The trans-Atlantic alliance has been significantly weakened, forcing Europe to build up its own security structures without inflicting even more damage on NATO. Is such a thing even possible?
The timing of the article could hardly have been better. On Feb. 12, just three days before the beginning of last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, it was published on the website of the U.S. magazine National Interest. And it quickly became a topic of fevered discussion among conference participants, particularly those from Europe. “Dump NATO,” blared the headline.
The piece wasn’t written by a no-name. Its author is Christian Whiton, a former State Department adviser during the administrations of both President George W. Bush and Donald Trump. His central message in the piece is that the United States should back out of NATO. The sooner the better.
“A rich continent with a $17 trillion economy — more than 10 times the size of Russia’s — does not need America to underwrite its defense,” he writes. NATO, Whiton believes, “is little more than a mechanism for Old Europe to freeload off of America.”
Freeload. That’s the tone in which the entire article is written. It is both hostile and scornful in the extreme. And along with NATO, Whiton also throws the entire canon of Western values onto the trash heap of history. “Most of the countries in Old Europe have chosen atheism, globalism, multiculturalism and decadent decline,” he writes. “What exactly are we defending?”
In normal times, it would be simple to just dismiss the “Dump NATO” article as the ramblings of a fringe lunatic — as a provocation or aberration that has little to do with reality. But not these days. Not in an era in which Whiton’s article likely reflects exactly what the American president is thinking.
Piling On the Pressure
Donald Trump has publicly called the Western defensive alliance into question on several occasions and has reportedly discussed with his advisers whether the U.S. should simply withdraw from NATO entirely. According to participants in those discussions quoted by the New York Times, he doesn’t see the point of the alliance. Not only that, but he orders European countries around as though they were his subordinates, he piles on the pressure and he carries out secret talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To be sure, Trump has not thus far taken any military steps that have actually harmed NATO in any way. In fact, the Americans have bolstered their military presence in Europe, a fact that Europeans at the Munich Security Conference turned to for comfort.
But when it comes to security, words are the equivalent of deeds. Guarantees of security are only worth something if they apply unconditionally and are not attached to an expiration date. That has thus far been the foundation of NATO. If the U.S. president calls the American nuclear shield for Europe into question, then Europe is no longer secure. “Despite our public proclamations, no reasonable person believes that Trump would sacrifice Seattle for Riga,” said a senior German diplomat in Munich.
NATO has protected Germany for 70 years, the anniversary is to be celebrated this December in Washington, D.C. But the event could ultimately be reminiscent of the 40th anniversary of East Germany, which was observed in October 1989, just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The structures still exist, but they have become fragile and basically everyone has come to realize that they are no longer stable.
The problem, though, is that Germany is dependent on NATO. Indeed, all of Europe is militarily dependent on the U.S., both on America’s conventional armed forces and on its nuclear capabilities. And for the foreseeable future, there is no alternative to the alliance that might be able to guarantee Europe’s security. That is the uncomfortable truth Europe currently finds itself facing.
“Very, Very, Very Serious”
“NATO still exists, but the alliance hardly exists anymore,” says French political scientist François Heisbourg. He says the relationship is similar to that between the church and religion: The church is still standing, but faith has evaporated. “A church without religion loses its mission,” he warns. The situation, he adds, is “very, very, very serious.”