NATO’s Never-Ending Struggle for Relevance

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COVID-19 will disrupt NATO as it has everything else, worsening pre-existing fault lines. The alliance is more than capable of weathering the current storm: It has consistently proven its durability since completing its original Cold War mission of deterring Soviet aggression. But the pandemic presents an opportunity to address longstanding challenges. Doing so will require a U.S. president who believes in NATO and in democracy, and if there is a change in the White House in January, the United States should work with its allies to reimagine burden-sharing, defend against democratic backsliding, and help the alliance cautiously pivot toward China.

Burden-sharing has long been a major source of bickering within the alliance, with Washington bemoaning its European partners for not meeting the pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. That tension, however, could easily further escalate in light of the significant economic challenges that NATO member states will face due to COVID-19 and the pressure to spend on bolstering their public health infrastructure.



Similarly, the authoritarian turn in recent years among NATO members such as Hungary, Poland, and Turkey (not to mention the United States) has already created political rifts within the alliance. Far from being chastened or distracted by the pandemic, leaders such as Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have taken advantage of the current crisis to consolidate their rule and further stifle dissent.

Finally, even before COVID-19, the West was increasingly shifting toward a more confrontational stance with China, albeit in an often uncoordinated manner. While the European Union has undoubtedly hardened its position toward China — labeling it a “systemic rival” in 2019 — it has also balked at the heavy-handed pressure from Washington to take a more punitive line toward Beijing. NATO, for its part, publicly signaled a growing focus on China in 2019, but only in a very limited way given continued transatlantic divergences over the role of the alliance in combating the China challenge.

Although deterring and defending against an aggressive Russia will remain high on NATO’s agenda, rethinking the nature of burden-sharing, finding ways to address democratic backsliding, and defining the alliance’s role in dealing with China will be central to navigating a post-COVID-19 world.

Reimagine Burden-Sharing

All U.S. presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have complained about their European allies not doing their fair share. But President Donald Trump has turned this reproach into an obsession, frequently using the 2 percent metric as a bludgeon against allies and to question the value of NATO.

In July 2020, Trump once again denounced Germany for being “delinquent” on what he calls their “NATO fees” to justify his decision to withdraw a third of the American troops stationed there. The constant focus on burden-sharing has undermined the alliance’s cohesion, and it has overshadowed other achievements, such as the adoption of a NATO Readiness Initiative at the 2018 alliance summit in Brussels.

While its simplicity has made it appealing, numerous experts have long criticized the 2 percent target. It is an arbitrary metric, mathematically absurd, and divorced from the core tasks of NATO. There is, therefore, a very strong case to retire the 2 percent metric in normal times, but the extraordinary circumstances created by COVID-19 make this even more urgent.

First, the 2 percent pledge seems especially obsolete considering the major economic shocks caused by the pandemic. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s June 2020 Economic Outlook projects a 9.1 to 11.5 percent GDP decline for the Euro area in 2020. That is a significantly more severe impact than the 2009 Great Recession, when the European Union experienced a 4.5 percent contraction. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy dropped faster in the second quarter of 2020 than in any other quarter since modern records have been kept.

This adverse economic environment will inevitably affect NATO. Combined European defense spending dropped by about $27 billion in the six years following the Great Recession. Jane’s now forecasts that European defense expenditure will amount to $270.9 billion by 2025, down nearly 20 percent from the pre-COVID-19 estimate of $324.4 billion.

Second, the 2 percent metric will seem increasingly irrelevant as NATO member states will have to tackle many other priorities connected to COVID-19. Citizens will expect their governments to concentrate on economic recovery and invest more in public health systems, which have faced great strains during the pandemic. If Europe and Canada continue to manage the pandemic better than the United States, traditional NATO defense spending laggards will see building up health infrastructure as a rather wise investment.

Third, recent defense spending trends could make it easier to sell the retirement of the 2 percent metric. Prior to the pandemic, Europe and Canada boasted five years of consecutive increases in defense spending. This offers a clear face-saving option for the alliance. It can suggest that dramatic external circumstances, rather than a lack of will, are driving its decision to move toward a different definition of burden-sharing, and that member states maintain a commitment to common defense against a full range of national security threats.

Shelving the 2 percent pledge does not have to signal a disinterest for security — quite the opposite. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg correctly warned, “security challenges have not diminished because of COVID-19.” The alliance can use removing the 2 percent guide as an opportunity to address longstanding problems such as narrow definitions of national security — especially considering public demands to protect against challenges such as the pandemic.

Additionally, with the likely pressure on defense spending, European states will need to avoid the mistake of the Great Recession, which witnessed “uncoordinated national defense cuts instead of harmonized European decisions.” By focusing on greater cooperation, European states could mitigate the enduring inefficiency and ineffectiveness of its defense spending, marked by excessive duplication.

