New Opportunities From a Redefined Relationship with NATO

By Anonymous (see bottom for author info)

In March, 2016, Donald Trump questioned the relevance of NATO in the 21st century.  Though Trump was then still just a Presidential candidate mired in a tough primary, his apparent general election opponent jumped on the comment immediately, claiming it showed poor judgment in the area of national security.  On March 28, 2016, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton proclaimed during a campaign stop in Milwaukee that Trump wanted to pull the United States out of NATO after nearly 70 years – something that she’d repeat again and again over the next several weeks. Clinton based her assertion on comments Trump made during the week prior, when he talked about America’s role in NATO.

As it turned out, MRS Clinton’s accusation was a bit of campaign rhetoric itself,  as the non-partisan found a little over a month later in an article titled “What’s Trump’s Position on NATO?” (Gore 2016)  MR Trump had, in fact, questioned whether NATO had become obsolete, first in a series of campaign stops and later in interviews with members of the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post.  Trump noted the disproportionate share of efforts, forces, and funds that the United States shouldered for the alliance.  He also noted NATO was struggling to live up to its obligations in Europe, as typified in the ongoing conflict in and over Ukraine.  What’s more, he noted challenges NATO faced trying to be relevant in countering terrorism. 

To be clear, Trump had not called for the US to leave NATO, and doesn’t currently appear to be heading down that road.  In Trump’s first face-to-face Presidential meeting with another head of state, Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, May pointed out Trump’s 100% commitment to the alliance.  Likewise, the Cabinet official on point for the Trump administration’s relationship with NATO, Defense Secretary James Mattis, made engagement with NATO one of his first priorities. In one of his first official calls as SECDEF, to the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, Mattis, reinforced the importance he and the administration place on the alliance. All that said, Trump, Mattis, and others unquestionably hold fast to the view that NATO risks becoming obsolete, if it isn’t already, and has significant shortcomings that limit the alliance’s effectiveness. In the eyes of the new administration, it’s time for frank discussions about NATO’s role, now and in the future.

Trump’s ascension to the Presidency, and his administration’s subsequent breaks with so many traditions and long-held policies, offers a new opportunity to address NATO’s growing obsolescence, and mitigate NATO’s shortcomings.  In order to do that, though, it’s important both to understand what NATO is, and to explore some of those shortcomings in greater detail. 

NATO in a Nutshell

So, what is NATO?  According to its first Secretary General, Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – was created “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”   In a nutshell, NATO aims to secure a lasting peace in Europe and to link the security of North America with the security of Europe.  During the Cold War, NATO focused on collective defense against threats emanating from the Soviet Union.

NATO’s “contract,” the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1949, compels the parties to resolve international disputes through peaceful means, rather than the threat or use of force. It further compels the parties to consult together when – in the opinion of any one of them – the territory, independence, or security of any of them is threatened. Most significantly, it establishes that an armed attack against one or more members of the alliance in Europe, North America, or any locale north of the Tropic of Cancer is an attack against them all; this is Article 5, the “collective defense” provision of the treaty. 

Twelve countries signed the original North Atlantic Treaty in 1949: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Greece and Turkey joined three years later, in 1952, and were followed by Germany another three years later, in 1955.  NATO added Spain to the alliance in 1982, followed by three former Communist countries – Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland – in 1999. The alliance added seven more former Communist countries in 2004 – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania – and rounded out to its current total of 28 members in 2009 with Albania and Croatia.

Each of NATO’s member nations commits to maintaining their capacity both to resist armed attack and to provide aid to the other members of the alliance.  As a rule of thumb, each nation commits to spending 2% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense spending to maintain that capacity, based on an agreement reached between the member nations in 2006.

Beyond maintaining individual capacity, however, each nation contributes directly to the funding requirements of the alliance that serve the interests of the entire alliance but are not the responsibility of any single member – such as NATO-wide air defense or command and control systems. Each member nation contributes, per a cost-sharing formula, toward NATO’s military budget (the cost of maintaining NATO’s integrated command structure), the NATO Security Investment Program, and NATO’s civil budget (the costs of running NATO HQ). In 2017, NATO’s military budget is approximately $1.38 billion.  Its Security Investment Program budget for the same period is $700.9 million, while the civil budget is $250.8 million. The United States pays nearly a fourth of that overall budget – roughly 22% – with Germany (14.6%), France (10.6%), and the United Kingdom (9.8%) the closest contributors. 

