- - Tuesday, April 2, 2019


On April 4, 1949, the foreign ministers of 10 Western European nations and Canada joined the United States in signing the NATO treaty. Though nuclear war with the Soviet Union was more than a possibility, a solemn crowd inside Washington, D.C.’s Mellon Auditorium was suffused with optimism, committed to containing the Soviet Union.

Seventy years later, the 29 foreign ministers of NATO’s member states will gather Thursday in the same auditorium to mark the anniversary. However, the mood will be anything but optimistic and unified. Instead, the participants, confronted with a resurgence of the Cold War, will be deeply concerned about the commitment of President Trump to the alliance, a growing U.S. focus on China, and the rise of anti-democratic governments within NATO’s own membership.

There can be no question that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a 20-year thaw the Cold War has ramped up under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. From Moscow, Russia has directed disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and election interventions against the United States, France, Great Britain and Estonia. Moreover, Russia violated international law when it invaded Georgia, used force to annex Crimea, and enlisted pro-Russian separatists to seize territory in eastern Ukraine. From the Baltic to the Black Sea the Kremlin has stepped up provocative and destabilizing military exercises, naval interventions, and violations of air space. Perhaps most concerning, Russia has developed a missile system which violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and threatens Euro-Atlantic security.

Given this aggression by Russia, are NATO members overly distraught about the U.S. commitment to the alliance? The answer is yes. Despite President Donald Trump’s caustic rhetoric during the campaign, once elected he confirmed his commitment to NATO and its Article 5 (an armed attack against one constitutes an attack against all). Even if Mr. Trump were tempted to withdraw, bipartisan congressional and public backing for NATO remains unwavering, as does support within his own administration. Mr. Trump’s real problem is that in his view most NATO members are not contributing their fair share to the defense burden. In that regard, Mr. Trump’s tough talk, together with complaints of his predecessors, has yielded results. Since 2014, non-U.S. members of NATO have collectively increased defense spending by $87 billion.

While Mr. Trump is right to ask for members, particularly Germany, to increase defense spending, NATO needs to devise a broader formula for measuring the value of each member’s defense contribution (i.e, a combination of cash, capabilities, and contributions that strengthen NATO), along with incentives that encourage and compel delinquent members to significantly increase the value of their respective strengths. The current 2 percent of GNP cash outlay for defense is an aspirational goal but it does not measure the value of a member’s contribution. For example, a member that has a modern transportation infrastructure that can move tanks and other heavy military equipment to strategic locations should be accorded additional credit even though such infrastructure expenses are not in its defense budget, whereas a member’s defense expenditures should be devalued if they are heavy on retired officers’ pensions but low on military equipment.

Concerns of non-U.S. members at the gatherings this week that America might concentrate its resources on China, thereby weakening its commitment to NATO, are understandable. After all, China is emerging as America’s most formidable competitor and is seeking dominance in military technology while Russia is a declining power. To the extent non-U.S. members assume more of the defense burden by increasing the value of their defense contributions, they enable the United States to focus on China without reducing its commitment to NATO.

Similarly, when NATO members convene on April 4 many will be correct to raise questions about the erosion of democratic values in the governments of Poland, Hungary and Turkey. When NATO was founded the glue that was to hold the alliance together was a commitment to core values of democracy liberty, and the rule of law. Since there is no provision in the NATO treaty to expel members that depart from these values, NATO officials should devise measures to deal with authoritarian members. It has been suggested that NATO might engage a consultant to review each member’s adherence to democratic practices and to issue reports. Members who violate democratic standards could be denied permission to participate in military exercises or access to NATO funding.

Notwithstanding fears of members and the somber mood that may prevail at Thursday’s ceremony in Washington, there is reason for optimism about NATO’s future. The resurgence of Putin’s Cold War has made the alliance as vitally necessary as it was in 1949. President Trump’s attacks on NATO have increased defense spending, solidified bipartisan support in Congress and mobilized support in Europe. NATO has nimbly responded by deploying combat battalions in key locations, addressing vulnerabilities in hybrid warfare, and preparing options to deter cyber attacks.

Although NATO was originally conceived by George Marshall and the other “wise men” of the post-World War II era as a necessary complement to the Marshall Plan, it has survived for seven decades as history’s most successful alliance precisely because it has been able to change and adapt. If George Marshall were alive he would be as “stirred up” today about containing Russia’s aggression as he was at the dawn of the Cold War.

• David L. Roll is a nonresident fellow of the German Marshall Fund and author of “George Marshall: Defender of the Republic,” to be released July 9.

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