The changing world—not just Trump—is challenging NATO’s future

By Michael C. Desch

President Trump is ruffling trans-Atlantic feathers once again, this time planning to proceed to Moscow after meeting with NATO allies whom he is already needling about their relatively meager financial contribution to their own defense. Trump’s rhetoric may be undiplomatic, but he is tapping into something real: changing American interests and new geopolitical realities are calling into question NATO's future.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a non-profit organization dedicated to the eradication of childhood polio, was established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939. By the mid-1950s, childhood polio was almost eradicated. Rather than declare victory and close up shop, the March of Dimes took on new childhood public health challenges such as combatting birth defects. The March of Dimes accomplished its original mission and went on to solve other problems.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created a decade later, also enjoyed success. Established in 1949 to “keep the Russian out, the Americans in, and the Germans Down,” by 1989 NATO succeeded as the Iron Curtain fell and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Like the March of Dimes, it also sought new missions to justify its continuing existence such as consolidating East European democracy and keeping peace in the region. Unlike the March of Dimes, however, NATO’s second act after the Cold War has not garnered universal applause.

To understand why, recall that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West debated whether Germany should reunify. While not fully convinced that it was “three Reichs and you’re out,” the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev understood that reunification was inevitable. But since Russia and the Soviet Union had borne the brunt of German depredations in the two world wars, he was eager to minimize the danger a reunited Germany might pose down the road.

In discussions with former President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in late 1989 and early 1990, Gorbachev secured verbal assurances that a reunified Germany would remain in the Cold War alliance but that NATO would not expand beyond the old Inter-German border. Historians debate whether the United States’ subsequent retreat from these assurances marked bad-faith or simply strategic absent-mindedness. Either way, for Russians of all political stripes it did not matter as NATO began to talk about expansion to include states of the former Warsaw Pact and the recently collapsed Soviet Union.

Not coincidently, the turn of the century witnessed the first wave of NATO expansion and the ebbing of Russian democracy. In the late 1990s, Yeltsin would appoint a hitherto obscure former KGB Lt. Col. as Prime Minister. When Yeltsin resigned abruptly in 1999, Vladimir Putin succeed him as President of the Russian Federation, a move ratified by an election the next year. Since then, Putin has tightened his hold on power in the Kremlin through a combination of behind-the-scenes chicanery bolstered by widespread Russian public sentiment that only a strongman could rule Russia and stand up to the West.

Indeed, Putin’s most brazen acts—the 2008 war with the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the 2014 seizure of the Crimea and the ratcheting up of the proxy war in Eastern Ukraine—came after NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit, which opened the door for further expansion of NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine.

In late 2013 and early 2014, the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime of Viktor Yanukovych stepped back from an economic deal with the European Union and violent protests erupted in Kiev—supported by American NGOs and the U.S. Government—that forced Yanukovich to flee to Russia. Revisiting this history is important because many Americans have only a very hazy understanding of the geopolitical context that helped bring Putin to power—his recent malfeasance did not come out of the blue.

NATO’s efforts to remain relevant after victory have not solved new problems such as spreading democracy in those new states.

Of the 13 new NATO members admitted since the end of the Cold War, 10 have recently seen a decline in their democracy scores from their peak in the period between 1989 and 2017. Rather than  fully consolidating democracy, NATO expansion played an important role in recreating one of the old problems that it was originally established to solve. Seemingly a victim of its own success, NATO has gone from playing an important role in winning the Cold War to helping cause a new one.

None of this is to minimize Putin’s bad behavior in recent years nor to dismiss European concerns about it. You have to ask, though, how concerned can our wealthy allies be when their average defense spending is well below the agreed to NATO target of 2 percent of GDP?

Europe is fully capable of matching—indeed exceeding—Russia in almost every category of latent and actual military power. Given that, perhaps it is time to ask, as Trump is ham-handedly doing, whether Europe and the United States might be better served by a different security architecture in Europe that can undertake new security missions without rekindling the Cold War.

Michael C. Desch is a Packey J. Dee professor of political science at Notre Dame and director of the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC). He is author of the forthcoming book “Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security” (Princeton, 2019).

This piece was originally published by USA Today on July 11, 2018. Read more HERE.