By David T. Jones on July 16, 2018

Washington, DC ~ NATO was conceived in 1949 as an international security alliance against the imminent prospect of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion to conquer that part of Europe it did not already dominate.  The situation was, if not desperate, intensely challenging as massive Soviet forces had smashed Nazi armies on the Eastern Front and captured Berlin in 1945—only four years earlier—and consequently held the eastern half of pre-war Germany as well as half of Austria.  And, subsequently, Moscow eradicated any traces of incipient democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania.  More disconcerting, the Soviets orchestrated a coup in struggling democracy Czechoslovakia, transforming it into a Soviet satrap.  Communist parties were strong in France, Italy, and Greece (where armed insurgency was in progress).

Having just completed a bloody struggle against fascists throughout Europe, the United States was ready to resist communist domination by force of arms.  Washington had decided Europe was too important to lose; that the United States could not survive as a free democracy if a hostile ideology dominated Europe.  After defeating Hitler, we were not going to kowtow to Stalin.

Thus, throughout the Cold War, the NATO Alliance worked to build conventional defenses and simultaneously emphasize  “deterrence” through the potential use of nuclear weapons. 

For my part, I spent much of my career on the “NATO Desk” at the Department of State, in US Mission NATO in Belgium, and dealing with intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) from their inception/deployment in Europe through the negotiations and ratification of the 1987 INF Treaty that eliminated these missiles globally. 

The fear dominating the thinking of my generation of “Cold Warriors” was that we would face Soviet tank armies crashing through the Fulda Gap, heading toward the Rhine and the Channel.  And we would have to fight outnumbered and win or resort to nuclear weapons with the prospect of prompting mutual annihilation.  It was a daunting challenge.

But throughout the 40 years between NATO’s inception and the collapse of the Berlin Wall/USSR/and Soviet domination of the Warsaw Pact, Washington was endlessly irritated at the desultory manner in which NATO partners viewed defense/security.  There was an implicit “Let Uncle Sam Do It” attitude which ultimately infuriated Washington, particularly after NATO Europeans’ economies strengthened to the degree they could easily make greater defense commitments.  It seemed as if we cared more for European freedom and security than did Europeans.

Some Europeans were blunt.  They would not attempt to build conventional forces to the level matching potential Soviet attackers because, “We have no interest in making Europe safe for conventional war.”  Essentially, they wanted to deter any war with the prospect of immediate U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet heartland.  Such was not necessarily our optic, and, thus, we trained endlessly with annual military exercises to reinforce our troops rapidly and badgered Europeans for greater “burdensharing” commitments through annual reviews of each ally’s forces identifying what improvements were needed.  To little avail.

This attitude became even more pronounced with the USSR implosion and defacto end of the threat of massive invasion.  Europeans happily embraced the “peace dividend,” dismissing pressures to maintain defense/security spending and concentrating ever more on social welfare spending.  Responding to U.S. pleas that “Peace is the dividend,” they, nevertheless, reduced forces with going-through-the-motions commitments in Afghanistan and other out-of-area conflicts.

For 30 years, Washington worked on the margins to improve NATO’s security posture.  The 2014 commitment to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GNP was a minimalistic response to Crimea and Ukraine.  No European thought it would be a definitive commitment.

But President Trump, reflecting U.S. fatigue with NATO’s escape-and-evasion attitude to defense spending (only 53 percent have a favorable attitude toward NATO) has pilloried NATO’s free-riders, starting with Canada’s pitiful 1 percent GDP security spending, but concentrating on Germany’s almost equally trivial 1.2 percent, which has left much of its military equipment inoperable due to inadequate maintenance.  U.S. defense spending was 3.57 percent of GDP and 68.7 percent of NATO’s total.  Europeans may see Trump as a bull carrying his own china shop, but such disproportionate spending has become unsustainable domestically for the United States. 

NATO is obsolete; but so also is my 1985 Mercedes.  Nevertheless, both are still useful—the Mercedes for short local trips and NATO as a framework for European defense. 

Trump has delivered the message in an inelegant way but NATO has to recognize the reality of the facts.

David Taylor Jones is a retired American diplomat who served, among other posts, as Senior Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa


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