkans to defend the people of Kosovo. In September 2001, when the United States was attacked by Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda, Article 5 was invoked and NATO, intended as a very European alliance, went to war halfway around the world.
By then, Putin was president of Russia, and from his perspective, NATO was closing in.
The little Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were made members in 2004, and given the same guarantees of mutual defense as all the others. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate, she said Ukraine and Georgia—which also were former Soviet republics—should be brought into the alliance.
In 2003, NATO wanted nothing to do with the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. In 2011, the Obama administration backed a French and British-led intervention in Libya which resulted in the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi—and bloody chaos that continues to this day.
As British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote, “If Americans complain about having to pay most of the cost of the alliance, Europeans could reply that that’s only fair if NATO is going to be little more than the American Foreign Legion.” (Trump on Tuesday was talking about a global role for NATO. Make of that what you will.)
By Putin’s second term, his pushback against what he saw as NATO’s encroachment became increasingly aggressive. Russia had carved off parts of Georgia early on, in the 1990s, and Putin went to war with Tbilisi in 2008 to defend them. He might easily have rolled into the capital. When a revolution in Ukraine overthrew a pro-Moscow government in favor of a more Western Europe oriented regime in 2014, Putin seized the Crimean peninsula and supported a separist war in Ukraine’s east, known as Donbas, which continues to this day.
A new Cold War began and now the moment would seem right to revive the “keep the Russians out” part of the old formula, but Trump, as noted, has made the the “keep the Americans in” part an open question, while Germany has become increasingly dependent on Russian natural gas to fuel its powerful economy.
And then there is Turkey which has the second biggest military in NATO after the United States.
Given its ambiguous posture in the war against the so-called Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq, where for years it did not lift a finger, and its increasingly cozy relations with Moscow, including the deployment of an advanced anti-aircraft missile system incompatible with NATO’s arms and logistics, one might be tempted to ask whose side Ankara is really on.
The situation was made much worse in October when Trump gave Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria and kill or displace the Kurdish forces that have been vital to the U.S.—and French—and other coalition efforts to crush ISIS. Alongside the Turkish troops, and supported by Ankara, are jihadists who are themselves hard to distinguish from ISIS fighters and in some cases are every bit as savage. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is insisting all of NATO endorse his view that the real terrorists are the anti-ISIS Kurds.
Under the circumstances—and Macron comes close to saying this as he demands strategic “clarification”—the question can become not who needs NATO, but who needs Turkey?
The great irony is that militarily, partly because of Trump’s incitement, NATO probably is stronger than ever, and potentially a better bulwark against overt Russian aggression than it was in the Obama years, as Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings pointed out earlier this week. “I would still say NATO’s doing a pretty good job of preventing the big threat, the worst case scenario and that’s reason enough to keep it.”
But what does it stand for? “NATO still represents more than half of all world military spending, and collectively about 40 percent of world GDP,” O’Hanlon told The Daily Beast in a conference call. “I like the fact that we’re unified with countries that have similar values, and democratic traditions, and also some shared history, which hasn’t always been pretty when we’ve not been unified, and when we fought each other.”
O’Hanlon said he “would much prefer having a weak divided NATO to uncertainty about who’s with whom, in the European security order.”
Perhaps, but with Trump and Erdogan as major players—and the added wild card of Trump’s reaction to impeachment—that uncertainty is only likely to grow.
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