- - Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Perception can be reality, but sometimes perception is only perception. In the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the growing menace of radical Islamic terror has focused attention on whether the alliance has the ability to defend its members, or whether when push comes to shove it can be shoved to the margin. NATO’s response to President Trump’s challenge will determine whether it can be depended on to defeat an enemy.

In Brussels last week for the NATO summit, Mr. Trump heard assurances that the organization is fully committed to joining a U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State, or ISIS, a promise amplified by the echoes of the latest outrage in Manchester bombing. The president didn’t indulge the usual American hesitation to tell the allies to put their money where their mouths are. Most of those allies have failed to pay their obligatory 2 percent of gross domestic product for the common defense. “Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” the president said. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. Many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.”

The president rightly retreated from his campaign taunt that NATO is “obsolete,” but he is clearly counting on the alliance to join the United States and certain other nations to take up the cause of defeating terrorism. Indeed, NATO has enjoyed a surprising resurgence in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. A Pew Research Center survey last week finds that following a sharp decline in which barely half of Americans in 2016 viewed NATO favorably, 62 percent now have a positive view. In Europe, support ranged last year from well below 50 percent in Spain to 72 percent in Poland. Support has risen since in all European nations, with a high of 79 percent in Poland and the Netherlands.

The Pew survey perceives ideology as influencing favorability, and that’s not surprising. “Behind the overall uptick in favorable views of NATO, there are sharp political and partisan differences in how the public in member countries perceive the alliance,” Pew finds. In the United States, 81 percent of liberals are NATO-friendly and 48 percent of conservatives are.

The most critical question for NATO is whether it will honor the commitment to Article 5 of the charter, which obligates each nation to consider an armed attack against one state an attack on all. A solid majority of 62 percent of Americans surveyed say the U.S. should defend an ally in an armed conflict with Russia, and 31 percent disagree. European attitudes range from a 72 to 23 percent on the question in the Netherlands to 40 to 53 percent majority opposition in Germany. Pew attributes the level of support for the common defense in a nation to its vulnerability: “In most countries surveyed, the more people perceive Russia as a major threat, the greater their willingness to come to a security partner’s defense.”

NATO has yet to face a real threat. The organization came to the aid of the United States in the Afghanistan War following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but otherwise it has mustered forces mostly in limited conflicts — the Bosnian War and Kosovo intervention in the 1990s and the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011. If the alliance can obliterate Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and in their midst at home, it will prove to all doubters that it is a real military force — and far from obsolete.

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