Why NATO, at 70, Is Facing New Doubt and Criticism

(Bloomberg) -- Criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has shaken seven decades of defense policy and raised questions about the continuing purpose and durability of the military alliance connecting the U.S., Canada and Europe. Among the concerns: Would an armed attack against any member country still be considered an attack against all? Does President Donald Trump’s call for an expanded NATO role in the Mideast change the landscape? How should the alliance handle Turkey’s military incursion into Syria? French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, has assailed what he’s called the “brain death of NATO.”

1. Why does NATO exist?

It was founded in 1949 to protect Europe against Soviet attack during the Cold War and has come to represent an underlying partnership between North America and Europe based on shared political and economic values. The pledge of collective defense, spelled out in Article 5 of the NATO treaty, established that an attack against one NATO member is considered an attack against all of them, increasing the risks for any potential aggressor.

Why NATO, at 70, Is Facing New Doubt and Criticism

2. What’s its modern function?

NATO’s role since the collapse of the Soviet Union has expanded to include bombing Serb forces during the Bosnia and Kosovo wars of the 1990s, enforcing an arms embargo on Libya in 2011, helping Europe tackle a flood of Middle Eastern refugees that erupted in 2015, and stepping up cyber defense. Since Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine in 2014, the alliance has refocused on the military threat from Russia, deploying multinational battle groups in eastern Europe to reassure allies there and upgrading its command structure for the first time since the end of the Cold War. A 2019 summit expanded NATO’s remit to make outer space an “operational domain” along with air, land, sea and cyberspace. At the December meeting, leaders also for the first time addressed challenges posed by China and -- amid U.S. allegations that Chinese telecommunication-equipment supplier Huawei Technologies Co. represents an espionage threat -- vowed to ensure the security of new fifth-generation wireless networks.

3. How many countries are in NATO?

Its membership has grown from 12 to 29 nations, with Montenegro the most recent to join (in 2017). North Macedonia is due to become the 30th member in 2020.

4. How often has Article 5 been activated?

Just once, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The alliance used Airborne Warning and Control System planes to help patrol the skies over the U.S. That was followed by ship monitoring in the Mediterranean Sea, participation in the war in Afghanistan and the training of Iraqi soldiers.

5. Why the worries over NATO’s future?

Macron described fading U.S. commitment and a lack of consultation under Trump as undermining the foundations of the alliance. The French president pointed to Trump’s decision in October to green-light a military incursion by Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest army, into neighboring Syria to challenge Kurdish forces. France was among the NATO members that opposed what Macron called Turkey’s “uncoordinated aggressive action.” A further disagreement involving Turkey stems from its decision to buy a Russian missile system known as S-400. Since then the situation has deteriorated, with thousands of troops from Turkey and allied Syrian rebels launching a counteroffensive in February to free Turkish units in the northwestern province of Idlib cut off by an advance from Syria’s Russia-backed government. Tensions rose again between Turkey and Russia on Feb. 27 when a Syrian government airstrike in Idlib killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers.

6. What is Trump’s concern about NATO?

During his 2016 election campaign, Trump alarmed U.S. allies in Europe by suggesting the U.S. commitment to defend fellow NATO countries should depend on whether their military spending was high enough. European nations seeking a reassurance on this point were disappointed at a May 2017 Brussels summit, where Trump refused to offer an explicit endorsement of NATO’s collective-defense clause. (Two weeks later, in a press conference in Washington, Trump said he was “absolutely” committed to the clause.)

7. How is NATO funded?

Two ways. Countries make contributions based roughly on their gross national income to finance NATO’s relatively small annual budget, which is 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) and covers the alliance’s headquarters, its integrated command and its own limited military capabilities. The U.S. bore the heaviest share until a 2019 decision to reduce the country’s portion from 22% to 16%, the same as Germany’s after all European member countries except France agreed to raise their contributions to make up the difference. Most of NATO’s capacity comes from the armed forces of member nations. In 2006, they set a “guideline” to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. In 2014, they agreed to “aim to move towards” the target by 2024. Nine members were expected to meet the goal in 2019.

8. What changes does Trump want?

He upended a July 2018 NATO summit by demanding that members meet the 2% level immediately and even broached the idea of doubling the target to 4%. He raised the prospect of the U.S. “going it alone” if allies don’t comply. In a subsequent press conference, Trump said he didn’t think such a move was necessary and that “everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment.” Defense spending by the European members of NATO and by Canada has been increasing more rapidly, with their extra outlays in the period 2016-2020 projected to total $130 billion -- a development for which Trump has been quick to claim credit. In January, Trump suggested the alliance should become more involved in the Middle East as tensions in the region flared.

9. Has the U.S. always spent more on defense?

Yes, but the imbalance has grown. Military spending increased in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and decreased in Europe after the Cold War ended in 1990 and again after the financial crisis broke out in 2008. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. share of defense spending by NATO members as a whole has risen to about 70% from 58%. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, which aims to boost its spending on defense to 1.5% of GDP by 2024, has insisted on looking beyond purely military expenditures. She argues that because development aid is vital to security, it should be included in contributions toward the common defense.

The Reference Shelf

  • Macron spelled out his concerns about NATO in an interview with The Economist.
  • A Foreign Policy article on NATO’s 2017 summit.
  • A Pew Research Center survey showing an improved NATO image.
  • A Bloomberg News story from 2015 on NATO’s eastern defense plan.

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