NATO conducted no military operations during the Cold War, but it has played a more active – and global – role since then.  Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, NATO deployed airborne early warning aircraft to southern Turkey, followed later by a quick reaction force. NATO enforced the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina beginning in 1993, enforced the UN arms embargo and economic sanctions, later bombed the Army of the Republika Srpska, and ultimately deployed a peacekeeping force to Bosnia. In 1998, NATO bombed Yugoslavian forces as part of the war in Kosovo and later introduced another peacekeeping force to Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, NATO invoked Article V of its charter.  Following initial combat operations in Afghanistan, NATO agreed to command the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there.  During the Iraq war, NATO formed NATO Training Mission – Iraq (NTM-I) to assist the development of Iraqi security forces.  Later, in 2009, NATO deployed forces to counter Somali pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden.  Most recently, a coalition of NATO members enforced the UN no-fly zone over Libya, and ultimately enabled Libyan militias to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi.

Proponents of NATO suggest that it is the primary basis for peace in Europe over the last seventy years. First, proponents claim, the North Atlantic Treaty and NATO has prevented European nations from going to war with one another and embroiling Europe in another great war. Second, and more importantly in the eyes of many, proponents claim that NATO deterred the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe, and further argue that it is the sole barrier against a hegemonic Russia even today. Finally, proponents claim that NATO has prevented more widespread nuclear weapons proliferation, as nations like Germany rely on the alliance instead of developing their own nuclear weapons programs.

NATO – What the Critics Say

Donald Trump is hardly the first to question NATO’s relevance, or to dispute the return that the Nation gets from its investment.  Moreover, he’s hardly the first to doubt the prudence of long-lasting international alliances for the United States.

Criticism of NATO starts with the benefits cited by NATO’s proponents.  Up front, critics counter that the claim NATO prevented European nations from going to war with one another isn’t true.  Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 to oust a Greek-leaning coup government is a prime example.  The second claim – that NATO deterred the Soviet Union from aggression toward or expansion into Western Europe – remains a widely-held truism unsupported by hard historical fact.  The related claim – that the alliance deters Russian hegemonic intent today – is likewise unsupported by publicly-available facts, and much harder to argue.  NATO certainly doesn’t appear to have successfully deterred Russia in recent years from military intervention in Georgia, annexation of Crimea, or sponsorship of the Civil War in the Ukraine – though, admittedly, none of the three were members of NATO.  In fact, NATO’s expansion over the last 15 years has alarmed leaders in Moscow; though hardly the intent, NATO may in fact encourage Russian belligerence, as Russia attempts to secure its flanks against what it perceives to be a long-time opponent.

Critics go much farther in citing NATO’s shortcomings, though, accusing Europe of failing to carry its fair share of the load.  An unofficial “big five” consisting of the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada account for more than two thirds of NATO’s common-funded budgets and programs.  Furthermore, only five NATO countries – the United States, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Estonia – hold to the common commitment to invest at least 2% off GDP to maintain their capacity both to resist armed attack and to provide aid to the other members of the alliance.  Finally, even NATO admits that the alliance over-relies on the United States for “the provision of essential capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refueling; ballistic missile defense; and airborne electronic warfare.”

The failure to invest and modernize, coupled with lingering national fears about major land wars in Europe, has undoubtedly led to another warranted criticism of NATO: NATO simply isn’t structured as it needs to be to respond to terrorism and other 21st century challenges.  NATO’s response to 9/11 wasn’t counter-terrorism capabilities or operations, but rather providing NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force to the United States and standing up a naval operation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to demonstrate resolve and prevent the movement of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Simply put, and with a few exceptions (most notably France, the United Kingdom, and Canada, among our NATO allies), our partners’ police and internal security forces have proven far more capable in countering terrorism than many of their military forces, and especially more capable than the military alliance created to protect Europe and the North Atlantic.