Moreover, NATO recently appointed a group of experts to support Stoltenberg’s efforts to further strengthen the alliance’s political dimension. By moving away from the 2 percent pledge and the excessive focus on financial sharing, this group has a golden chance to redefine burden-sharing, long a bone of contention among allies. It can instead craft a new metric that would be less divisive, more focused on outputs and capabilities, and more closely tied to the core tasks of the alliance.

Defend Against Democratic Backsliding

The preamble to the 1949 Washington Treaty establishing NATO states that the signatories “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Article II declares, “The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions.”

Even so, among the original 12 NATO members, Portugal did not become a democracy until 1974. As for Greece and Turkey, which joined the alliance in 1952, the former was governed by a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, while the latter was the subject of multiple military-led coups. During the Cold War, geopolitical realities led NATO to ignore these transgressions.

Geopolitics continue to make it difficult for NATO to address democratic backsliding. Turkey has long been a critical partner in NATO’s positioning toward the Black Sea region and the Middle East. Poland has become NATO’s most important ally from the former Warsaw Pact. Although democracy and the rule of law have been prerequisites to NATO accession since the end of the Cold War — even leading the alliance to exclude Slovakia from the first round of post-Cold War NATO enlargement in 1999 due to democratic backsliding — NATO has been unable to stop members such as Turkey, Hungary, and Poland from taking an authoritarian turn since joining.

Since NATO operates by consensus and has no clause for expelling a member state, it is not well-equipped to enforce the commitments to democracy and the rule of law it sought from candidate countries. There are no treaty provisions enabling the alliance to suspend or expel a member state in violation of core alliance principles. Jonathan Katz and Torrey Taussig have written, “There is not even a proper venue at NATO — for example the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO’s main decision-making body — to raise matters that some consider a direct threat to the alliance’s core principles,” and they suggest, among other measures, “forming a new governance committee that addresses these issues.” They and others have also noted that the NATO assistant secretary-general for political affairs and security policy could play more of a role in preparing reports on non-democratic measures taken by individual members, an initiative that would have more backing if there is a change in the administration in the United States.

While NATO faces constraints as a forum to address authoritarianism, ignoring the backsliding today would be a blot on the alliance (as Donald Trump’s embrace of the Hungarian leader has been). NATO members should use their bilateral relationships to pressure, rather than reward, Hungary and Poland, including by withholding foreign direct investment.

Authoritarianism within NATO is not just a threat because the alliance is based on democratic values, but because it makes less democratic countries more vulnerable to the threats posed by information manipulation and election interference from Russia and other outside meddlers — shoring up democracy, including in the United States, strengthens the security and integrity of individual countries.

A Cautious Pivot Toward China

In December 2019, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear that China is now on NATO’s radar screen: “There’s no way that NATO will move into the South China Sea, but we have to address the fact that China is coming closer to us, investing heavily in infrastructure.”

Following continuous pressure by the Trump administration, the alliance agreed in April 2019 to initiate a study of China’s more assertive role on the international stage. This culminated in NATO formally acknowledging, in its December 2019 summit declaration, that “China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” And in June 2020, Stoltenberg suggested that although NATO did not regard China as an enemy, it had to nonetheless pay greater attention to the security consequences tied to its rise.

This growing momentum means that the question is no longer whether NATO should engage with China but how — particularly since the alliance remains in a standoff with Russia in Eastern Europe. However, China presents a novel and complex challenge for NATO and it cannot rush into a confrontation. Four important considerations should shape NATO’s approach.

China Is Not the Soviet Union

For all the talk of a new Cold War, this analogy obfuscates as much as it enlightens. As historian Odd Arne Westad argues, for all the similarities, there are equally key differences that distinguish China from the Soviet Union: Beijing has far greater economic clout; modern Chinese citizens, unlike their earlier Soviet (and Chinese) counterparts, now live in a more market-oriented society; and the U.S. and Chinese economies are intertwined in a way that differ markedly from the U.S. and Soviet experience in the Cold War. Despite talk of “decoupling,” China is continuing to integrate into global financial markets, which is something the Soviet Union never did.

Avoid the Rush to Take on New Tasks

NATO is well-suited to take on new responsibilities thanks to the ambiguity of its founding text. That has served the alliance well over time, allowing it to adapt to changing circumstances or to help ensure its relevance. Indeed, NATO chose at times to step in and tackle novel and unforeseen challenges, either because it possessed specific operational capabilities or because no other institution was up to the task. This was the case in the interventions in the former Yugoslavia or the assistance provided after natural disasters such as the Indonesian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

That is not, however, the case with China. Aside from internal difficulties, NATO is not facing an immediate threat to its survival, nor does it need new functions to justify its relevance. And unlike prior challenges that demanded pressing action — such as Kosovo or humanitarian disasters — China’s rise will be a challenge for decades. NATO would therefore be better served by carefully determining how and where Beijing affects core interests of the alliance in order to define its terms of engagement with China.

