Last Wednesday, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, addressed a joint session of Congress. Speaking a day before NATO’s 70th birthday, he addressed the critical role that the alliance has played and its achievements.
However, as we face an increasing number of global threats to our freedom and security, especially from Russia and China, our alliances matter more than ever. As we mark the anniversary of NATO’s founding, we must focus on strengthening our ties, not alienating our allies.
NATO was formed at the end of World War II as Europe was coming out of the most destructive conflicts in history. It also came on the heels of the looming Soviet threat, with Soviet Russia emerging as a newly-established Great Power. The United States, under the leadership of President Truman, was the driving factor that pulled Western Europe back together and the foundational treaty for NATO was signed on April 4th, 1949 by the original twelve members.
These founding members were committed to thwarting the expansion of the Soviet Union, and communism. The alliance has been remarkably successful in this task: the Cold War came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and led to the liberation of the Eastern European states without a single shot.
In his speech, Stoltenberg referenced the two monuments outside NATO’s headquarters: a piece of the Berlin Wall and a pillar salvaged from the Twin Towers in the aftermath of 9/11. These are not token tributes. These objects represent pivotal moments in recent history and NATO played a critical role in both.
The Berlin Wall was built by a totalitarian state to keep its people in and ideas out. It failed. This was not guaranteed by any means though. It failed because the members of NATO decided to take a strong stand against communism and for their communal ideals.
On the other hand, the pillar from the Twin Tower represents the collective defense principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all members. In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO members unanimously voted to invoke this mutual defense doctrine, affirming that the attack on the United States was an attack on all. Since then, over 1,000 soldiers from member countries have died fighting alongside their American counterparts.
In many ways, NATO has been an unprecedented achievement. NATO has helped orchestrate nearly three-quarters of a century of peace in a continent that had previously known nothing but war. For context, this is the longest period of peace in human history since the advent of the Roman Empire. This makes NATO not just the longest-lasting alliance, but also the most successful. Europe, the United States, and the world are better off for it.
Recent events also underscore that we need NATO now more than ever. Russia’s aggressive moves have put Russia back on the map as a threat to our safety and freedom. President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was based on the idea that Crimea’s Russian heritage makes Crimea part of Russia, the first time that rationale has been invoked since Nazi Germany’s expansion. Russia has also orchestrated a mass military buildup in recent years.
Russian agents have used military-grade nerve agents to assassinate a Soviet informant and his daughter on British soil. They have regularly and repeatedly attempted to intervene and meddle in democracies across the West. Perhaps most importantly, the United States’ early decision to avoid providing too much assistance to Syrian rebels— who we nevertheless recognize as being Syria’s legitimate government— gave Russia and Iran the green light to intervene on behalf of their ally, President Bashar Al-Assad. This has been an enormous loss for American leadership globally and has delivered a major foreign policy win to Russia.
This has been compounded by NATO members who consistently fail to meet their spending goals. Germany has been exceptionally bad in this regard. However, none of this compares to what is seen by past and present NATO leaders as the largest threat to the future of the alliance: the absence of American leadership. Throughout its history, many of NATO’s most important achievements have been a result of American presidents pulling members across the finish line.
While lack of financial commitment to the alliance is indefensible and deserves to be criticized, this is no way justifies Trump publicly questioning the very core concept of the alliance, nor does it justify the reports that he has repeatedly considered leaving the alliance altogether. Despite the arguments of some, questioning the premise on which an organization rests is not likely to lead to other members taking their obligations more seriously. It should not come as a surprise that Germany is now backsliding on its defense spending.
NATO’s success in the past, as Stoltenberg points out, is no guarantor of success in the future. As we face a world where freedom and democracy are in open retreat, Russia is as aggressive as ever and China is militantly on the rise. We must focus on strengthening our alliance.
President Trump has a unique opportunity to lead NATO into a new era by focusing on getting member states to match their defense spending goals, as well as by incentivizing the development of a stronger, more robust alliance. As Secretary General Stoltenberg told Congress, “It is good to have friends!” Indeed, it is.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.