Setting aside load-sharing criticisms, and critiques of effectiveness in a new era of conflict, the practice of “national caveats” is cited as another NATO shortcoming.  At the risk of oversimplification, each NATO nation generally retains total national sovereignty.  In Afghanistan, this played out with the NATO command – ISAF – directing NATO partner nation forces to carry out specific operations, activities, and missions, only to have those orders subject to veto by those partner forces’ national command structures.  If the common defense concept is NATO’s greatest strength, then national caveats that prevent NATO from acting are one of NATO’s greatest current weaknesses. 

The national caveats shortcoming raises one final, uniquely American concern – that of being embroiled in “entangling alliances” that either compel the Nation to act when prudence is warranted, or prevent it from acting when need arises. 

The outgoing US President, wearied by wars and concerned about the direction he saw the Nation taking, warned Americans against permanent, entangling alliances and an overgrown military structure. Agree with it or not, the advice has a measure of relevance and timeliness, especially as the Nation continues to wage war against terrorists in Afghanistan, the Levant, and Africa, and as the Nation faces a steadily-growing national debt of nearly $20 Trillion. 

What makes the advice remarkable, though, is that it wasn’t POTUS #44 – the outgoing Barack Obama – who issued the warning described above, but rather POTUS #1 – George Washington.

Clearly, NATO has some baggage that warrants criticism. It is questionable that NATO delivers on its intended purpose, and clear that its’ proponents claims aren’t all founded.  It is clear that many of NATO’s members don’t share equally in the burden.  It is likewise clear that the alliance and many of its members have struggled to adapt to the realities of the post-9/11 world. National caveats have further limited NATOs effectiveness.  The end result is that we find ourselves committed to an alliance that entangles us and limits our effectiveness.  Given all that, there’s clearly a strong case for redefining the nature of the relationship, for going without NATO in the future, or – if pulling out isn’t actually an option – redefining the relationship in ways that better meets the United States’ security requirements and addresses the shortcomings of the current alliance.  Exactly how we might do better is where this study turns next.

New Opportunities

#1 – A Blank Slate for US Foreign Policy

The first opportunity born of redefining the NATO relationship would be to allow the United States to significantly rethink a NATO and Euro-centric foreign policy that has become, in many ways, a “self-licking ice cream cone.”  The North Atlantic Treaty was born in the aftermath of a hundred years of European and world wars, and the current NATO was shaped by fifty years of competition with the USSR.  Even the global violent extremist threat that takes up so much of the rest of our collective foreign policy attention is an outcome of this dynamic.  Where our foreign policy focuses today, both in terms of perceived priorities and in terms of preponderance of effort, is also an outcome of this dynamic.

Looking ahead, though, we see a world marked by steadily-increasing complexity.  Accelerating technological advantages contribute to both connectivity and complexity, and that complexity stymies organizations, processes, and models born in the industrial age and the Cold War.  To succeed – and possibly just to survive – now and in a complex future is likely to require fundamental change. The previous Presidential administration sought to counter complexity-related challenges by micro-managing the activities of small numbers of US troops in key places around the globe, both because legacy commitments like NATO left us few other options and because of an aversion to new conflicts based on a flawed understanding of who we are as a people. The results of this approach were mixed at best, as an objective, long view of history will one day show.  Freedom from legacy commitments offers a blank slate.   

The obvious question for the critics would be “so what about this new policy, then”?  Set free from the current NATO-centric approach, one key aspect could be a meaningful “pivot to Asia,” something currently impossible given legacy commitments in Europe.  Those legacy commitments, coupled with commitments in the Middle East, have pulled troops from places like Korea, where a failure to resource our commitments has emboldened the North Korean regime, allowing it to build both a nuclear weapons program and a missile program that now represents a real and present danger. Those commitments elsewhere have also emboldened the Chinese.  The PRC, with no meaningful, visible competition from the US, save for occasional west coast-based American carrier battle groups briefly transiting through the region enroute to or from the Middle East, has have sought to establish their dominance in the region. In the process, they have inflamed tensions with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, not to mention the United States.  Because of the criticality of trade with Asia, and the importance of international shipping routes through the region, Asia represents a key part of our future just as Europe represents a key part of our past, and it’s clearly a region where US attention is needed.

