Last Tuesday the US House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation expressing congressional support for NATO, and tried to bar President Trump from withdrawing from the treaty. This was in response to a New York Times article reporting that in 2018 Trump privately raised the threat of US leaving the Cold War alliance multiple times.
The bipartisan 357-22 vote on the NATO Support Act would prohibit the use of federal funds to withdraw from the treaty, and comes at a time of fraying transatlantic ties over European members’ lackluster defense spending, trade wars, and Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Nonetheless, despite the overwhelming votes of NATO support in the Democrat-controlled House, it appears not to fully reflect the sentiment of American taxpayers.
Linking defense of allies to spending
According to a 2018 Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after President Trump’s trip to Europe for the NATO summit, nearly half of Americans believe US should not be required to defend NATO allies from attack if they do not fulfill their treaty obligations under Article 3 for defense spending.
As William Krumholz from Defense Priorities noted, Article 3 which states NATO members “will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack” in effect undergirds Article 5 for mutual defense.
In other words, Krumholz argues that NATO members are required to field strong, capable militaries, and the 2% rule ensures that all members are then actually capable of fulfilling their Article 5 pledge.
However, out of 29 members, only five meet the 2% obligation—US, UK, Poland, Greece and Estonia, with US paying the lion share of funding for the alliance.
Moreover, according to a 2018 Pews Research Center survey, most European countries are unwilling to use their own military force to defend a fellow NATO ally if attacked but expect the US would do so. For example, in Greece only 25% of the public believe it should use its own military force while 62% believe US would defend a NATO ally, and in Italy only 36% believe Rome should use its own military force.
It is not surprising then that many Americans see NATO as doing too little, and in this case European members seem more like protectorates than partners of the US. In light of this, some scholars surmise NATO may eventually evolve to become a hub-and-spoke alliance, similar to the East Asian model between US and its protectorates.
Hub and spoke and “East Asianization” of NATO
As Hans Kundnani formerly from the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy pointed out, in the context of Trump’s demand that NATO members fulfill their pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defense and the deployment of NATO troops to the Baltic states and Poland, “What may be emerging is a system of implicit bilateral security guarantees between NATO countries, centered on the United States.”
In January 2017, U.S. Armored Brigade consisting of 4,000 troops arrived in Poland—a NATO member that spends more that 2% of its GDP on defense. In Latvia and Lithuania that spends roughly 1.5% of GDP on defense, non-US troops from NATO are deployed.
Kundnani observed that the extent to which a NATO member can rely on the US security guarantee may now depend on its defense spending and whether American troops are stationed on its soil, and the “transformation of collective security into a system of bilateral security guarantees may mean the de facto end of NATO as a collective security organization.”
As such this resembles the “hub and spoke bilateralism” in East Asia—centered on security guarantee with individual countries such as South Korea and Japan—as Washington appears slowly moving towards bilateral deals from multilateral structures.
The risk of war was so great that last October Greek defense officials raised the issue and requested clarification regarding US position if two NATO members go to war against each other, offered more Greek bases for US troops, and expressed concern over US sales of the more advanced F-35’s to Turkey in midst of frequent dogfights between the Greek and Turkish air force.
Thus in the face of current NATO malaise of internal warring, anemic spending and unwillingness of most members to defend other allies, it seems American soldiers and taxpayers will continue to be the beast of burden and carry the alliance–but perhaps with President Trump striking a compromise and reforming the model to one of hub-and-spoke, in order to commensurate with the country’s downgraded financial and military capabilities after 70 years.
Article first published in Asia Times on 29/1/19.