LONDON — NATO is probably going to be just fine. That’s my takeaway from recent discussions about the state of the alliance’s affairs and the uncertain future of Western leadership in global security. Probably.
“I believe we’re going to have a tremendous couple of days, but very big, very important. We have tremendous spirit as it pertains to NATO, I would say,” President Donald Trump said at the top of Tuesday morning’s opening press conference, “except perhaps for one country.”
Oh boy. Trump was alluding to France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who last month electrified NATO leadership by calling the institution “brain dead.”
“We’ll be talking to that country; we’ll see how it works out,” the U.S. president said. “And actually one country has a couple of points, but those points are very devastating to NATO. So, we’ll find out about that.”
NATO is a mammoth institution. It will survive Macron’s quip. The lingering question is: can the alliance and all it represents survive the publics that elected Macron and Trump and the UK’s Boris Johnson, and this era of inward-looking European and American tendencies?
I expected NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to be in full diplomat mode in London, doing his best to convince us that the alliance remains together, repeating his talking points that NATO has always had disagreements between its members and always has had to rethink its purpose in the face of new threats, and therefore none of this is new or unexpected or worrying. All is well among friends.
Sure enough: “Your leadership has had a real impact,” Stoltenberg told Trump at a bilateral press conference, thanking him for cajoling allies to increase their defense spending. After a few minutes of bragging about the 2 percent spending storyline, reporters asked questions that exposed and confirmed real policy rifts with France and Turkey. Stoltenberg repeated a favorite line, that NATO members’ spending increases show that the alliance is very much alive. “NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change when the world is changing. That’s exactly what we are doing again.”
“NATO serves a great purpose,” Trump said. “I heard President Macron said NATO is brain dead. I think that’s very insulting to a lot of different forces.” He turned to Stoltenberg and asked, “What did you think?” The Sec-Gen said it’s “not true” that NATO is brain dead. Trump then called it “a very, very nasty statement.” He said Macron has “such difficulty in France” and blasted the country’s high unemployment rate. “You just can’t go around making statements like that about NATO.”
“Nobody needs NATO more than France,” Trump said. “Frankly, the one that benefits really the least is the United States….We’re helping Europe.”
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NATO watchers will have a field day parsing the various ways that statement is shortsighted, but my oh my, how things have changed since the last summit two years ago, when the world was scared that one presidential tweet could end the alliance. In fact, Trump did upend tables in Brussels by saying that he was unsure that the United States would remain a member. But today he’s defending the virtues of alliance membership. Asked if Turkey should remain a member after invading Syria in October, Trump demurred, “Well, I’d have to ask the other countries. I have my own views, but I wouldn’t say it here.”
“Turkey is an important NATO ally,” Stoltenberg added later, jumping in with a robust defense of the geographically strategic power, praising Turkey for stalling its Syria invasion and again calmly insisting all is well. “The strength of NATO is that despite these differences we have proven again and again able to unite around our core cause to protect and defend each other.”
I like Stoltenberg. Many of us do. On Monday, Kori Schake of the International Institute for Security Studies called him “the best diplomat I have ever seen” for his ability to navigate Trump and others from doing damage to the institution. (The U.S. president, on Tuesday: “I think he’s doing a fantastic job. I’m a big fan.”) NATO under Stoltenberg is having to face challenges that are either unnecessary, like divisive words from Trump and Macron, or unexpected, like Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan turning toward Moscow. Not to mention Russian information warfare attacks and Chinese economic infiltration, both of which are considered by some security voices as nothing less than hybrid warfare on NATO members.
“A really smart guy in the [UK] MOD told me that this summit has the ‘three presidents problem’,” Schake said. “President Trump, President Macron, and President Erdogan. And the challenge for the institution is celebrating NATO’s 70th anniversary without one of those three presidents driving the whole thing off the rails.”