A second key aspect could be increased focus on Africa.  It is there where the world’s greatest supply of untapped natural resources overlaps with the world’s fastest growing populations and fastest growing markets. Today, Africa is a secondary focus for the United States, a supporting effort in military parlance, but it is a primary focus for our key competitors and allies alike.  With each day that passes with our attention tied up elsewhere, the United States loses more influence over the long term. A refocusing toward Africa is a key United States interests, but can only be made by divesting elsewhere.   

A third key aspect could be increased focus on the “southern approaches to the homeland”: South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This critical region represents a supporting effort and  economy of force “front” for the United States now, and receive relatively little in the way of either resources or attention due to a combination of our legacy commitments and the cost of our decade-long war against the top tier of Islamist terror groups. Neither a thousand-mile wall nor new, restrictive immigration policies are going to be sufficient to address our concerns about our southern approaches; it will take a new commitment of people and resources, one made possible by redefining our relationship with NATO.

#2 – A New Relationship with Russia 

Today, that same “self-licking ice cream cone” approach to our policy compels us to sustain a long-standing climate of competition with Russia, rather than seeking the cooperation that is more in our interests over the long term.  Redefining our NATO relationships offers the opportunity to step back and address this, since breaking that paradigm will require first setting aside the NATO-centric mistrust of Russia left over from the Cold War.  Moreover, it will require us to put into perspective our current national outrage about Russian hacking and influence operations aimed at our recent elections.   Succeeding in both of those first steps is necessary realpolitik, though. 

Regarding the latter, Stephen Walt of Foreign Policy and Marc Trachtenberg of UCLA remind us that “meddling in other countries’ politics has been an American specialty for a long time,” and that our current outrage may not be completely warranted.  Putting it aside and moving along toward a cooperative relationship that enables us to “infect” Russia with American democratic principles and free market thinking is a unique opportunity that faces us if we can redefine our relationship with NATO.

#3 – Establish New Coalitions of the Willing and Able

Redefining our relationship with NATO would also offer us the opportunity to focus more on more-evenly yoked partnerships. Maintaining the NATO alliance and its relationships takes significant resources, including time and attention, often with little payoff when those resources are spent on partners unable or unwilling to contribute much.  Freeing up some of that would arguably offer more time and attention to focus on bilateral or multilateral partnerships with those that do are both able and willing, especially France and the “Five Eyes” partners (Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand).  As one example, freed from some of our NATO requirements, the United States might be able to establish a pragmatic, long-term “we’ll address the common threats in the Levant if you’ll address the common threats in North and West Africa” partnership with France.  Moreover, the United States might be able to reinvest some of the attention demanded by the NATO alliance into new trans-regional “able and willing” pacts – say, for example, a pact with France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and the five North African nations spread between Morocco and Egypt to counter the immigration, instability, and violent extremism challenges that plague the region.  Critics might counter that there’s nothing about the current NATO relationship that constrains these new bilateral or multilateral relationships, but they’d only be right on the surface; maintaining the current alliance takes time and energy that might be better used elsewhere.   

#4 – Invest Elsewhere

According to the White House, the United States’ annual payments to NATO, separate from its “at least 2% of GDP investment” requirements, is more than $685 million annually.   Even a third of that amount, invested elsewhere, would offer significant security gains in the face of challenges that outweigh even our extensive resources.  $50 million, redirected and invested in regional operations-intelligence fusion centers in North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, and southern Asia would greatly expand our ability – and that of key non-NATO allies – to interdict foreign terrorist fighter movements, disrupt illicit facilitation that enables those terrorists, and counter the recruiting of extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.

Another $50 million, liberated and put into contractor-owned and contractor-operated (COCO) long-flight-duration airborne ISR platforms for the Malaysia-Indonesia-Philippines would likewise offer significant gains not possible with our current commitments to NATO.  With a total annual budget outlay of more than $3.5 trillion, it’s easy to lose sight of just how much positive benefit can be achieved by moving $200 million – a third of our NATO commitment – to better bets elsewhere.