Repairing Transatlantic Divisions

There has been some limited transatlantic convergence in recent years, as the European Union has toughened its stance, labeling China a “systemic rival” in 2019, as noted above. Furthermore, the pandemic’s origins in China and the Beijing government’s initial response to the virus have given more voice to those who see China as a threat. Recently, the United States and Europe have quietly increased their cooperation when trying to tackle China, such as over the Belt and Road Initiative.

Yet Europe and the United States should not rush into action. Seeking unity on China before trying to repair the deeply strained transatlantic partnership would be akin to putting the cart before the horse. The United States and its European allies first need to mitigate their major differences over issues such as trade, Iran, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. These have created deep scars, which will not heal easily, and they have fundamentally affected European trust in American leadership. Trying to force a consensus on China could easily backfire.

This is particularly important considering the current divisions on China, whether across the Atlantic, or within Europe. As German Marshall Fund scholar Noah Barkin has noted, the United States and Europe do not speak the same language on China nor do they yet agree on how to define the competition with Beijing. That gap has played out particularly clearly over the thorny subject of 5G and Huawei.

Use NATO as a Forum for Discussion

China presents a full spectrum challenge for NATO. And the alliance has, according to defense experts Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning, tried to frame China in a “context defined by societal resilience, critical infrastructure, and the security of communications and new operational domains such as cyber and outer space.”

There are areas where NATO can, and should, implement measures to bolster its capacity to engage with China. As suggested by former Pentagon official Ian Brzezinski, strengthening political ties with other major democracies in the Indo-Pacific region would certainly make sense, as would using NATO as a forum for greater exchanges on China. Moreover, NATO would benefit from building up its internal expertise on China.

But for other key areas, NATO might not be best suited to take the lead. The alliance does not, as emphasized by Ringsmose and Rynning, “have a legacy or profile of being a tool for regulating political-economy issues.” Rather, when it comes to screening investments, cybersecurity in 5G networks, or tackling disinformation, NATO would benefit from adopting a more supporting role and coordinating with other actors, especially the European Union. Serving as a forum for discussion in partnership with the European Union to create a more common transatlantic position on China would serve NATO members well.

NATO’s Future and U.S. Leadership

Although NATO seems perpetually in crisis, it has shown a remarkable ability to pursue strategic goals and maintain operational effectiveness even after its original mission of containing the Soviet Union disappeared. It has incorporated 14 new members from across Central and Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. It contained and reversed Serbian aggression in the western Balkans in the 1990s. It sustained a long-term presence in Afghanistan. It has delivered humanitarian assistance in far-flung locales such as Indonesia. It demonstrated solidarity in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. And it continues to be viewed favorably among most member states.

While maintaining its deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia will remain alliance’s raison d’etre, the COVID-19 pandemic and the longer-term challenges posed by China will present stern tests for NATO. The alliance is well-equipped to handle crises and could even emerge stronger from the pandemic, but part of that will depend on developments in Washington.

If a new American president takes office in January 2021, his administration has an opportunity to rethink burden-sharing and redefine national security to include resilience in the face of disruptive shocks. These include not only the immediate shock of the pandemic but longer-term disruptions that will be posed by issues like climate change and artificial intelligence. A first step would be to shift from talking about the need for members to meet the 2 percent threshold on defense spending to talking about how NATO — working with the European Union — can bolster the security of the citizens of its member states by increasing capacity to manage a range of threats. And while NATO is less suited as an institution to foster toward China the type of common strategy it has maintained vis-à-vis Russia, it can play a role as a forum for discussion.

Core to NATO’s future is its standing as an alliance of democracies, particularly given that its principal strategic competitors are China and Russia, major authoritarian powers. That has been put to the test by illiberal trends in countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. NATO does not have provisions for suspending or expelling members, but member states can speak loudly on behalf of democratic values and use their bilateral relationships to pressure authoritarian rulers.

To address all of these issues, however, rebuilding democratic norms and institutions in the United States will be a key initial step. Any prescriptions for NATO’s future depend first and foremost on a U.S. president who believes in democracy and alliances. Without one, NATO risks having no future at all.



James Goldgeier is a Robert Bosch senior visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, where he served as dean from 2011-17. You can follow him on twitter @JimGoldgeier.

Garret Martin is a senior professorial lecturer at American University’s School of International Service, and the co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center at American University. You can follow his center on twitter @AU_EuropeCenter.

The authors thank Agneska Bloch for her help preparing this article.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Pfc. Raekwon Jenkins)