Is NATO falling apart?

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Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

Leaders of some of the world’s most powerful countries gathered in the U.K. for the 70th anniversary of NATO, an alliance between European and North American nations that has been a major driver of international decision-making since the middle of the 20th century.

The tone of the meetings, however, may not have matched the grand occasion. Despite major issues facing NATO nations, most of the headlines have focused on squabbles between heads of state. U.S. President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron traded barbs at a press conference over Marcon’s claim that Trump had contributed to a “brain death” in NATO. A video appearing to show several leaders mocking Trump also caused controversy.

The North American Treaty Organization was established in the wake of World War II with the goal of avoiding another major conflict through mutual cooperation. The most important element of the partnership is a joint defense agreement, known as Article 5, which commits members to consider an attack on any NATO country to be an attack on all of them. This provision has been credited with stunting the Soviet advancement in Eastern Europe through the end of the Cold War. Today, several former Soviet states are among NATO’s 29 members.

This year’s meeting comes at a time when NATO is facing deep divisions among its most powerful leaders about the what the group's core mission should be, how it should respond to threats and concerns that key countries are no longer committed to the alliance.

Why there’s debate

Disagreements within NATO are nothing new, but some observers see the current tension among its most prominent members as a sign that the organization is coming apart at the seams. Trump is considered to be a major catalyst of these fissures. His hesitancy to commit to defending other members from attack and frequent claims that the U.S. is shouldering an unfair financial load have raised doubts about America’s future in the alliance.

But Trump isn’t the only factor posing an existential threat to NATO. Some observers argue that the alliance has been slowly splintering since it lost its unifying mission with the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Today, members face what some see as irreconcilable differences over multiple problems, including defense spending, terrorism, migration, Turkey’s assault in Syria, Russian aggression, China’s economic role and Britain’s possible exit from the European Union.

More optimistic analysts say these differences are par for the course for a body that has always been made up of countries with divergent interests. Some argue that, despite their bluster, international leaders understand that the benefits they get from the stability NATO provides outweigh any of the sacrifices they must make to maintain membership. Others who see Trump as the main driver of tensions argue that the group will coalesce once his presidency ends.

What’s next

NATO is reportedly considering creating a group of experts that would offer recommendations for repairing the rifts between members. The European Union signed off on a series of military partnerships, a move seen by some as a step toward establishing an EU defense alignment that could one day serve as an alternative to NATO’s framework.


NATO is strong

NATO’s collapse has been predicted for decades

“The foreign-policy establishment is pondering whether it should still exist. In truth, we’ve been having this argument since 1992, after the Soviet collapse, and maybe since France pulled its military out of the alliance in 1966, a ruckus I followed closely from my crib.” — Tobin Harshaw, Bloomberg

The military arm of NATO is as strong as ever

“There are two NATOs. There’s the slick military machine that plans, trains and coordinates to adapt to new security threats to Europe and North America. And there’s the political alliance that depends on the unity and resolve of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. The first, let’s call it NATO 1, is doing relatively well.” — Paul Taylor, Politico

NATO continues to achieve its main purpose

“Moscow may bristle, but a bigger NATO has kept it at bay. Russia has not dared to attack or invade any NATO member. Contrast that with its violent assaults on Ukraine and Georgia, which are not NATO allies.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

The alliance has survived worse crises

“Inevitably, there will be disagreements, as 29 democracies with different histories will certainly disagree from time to time. Differences of opinion are nothing new. … Alliances are built to be durable and to survive individual leaders and disrupters. NATO has been through much worse, and it has always come out stronger.” — Iain King, The Hill

A change in NATO’s membership could solidify the alliance

“NATO has to change. Specifically, Turkey has got to go, and it should be replaced by Georgia and Ukraine.” — Dylan Meisner, Washington Examiner

NATO is falling apart

NATO is functionally over

“The Atlantic alliance as we know it is dead. The end of the Cold War, the United States’ growing weariness of global burdens, and a preoccupation with domestic affairs on both sides of the ocean had already weakened transatlantic bonds when the presidency of Donald Trump inflicted the deathblow.” — Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro, Foreign Affairs

It’s unclear whether the members are committed to the collective defense agreement

“If NATO’s collective security serves best as a tool for deterrence, it relies on the perception that it would actually work in practice. The risk now is that if it ever had to be used in practice, world leaders might find it is a relic of the past that no longer functions.” — Adam Taylor, Washington Post

NATO has lacked purpose since the collapse of the USSR

“Nato’s demise has been predicted many times since its main purpose — deterring the Soviet Union — disappeared. Its failure to agree a new mission or, rather, to choose between competing versions of what that mission should be, risks pushing it into irrelevance.” — Simon Tisdall, Guardian

The alliance has been facing a slow death for decades

“Sooner or later, even in diplomacy, reality sweeps even the most imposing shams aside. NATO is not a sham — yet. It is still a valuable institution honoring an important purpose. … But without a change of heart on the part of its most important members, the outlook for NATO is poor.” — Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal

A possible Brexit could further wound the fractured alliance

“On the face of it, Brexit has nothing to do with NATO. But Britain has long been viewed as one of NATO's most important members after the U.S. and analysts have argued that its departure from the EU could lead it to more aggressively look beyond Europe when it comes to the deployment of its armed forces and peacekeeping missions.” — Kim Hjelmgaard, USA Today

NATO will fall apart if Europe can’t trust the U.S.

“For the past 70 years, Europeans have known that no matter who occupies the White House, America’s foreign policy and strategic priorities will be consistent. Today, all bets are off.” — Ivan Krastev, New York Times

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Evan Vucci/AP