#5 – Put Our People (and our Things) Where Our Money Is

Divesting a portion of our NATO commitment in terms of some number of the “playing pieces” – American troop units, planes, tankers, and ships – would likewise offer new opportunities to meet security challenges in other regions.  American influence in Africa today is not limited solely by a lack of money to put toward problems, but also by a lack of troops, planes, and ships.  A helicopter battalion freed up from current NATO investment in Europe could dramatically and decisively increase the tactical and operational mobility of both the relatively small contingent of US forces and their African counterparts countering the Islamic State in West Africa in the Lake Chad Basin.  Likewise, freeing up some of the fighters and airborne tankers tied down along Europe’s northern flank could offer a strategic boost to the efforts of both the CENTCOM and AFRICOM commanders to disrupt the threat that ISIL poses. Freeing up intelligence assets focused in NATO’s sphere, in turn, would give much-needed momentum to efforts to understand – and counter as required – Iranian efforts to establish itself as the dominant regional power in the Middle East.  Critics might counter that none of these “reinvestments” are possible given our current NATO commitments; that is true, also, unless we redefine the nature of our NATO commitments and use the opportunity to reset our relationship with Russia.

But … We’d Still Need Bases in Europe and Can’t Reduce Defense Spending

As important as it is to identify the opportunities that redefining our relationship with NATO might offer, it’s also critical to recognize that there are some apparent opportunities that it won’t afford us.  Redefining our relationship with NATO and moving people and equipment elsewhere won’t save the need for, or prudence of, our bases in Europe.  Even with a redefined, realpolitik foreign policy, the United States will still have the need to project power to Africa and the Levant, and to respond to potential crises from Svalbard to Soweto.  A constellation of forward “power projection platforms” greatly increases our strategic mobility and greatly decreases our response times.  Redefining our relationship with NATO also doesn’t appear to afford us any significant savings to reinvest in non-defense spending.  We can’t get away with fewer tank battalions than we have today, since we already lack the force structure to respond to the many valid requirements and potential crises that our position as the world’s sole remaining great power asks of us.

Reconsidering the NATO Relationship to Seize New Opportunities

NATO has played a key role in world history for seventy years.  To its proponents, it is the primary reason for peace in Europe in our time.  To its detractors, it is a bureaucratic monolith that has become obsolete.  The United States remains committed to NATO, even with the arrival of a new administration with a dramatically different view of the world.  That said, the United States should seek to redefine and update its relationship with NATO.  The opportunities and potential benefits for doing hold the promise of delivering consequence no less historical in our future than NATO our commitment to NATO delivered in our past

The author is an Army Colonel with extensive Special Operations and conventional experience, as well as experience with the Interagency in the National Capitol Region, who currently serves in one of DoD’s geographic combatant commands. 
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  1. Gore, D’Angelo, “What’s Trump’s Position on NATO,”, May 11, 2016.
  2. Reynolds, David (1994). The Origins of the Cold War in Europe: International Perspectives. Yale University Press.

  3. Beginning as early as 1959, France pursued policies of military independence from NATO; France returned to full participation in 2009.

  4. Masters, Jonathon, “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounders,, February 17, 2016.

  5. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Funding NATO,”, January 19, 2017. 

  6. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Funding NATO,”, January 19, 2017.  As NATO’s own white paper acknowledges, “Today, the volume of the US defence expenditure effectively represents 72 per cent of the defence spending of the Alliance as a whole. This does not mean that the United States covers 72 per cent of the costs involved in the operational running of NATO as an organization, including its headquarters in Brussels and its subordinate military commands, but it does mean that there is an over-reliance by the Alliance” on the United States.   

  7. Drezner, Daniel, “Enough with the complaints of European free riding already,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2016.

  8. Masters, Jonathon, “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounders,, February 17, 2016.

  9. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO’s Operations, 1949-Present,”, January 22, 2010.

  10. Washington, George, “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States,” American Daily Advertiser, September 19, 1796.

  11. Walt, Stephen, “Stealing Elections is All in the Game,” Foreign Policy,, January 10, 2017.

  12. The White House, “FACT SHEET: U.S. Contributions to NATO Capabilities,”, July 8, 2016.

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