Some of these are timeless concerns. “Math class isn’t newly hard, math class is always hard,” she said, but added, “We shouldn’t take these problems lightly.” The bargain of collective security that NATO members have made, she argued, “is remarkably stable, even despite French grandstanding, even despite American unreliability, even despite authoritarian tendencies.”
Later Tuesday, Macron pushed back on Trump, saying he stood by his comment in his own later bilateral press conference with the American president.
But NATO’s external threats and internal leaders’ divisions are not what worries me the most.
I expected the panelists I spoke with over the past month to raise familiar issues like the differences among NATO leaders, but I was surprised by their serious concern about the very fabric of the alliance. This time it’s different, many insist.
“The philosophy on which this whole institution is built is profoundly challenged,” said journalist Bobby Ghosh of Bloomberg Opinion in our pre-summit conversation at IISS. His point was that if leaders such as Trump and Erdogan continue to cozy up to Russia, then what’s the purpose of the Cold War-era alliance?
That’s a fair point. But I believe NATO’s biggest threat is its own inward-turning electorates. Global order and global institutions (and the security leaders who support them) took a political beating in 2016 when voters chose Trump and Brexit, and three years later they are still fighting at home in national elections against populism, nationalism, and isolationism.
To global security leaders, from think tanks to the secure “tank” inside the Pentagon, NATO is an essential organization and tool for the West’s way of life. It’s not even a question. The alliance is a shield against the existential threat of Russian nuclear weapons. It is a binder of allies, and a collective of firepower like no other on earth. Those leaders believe: How could anyone want to harm that?
But to those publics, it’s a more mixed bag. A Chicago Council poll released in September found that 75 percent of Americans support NATO and having U.S. troops abroad to fight things like terrorist groups, but large percentages also think the Afghanistan war — a NATO mission — is not worth it, and most support pulling U.S. troops home wherever they can. The public is “schizophrenic,” said German Marshall Fund’s Jan Techau, at another panel talk I moderated, last week at the U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum outside Fort Bragg in North Carolina. (The panel was sponsored in part by GMF and the German government.) And IISS’s Schake views it this way: NATO leaders decide how to use the institution; political science shows that public opinion will follow.
But maybe that’s the concern I have. What happens when political leaders no longer automatically go where national security leaders point? There is a growing gap between what the global security community wants and what the public wants. In many NATO countries, it has become politically advantageous to say and do things to cause doubt in the alliance, to openly call for self-protective alternatives, and to challenge its usefulness. (For a deeper look at this, I strongly encourage you to watch this panel discussion on “What Americans Want” from last month’s Defense One Outlook 2020 summit.)
Of course, Macron already has walked back his comment, and even Trump has come to praise NATO. But don’t forget, no matter what praise comes out of the president’s mouth this week, he campaigned on the phrase “NATO is obsolete” just three years ago.
And even a quick look at the candidates vying to replace Trump shows that none, save perhaps Joe Biden, is running as a hard security leader. Nobody is calling for more spending, more troops abroad, or more foreign interventions. More than half of the Democratic candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are campaigning on promises to reduce America’s military footprint and defense spending. They cast their plans as an admirable refocus on soft power, but these are likely at best politically dead on arrival without an actual plan to get them through Congress, and at worst may actually harm Western security interests.
At this London summit, NATO leaders will dive into ways to face new threats, like cybersecurity. We may even see discussions of new ways to put the alliance to use: start a NATO-China council similar to the one for Russia; put NATO in charge of the Arctic before it’s too late; start a NATO for information warfare. Such ideas are being discussed at think tanks and events like the “NATO Engages” sideline conference in central London, happening Tuesday while NATO leaders have their own private bilateral meetings at locations across the city. The formal NATO leaders meeting is scheduled for Wednesday morning at a hotel just outside of the city.
On Tuesday, Stoltenberg shuttled between both, assuring presidents and publics (and the national security community) that NATO is a good bet.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the alliance, and to Western security, isn’t the gap between the controversial leaders gathering for the photo op. It’s the gap between those political leaders and the national security community leaders gathering on the sidelines begging to be heard.