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As NATO Celebrates 70th Anniversary New Challenges Emerge

April 5, 2019 by HJ Mai
Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as he addresses a joint session of Congress on April 3, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 70th anniversary this week, making it the longest lasting alliance in history. It may also be the “most successful alliance” in history, according to current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“No NATO ally has been attacked by another country. The Cold War ended without a shot being fired in Europe. And we have experienced an unprecedented period of peace,” Stoltenberg said in an address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.

While the military alliance has undoubtedly played a vital role in securing peace and prosperity across Western Europe, it is facing tough questions and challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.  

“We face unprecedented challenges, challenges no one nation can face alone. The global balance of power is shifting. The fight against terrorism is a generational fight. We have only just seen the beginning of the threats in cyberspace,” Stoltenberg said. “And we will need to continue to deal with a more assertive Russia.”

When the trans-Atlantic coalition was created in 1949, its first Secretary General Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay famously said NATO’s purpose is to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Fast-forward 70 years, and the Soviet Union has collapsed, U.S.-European relations are fragile, and Germany is one of NATO’s core members.

Since taking over the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO members for their failure to adhere to the obligations of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. This criticism has raised concerns among European NATO allies, who have started to question America’s commitment to the alliance.

And the reality is, Trump is incorrect. NATO members began increasing their defense spending in 2015, on the heels of a 2014 summit at which treaty participants promised to start spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense within a decade.

The 2 percent target dates back to 2002 but was non-binding until 2014, when the Russian annexation of Crimea brought new urgency to the military situation in Europe.

NATO scholar Garret Martin told The Well News that despite Trump referring to the alliance as “obsolete,” NATO remains an important instrument for American foreign policy and military operations.

“NATO is still very important, very relevant for the U.S. It’s very important in terms of military force projection for the United States, but it’s also very much a political alliance. NATO offers an incredible forum by which the United States can work, build ties and cohesion with 28 other nations as part of the western world,” Martin, a lecturer at American University’s School of International Service, said.

Russia, which has reemerged on the world stage under President Vladimir Putin, presents the biggest outside threat to the alliance. In response to Russian aggression ­- from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the recent incident in the Kerch Strait — NATO has increased its troop presence in Eastern Europe. In addition to establishing a military deterrence, the alliance is also encouraging a dialogue with Moscow.

“We do not want to isolate Russia. We strive for a better relationship with Russia,” Stoltenberg said.

However, improving the relationship between the U.S., NATO and Russia appears unlikely at this stage, Martin said.  

“The differences between Russia and the West right now are pretty intractable. And I really don’t see any willingness on either part for major reconciliation, or to try and de-escalate. I’m not very optimistic that we’re going to see a major change in the next year or so,” he said.

The issue of burden sharing is currently causing tensions within NATO. Trump has been especially hard on Germany, which is the second largest economy among the 29 NATO members.

“They’re not paying what they should be paying,” Trump said earlier this week. “They’re paying close to 1 percent, and they’re supposed to be paying 2 percent.”

Only seven NATO members currently meet the 2 percent target, according to a recent report.

“Division or friction within the alliance is not new,” Martin said. “Every single American president since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s has complained about burden sharing.”

A larger problem for NATO could be Turkey’s plan to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems. This decision together with the country’s democratic backslide under authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows a flaw in the NATO charter.

“It raises a difficult question as the alliance doesn’t really have a mechanism to kick out a state if it starts backsliding democratically,” he said. “That could be an issue down the line.”

Yes, there are challenging issues ahead for NATO — both internally and externally — but if the last 70 years proved anything, it is that the alliance is capable of overcoming them and adapting to new responsibilities.

“NATO, in my view, is very resilient and very well prepared to adapt to changing international circumstances,” Martin.

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