NATO at 70: A Commemoration of Discretion and Tension

Since Trump’s election, the Atlantic alliance has been plunged into existential doubt, despite the rise of geopolitical threats.

At another time, it would have provided heads of state the opportunity for a beautiful celebration of the unity of the Western bloc and the trans-Atlantic connection. The 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington on April 4, 1949, will instead be celebrated in a more somber tone in the U.S. capital on Wednesday, April 3, and Thursday, April 4. Foreign ministers will try to show the unity of the now 29 allies − initially 12 − and to confirm that NATO is ready to face new security challenges.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the alliance has been plunged into existential doubt. As presidential candidate, Trump judged NATO “obsolete” and too expensive, he alluded to a possible withdrawal by the U.S. and demanded that Europeans pay “rent” for protection offered to them by the United States. Of course, Trump has revised most of these considerations. He also no longer mentions a possible challenge of the solidarity clause (provided by Article 5 of the treaty), which states that an attack against one member would be an attack against all. It was activated after 9/11, for the benefit of … the United States.

However, this relative appeasement does not hide important questions that face, and will face, the Atlantic alliance in the near future.

’Sharing the Burden’

Since Trump’s election, burden sharing has become the subject of all NATO’s meetings. Trump, who had been convinced that his country would not pay for the defense of Europeans, toned down his remarks from July 2018 at a memorable summit in Brussels. At the time, proposing that the United States’ partners hike their contributions and dedicate up to 4% of their budget to defense, he attacked “the 23 countries that do not always pay their dues,” which, he added, “is not fair to the citizens and taxpayers of the United States.” The bill is due “now, not in 10 years,” he threatened.*

In April 2019, his administration firmly maintains a target of 2% in 2024. The U.K. is almost there, France will reach it in 2025, and Germany will remain at 1.5%, despite increasing pressure and threats from Washington. Many Europeans believe that the U.S.’s goal is, above all, to force them to buy American materials.

The 2% is not an obligation or legal commitment to NATO, but a promise, a consensual goal that everyone would be expected to achieve. NATO’s secretary general, Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, points out that members’ additional spending has already reached $100 billion, but he urges Berlin to go beyond its current effort.

Stoltenberg, who met with Trump on Tuesday, April 2, and was due to be heard by Congress on Wednesday, April 3, apparently managed to tone down anti-NATO rhetoric, even though the organization’s main supporters, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson, ex-secretary of defense and ex-secretary of state, have left their posts, leaving John Bolton, an opponent of multilateralism, at work in the White House. However, there is now talk of “the unprecedented successes” of the Atlantic alliance.


The annexing of Crimea, the deployment of missiles capable of reaching German cities and Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric obviously contribute to the cohesion of the alliance, forced to silence its divisions in face of the threat from Moscow. NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic States and in Poland, and says it now wants to prepare for “a world without INF,” that is to say, without the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Signed in 1987, this text was intended to reduce the risk of confrontation. It was suspended in succession by Washington and Moscow, and, for lack of a possible agreement, it could be buried once and for all this summer.

“We are going to look at how to do more in the whole Black Sea region … more surveillance, there will be more ships in the Black Sea from NATO countries [in that area],” warns Kay Bailey Hutchison, American ambassador to the alliance.

The Fight against Terrorism

Trump demanded that the alliance make “the fight against terrorism” one of its priorities. This concerns Iraq, where a non-combatant NATO mission targets the formation of an army, to avoid, in particular, a resurgence of the Islamic State. The situation is even more complex in Afghanistan, where the alliance has been present for 17 years. The official word remains that “some progress” has been recorded in the country, but the question of the military presence remains. Weak hope of a “comprehensive political solution” is coming from talks that have begun between the regime and the Taliban. Germany is ready to host a new conference, but “we are still wide of the mark,” their diplomats acknowledge.


Is Beijing, recently transformed into a “strategic rival” by the European Union, also a rival in terms of security? Should NATO, which does not like overly political debates, be concerned about the role of China, which is investing in infrastructure − ports, for example − that could hinder military mobility in the future? Should it bring up the role of Huawei, which could encourage espionage and threaten the security of future communications within the organization? How should NATO analyze joint naval maneuvers of the Chinese army with Russia? Stoltenberg did not want to mention the Chinese case during his press conference before the meeting in Washington.

U.S. military and diplomats, however, believe that a strategic discussion must be drawn up in order to find a common response to Beijing. And in mid-March, U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, strongly warned Berlin: If Germany joins together with Huawei for the 5G network, NATO forces would cease communications with their colleagues in the Germany military.


This is the big question, made to disappear by the organization that formerly accommodated the Spanish, Greek and Portuguese dictatorships, and which does not talk about the authoritarian shift in some of its eastern members, or about Turkey, its second contributor. A number of countries believe that Trump’s speech has legitimized these shifts, as it were, making some basic reflection necessary. This is unlikely.

If Washington hardens its tone against Ankara this week, it will only be to force Turkish leaders to choose between the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, which they are ready to receive, and American F-35 fighter planes, which should be delivered to them shortly. If the American administration has suspended the delivery of equipment for fighter planes, it is because Russian presence of anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense is not compatible with NATO’s equipment.

*Editor’s note: Trump’s exact words were, “I think these countries have to step it up, not over a 10-year period, but they have to step it up immediately.”

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