The U.S. president’s foreign policy involves undermining, one by one, every international institution he doesn’t like.
The name of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s greatest problem isn’t Macron, it’s Trump.
Established in 1949 as one of the main by-products of the start of the Cold War, NATO presents a curious balancing act. Many regard it to be a generally strong institution, although plagued by some weaknesses. It’s a powerful military machine—or rather, a political-military machine. It’s biggest success between 1949 and 1990 was paradoxical: it never had to get involved in military operations. NATO’s main purpose was to contain (or dissuade) the Soviet Union which, we shouldn’t forget, retaliated by creating its own political-military alliance, the Warsaw Pact.
Of course it was a success that both alliances shared, in spite of themselves. The argument was clear: “Because I exist, the other side, the enemy, can’t attack me.” In military terms, could it get any better? The Cold War had an unstoppable logic, a chess game in which nuclear arms guaranteed from very early on that this would be, militarily, a long game destined to end in stalemate.
So, nobody won? In political terms the Atlantic alliance won. In 1991 they had no enemies and were in a state of considerable strategic confusion. Why they were still around was the real question. In its second life, from 1991 until today, NATO has become a much more complicated thing to manage. On occasion, with President Bill Clinton during the 90s, it was called on to act as the “armed wing” of a particular Western multilateralism. Look at Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, where NATO took forceful action under U.S. leadership all in the name of a particular vision of international law.
The War in Afghanistan
In the following decade, already within the 21st century, NATO had to learn to say no. For example, it had to learn to say no to President George W. Bush (inside the United Nations headquarters, no less) and his insane militaristic adventure, invading Iraq in 2003. To this, the “no” came from Gaullist French President Jacques Chirac. However, paradoxically, NATO joined the war in Afghanistan under North American command at around the same time, under the acronym ISAF (for International Security Assistance Force), for the simple reason that the U.N. Security Council issued an explicit mandate to use force in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime, in support of the Kabul government. A move which was undoubtedly legal but hardly legitimate.
To sum up, at the end of the Cold War, NATO went from winning without fighting to getting involved in military combat situations where victory could be tricky. In other words, not losing a war is not the same as winning it. The most difficult part of war, in addition to not losing the fight, is the political win—and this is proving to be the most difficult thing for NATO. It’s not Emmanuel Macron raising his voice or Angela Merkel trying to clarify her views. The worst is Trump, whose foreign policy involves undermining, one by one, every international institution he doesn’t like. That is, all of them. This is where NATO will have a tough time.
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