This Time, NATO Is in Trouble for Real

A general view of the Prague NATO summit at the Prague Congress Centre, on Nov. 21, 2002. GERARD CERLES/AFP via Getty Images
A general view of the Prague NATO summit at the Prague Congress Centre, on Nov. 21, 2002. GERARD CERLES/AFP via Getty Images

When any institution—a university, a corporation, a think tank, or even a married couple—reaches its 75th anniversary, you can expect to hear its supporters offer up a rose-colored litany of its accomplishments, virtues, and remarkable longevity. The NATO summit in Washington will be no exception: There are bound to be plenty of speeches celebrating the alliance’s past achievements and extolling its role as the cornerstone of trans-Atlantic relations.

Yet one cannot ignore the dark clouds casting ominous shadows over NATO’s upcoming love fest. Donald Trump is an even-money bet to return as U.S. president in 2025, the far-right National Rally is now the most powerful political movement in France, Hungary’s Viktor Orban remains a disruptive force, and Europeans and Americans are divided over the Israel-Hamas war, China, the regulation of digital technologies, and the best way to help an increasingly beleaguered Ukraine.

Some observers might say this is nothing new. The alliance has faced serious crises throughout its history, and reports of its impending demise (including my own) have always turned out to be premature. The 1956 Suez crisis was a serious rift, and so was the Vietnam War. Disputes over military doctrine (and especially the role of nuclear weapons) strained the alliance throughout the Cold War (remember the Euromissiles controversy?) and intra-alliance discord was apparent during the 1999 war over Kosovo. Germany and France openly opposed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Trump has complained—sometimes bitterly—about Europe’s tendency to free-ride on U.S. protection. Maybe today’s troubles are just more of the same, and everyone should start planning for another big birthday celebration in 2029.

This view should not be casually dismissed. Once created, institutions often endure long after the circumstances in which they were formed have vanished, which is why Britain and France are still permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. NATO’s persistence is reinforced by a large and well-established bureaucracy in Brussels and a supportive penumbra of former officials, pro-Atlanticist pundits, and well-funded think tanks that defend it at every turn. Given the breadth of elite support, it’s a safe bet that next week’s summit won’t be NATO’s last.

Yet the situation today is markedly different than these previous moments of intra-alliance tension, and the forces threatening NATO’s future go beyond the personal inclinations of individual leaders such as Trump or Marine Le Pen. Indeed, their views (and the growing acceptance of them) are as much a symptom of these broader forces as an independent cause.

The most obvious source of strain is the shifting distribution of world power. When NATO was formed in 1949, its European members were recovering from World War II and the Soviet Union appeared to pose a threat that Europe could not handle without active U.S. assistance. Europe was also one of the key centers of industrial power in the world and thus an especially valuable strategic prize. States form alliances primarily to address shared threats, and it made good sense for the United States to commit itself to Europe’s defense and maintain a sizable military presence there.

Those days are long gone. The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are no more, and Russia no longer has the capacity to conquer and subdue the European continent. True, it is waging an illegal war in Ukraine and might one day threaten the small Baltic states, but the idea that the Russian army is going to launch a blitzkrieg into Poland and drive to the English Channel is laughable. An army that has had its hands full against a smaller and weaker Ukraine is not about to become an instrument of rapid territorial expansion, even if Vladimir Putin harbored such ambitions.

Meanwhile, China has emerged as a peer competitor to the United States (and the senior partner to Putin’s Russia), a formidable technological challenger, and the world’s largest trading nation. Today, Asia’s share of the world economy (54 percent) is substantially larger than Europe’s (17 percent), and its contribution to global economic growth is higher, too. China is also advancing territorial claims that could fundamentally alter the security environment there. For purely structural reasons, therefore, Asia rightly commands a greater share of U.S. attention today, and Europe rightly merits less. This is not to say Europe is of no importance whatsoever, but it no longer occupies pride of place among U.S. strategic interests. There has been a lot of chatter recently about NATO taking on a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, and observers from some Asian countries will be in attendance at the summit, but NATO’s European members couldn’t do much to affect the balance of power in Asia even if they wanted to.

Questions about NATO’s purpose began as soon as the Soviet Union broke up, and one must give the member states credit for coming up with new rationales and missions as the years wore on. The problem, however, is that most of these new endeavors didn’t work out that well. NATO enlargement added new security requirements but didn’t add additional capacity to meet them, and it was cost-free only as long as Russia remained weak and compliant. Predictions that open-ended expansion eastward would lead to a Europe that was “whole, free, and at peace” look rather hollow today, with a brutal war raging in Ukraine and relations with Russia in the deep freeze. NATO can claim a partial success in the 1999 Kosovo War, but that fight was hardly a testament to intra-alliance solidarity, and politics in the Balkans remain delicate at best. NATO members rallied behind the United States after the 9/11 attacks—invoking Article 5 for the first and only time—but the alliance’s subsequent efforts at so-called nation-building in Afghanistan were a costly failure. The joint Anglo-French-American intervention in Libya in 2011 was not a NATO operation, but it was a clear example of trans-Atlantic security cooperation, and the result was another failed state. NATO has clearly helped Ukraine survive the initial Russian invasion and defend most of its territory, but the war isn’t likely to end with a clear triumph for the alliance to celebrate. Given this track record, one can understand why doubts about its value have grown even as the security environment in Europe has deteriorated.

Finally, NATO is in trouble precisely because it has lasted so long and the familiar cliches about shared values and trans-Atlantic solidarity do not resonate as powerfully as they once did, especially for younger generations. The percentage of Americans of European descent is declining, further eroding emotional connections to the “old country”, and events such as World War II, the Berlin airlift, and the fall of the Berlin Wall are ancient history to younger citizens who came of age during the global war on terrorism or the 2008 financial crisis and whose political consciousness is focused more on climate change than on power politics. Not surprisingly, younger Americans are less persuaded by claims of U.S. exceptionalism and less inclined to support an active internationalist role than their predecessors. None of this augurs well for a security partnership that is still heavily dependent on the United States acting as first responder whenever trouble arises across the pond.

To repeat: I doubt NATO will collapse, even if Trump becomes president again and more NATO skeptics gain power in Europe. But there are powerful structural forces gradually pulling Europe and the United States apart, and those trends will continue regardless of what happens in November, in Ukraine, or in Europe itself. So enjoy the 75th anniversary, but don’t take the fulsome statements of trans-Atlantic solidarity that you are likely to hear too seriously. Europe and the United States are gradually drifting apart, and the only important question is how fast it will happen and how far it will go.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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