A close look at France, Germany, and Poland reveals important divisions in the 70-year-old alliance — and suggests a way forward.
When 29 foreign ministers gather this week to mark NATO’s 70th birthday in Washington, D.C., their bonhomie will seek to mask important divisions within the alliance, not only across the Atlantic but also within Europe.
In Paris, the talk is all about strategic autonomy. Many French feel America has gone bad. President Trump’s antipathy toward NATO has led them to conclude that the U.S. security guarantee, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty pledging each ally to collective defense, can no longer be relied on. Even with their nuclear-weapons capacity and permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the French admit that they are far from strategic autonomy today given their clear dependence on the United States for their security and defense needs. Unsurprisingly, they are the most ardent evangelists about the need for Europeans to double down on building their own independent assets and capabilities.
In Berlin, the focus is on strategic patience. While some Germans find the French argument compelling, more have reached a different conclusion. Many Germans perceive the change in the United States as cyclical, having to do with a particular U.S. president, rather than structural, signifying a fundamental turning-away from the Alliance as an enduring commitment, not just a series of transactions. To be sure, they do not foresee a return to the status quo ante when the Trump era ends. But they do believe that the President’s successor will have a clear-eyed view of the benefits NATO brings to the United States and, accordingly, will return to a more traditional view of transatlantic relations. Chancellor Merkel has talked about how the times have changed and Germany can no longer “completely depend on others,” and she has called on Europe to take its fate into its own hands — but still, she describes the relationship with the United States as “crucial.”
In Warsaw, the buzzwords are strategic embrace. The Poles see a big, bad neighbor to their East: Russia. U.S. troops are currently deployed to Poland on a rotational basis as part of NATO's effort to buttress defenses on its eastern flank after Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The Poles are not convinced that their European allies will defend them if push comes to shove and thus the Polish government has offered to pay $2 billion to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland. Polish President Duda even offered to call the base “Fort Trump.” In Polish eyes, there is simply no substitute for the U.S. security guarantee.
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To stop further fraying of alliance cohesion, NATO allies need to unify around a policy of strategic responsibility. Having European military forces that are more effective, efficient, and capable is in the interest of every NATO member, whether France, Germany, Poland, or the United States. It is hard to imagine future scenarios in which Europeans will not be called on to take greater responsibility, especially in their neighborhood.
To the Trump administration, the most important expression of taking strategic responsibility is the level of defense spending. Most Americans agree that their NATO partners are largely failing on that front. Only six of Washington’s 28 allies spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense (a NATO guideline that members recommitted themselves to back in 2014 with a vague formulation of “aim[ing] to move toward the 2 percent guideline within a decade”).
Defense spending is an important metric, but it is not the only one. Alliance cohesion has long been NATO’s holy grail.
Congress has grown increasingly concerned about mixed signals emanating from the administration about NATO’s value and has stepped up its engagement over the past year. Most recently, in a rare expression of bipartisanship, House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell invited NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint session of Congress.
Ever since last July’s NATO Summit in Brussels, rumors have been flying that the U.S. president wants to pull the United States out of NATO. Congress has sought to reassure the allies. In the immediate run-up to that summit, the Senate voted 97-2 to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the collective defense of the alliance. This January, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the NATO Support Act, 357 to 22, thus “reject[ing] any efforts to withdraw the United States from NATO” and prohibiting any use of federal funds for that purpose.
Members are also taking their support on the road. Over 50 members of Congress, from Senate Judiciary Chairman Graham to Speaker Pelosi, attended the Munich Security Conference – the largest Congressional delegation in the half-century history of this annual high-level gathering. Their message was clear: The United States will stay engaged in the world and values its allies; and because we are stronger together, the Europeans need to up their contribution. Europeans applauded this bipartisan show of support for NATO and welcomed the message of reform, rather than obsolescence.
Congress’s engagement could prove to be the critical variable for unifying transatlantic partners around a shared goal of strategic responsibility. Anniversaries are not only for celebrating. Remembering past achievements can inspire, but neither nostalgia nor hope is a policy. Foreign ministers need to unify around a common sense of purpose and recommit their countries to investing more in credible capabilities. The reason to do so is not because the United States is asking; it is because the current strategic reality demands it.