70 years on, is NATO past its sell-by date?

Calling the shots: NATO leaders in 2017 Brussels Summit
Apr 02 2019 Posted: 10:05 IST

Author: Professor Ray Murphy

Opinion: NATO has moved far from a core mission "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." 

Former NATO Secretary General Lord Ismay is once famously reputed to have said that NATO’s core mission was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." A range of external and internal events have created a perfect storm that poses an existential crisis for NATO’s future.

Founded in 1949 as a mutual defence organisation to counter Soviet expansionism in Europe, NATO today faces a multiple range of threats. Ironically, its biggest challenge is posed by its most powerful member, the United States. Lack of American leadership under an antagonistic and unpredictable President Trump have proved a blessing for NATO’s enemies, especially Russia. Trump has criticised what he sees as lack of commitment by NATO allies, tweeting in June 2018 that "the US pays close to the entire cost of NATO-protecting many of these same countries that rip us off on Trade (they pay only a fraction of the cost-and laugh!)."

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in 2016, Andrew Cottey from UCC's Department of Government on Donald Trump and NATO

During the recent visit of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to the White House for St Patrick's Day, Trump could not restrain himself from having a swipe at his European allies when he accused the EU of treating the US unfairly while threatening to impose trade tariffs. A planned NATO leaders meeting in Washington to mark its 70th anniversary was downgraded to that of foreign ministers amidst fears of the chaos Trump might cause. This is in stark contrast with the 50-year celebration hosted by President Clinton in 1999.

NATO is based on an international treaty, Article 5 of which embodies the core commitment to mutual defence. An attack upon one is considered an attack on them all. This provision was invoked in response to the Al-Quaeda September 11th 2001 attacks on the United States. There were a number of remarkable aspects to this, chiefly that it led to military action outside of Europe in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO and with the support of the UN.

NATO does not provide the best mechanism to confront contemporary challenges

This was not what the founders had envisioned for NATO, but it was evidence of its ability to adapt. But even then, cracks in the edifice were evident with resentment among the allies that some members were shouldering an unfair burden. It may also be asked what the war in Afghanistan has achieved after 18 years.  Interventions in Afghanistan and Libya have come at an enormous human cost and ending the Afghan conflict must be a priority.

Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded incrementally but significantly into Eastern and Central Europe. Not surprisingly, this has alarmed Russia as the west is perceived to be encroaching into the former Soviet sphere of influence and threatening Moscow. It is also a violation of a reputed US pledge not to do so after Germany’s reunification in 1990.

From RTÉ Archives, a 1974 episode of Seven Days asks if it's time for Ireland to join NATO

While the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 have complex causes, they are also linked to NATO policies. In 2014, Putin complained bitterly of NATO’s expansion to the east and contemporary manifestations of the centuries old efforts to contain Russia. For its part, there is overwhelming evidence of Russian efforts to meddle in the political affairs of Western states. In fact, such efforts highlight that one of the main threats to all European states, NATO and non-NATO members alike, is the risk of a cyber-attack. This does not have to be on a scale to precipitate armed conflict, but all economies and civilian infrastructures are vulnerable.

A further major threat is posed by Poland, Hungary and Turkey, all of which have moved to the right contrary to the democratic values espoused by NATO. These developments, along with a truculent Trump, are undermining relations between member states and the cohesion of the alliance. In the past, maintaining this cohesion was one of NATO’s success stories, but this is no longer the case. 

Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has expanded incrementally but significantly into Eastern and Central Europe

Trump has threatened to withdraw from NATO. Such a turn of events would end the Atlantic Alliance as currently constituted and present Russia with a major victory. For that reason alone, this might not be a good development right now. 

In the context of maintaining peace in Europe, the EU has played a much more significant role than that of NATO. It is worth recalling that it is not that long since the war in the former Yugoslavia and it will take some generations to overcome the legacy of that bitter ethnic conflict. NATO was critical in enforcing a peace agreement to end the fighting.

From RTÉ Archives, Colm Murray reports for RTÉ News on the arrival of a Dutch NATO submarine in Dublin in November 1986

Is NATO past its sell by date? The United States under Trump has proved itself an unreliable ally and this is despite the fact that the US has much to gain from NATO membership. At the very least, American pressure on its NATO allies to spend more on defence should be countered with an argument that the US should spend less. If the US keeps up its current level of military expenditure, then Russia and China will respond similarly and the arms race escalates. 

Contrary to what some analysts might have us believe, there is no significant military threat from conventional Russian forces massing on the European frontier. Russia is in decline with an ageing population and shrinking economy. A more immediate threat to Europe stems from a combination of right wing populism, extremism and the risk of cyber-attack and political subversion from outside powers. The growth in Chinese technological and economic power also presents a more long term threat on the horizon. 

NATO does not provide the best mechanism to confront contemporary challenges. Large military budgets do not address the causes or consequences of political upheaval and social exclusion. Military expenditure does not neutralise extremism. It is often driven by the interests of what former US Allied Supreme Commander and President Eisenhower identified as the military-industrial complex.

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