In an interview published on Sunday with the German newspaper Bild, President-elect Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “obsolete,” citing its age, his belief that member countries are not paying their fair share, and the inability or unwillingness for it to deal with the threat of terrorism.
NATO was formed in 1949 as an alliance between the United States and the democratic governments of Western Europe to counter the power of the Soviet Union and its communist satellites in Eastern Europe. A few years later, in 1955, the Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact in response as a counter-balance to NATO. The Cold War was played out under the shadow of these two alliance frameworks, with each side promising a common defense of its members in the event of an attack by the opposing side.
The NATO alliance has always been an important instrument of US power projection and influence in Europe. Its members relied on the US for nuclear defense of their territorial integrity; with this came the ability of the US to exert influence in the member countries’ foreign relations and internal politics.
The Warsaw Pact was little more than a formalization of the control which the Soviet Union already exerted over its satellite countries. The Pact was therefore dissolved with the fall of the Soviet Union, and many of the countries formerly part of the Pact joined NATO following their transition to Western-style democracy (this has always irked Russia). In the ensuing years NATO has been involved in the Balkan wars, the war in Afghanistan, and various smaller military interventions.
Trump is correct in the fact that NATO needs a new overarching mission, since its founding mission of countering the Soviet Union is no longer relevant. But, by calling into question the continued relevance of NATO itself without offering alternatives, Trump is undermining the position of the United States within the European community (in fact, he also questioned the future existence of the European Union).
His intent seems to be to foster closer relations with Russia. This is a respectable goal; Russia is too powerful to simply ignore, and it and the United States actually share similar interests in combating Islamic terrorism. However, Trump needs to approach Russia in a way which does not alienate our European allies or cause them to question our commitment to their security. Russia does, and consistently has, viewed NATO as a threat, particularly the expansion of the alliance. The fact that Trump is questioning NATO’s existence will only give fuel to the belief that he has somehow been compromised by Russia.
As an alternative to simply discarding NATO, perhaps the time has come to rekindle previous attempts at improving NATO-Russia relations by involving them in joint NATO operations. Counter-terrorism could be an excellent project on which to work together as well as give NATO its mission for the 21st Century.