Donald Trump threw a tantrum at the Nato summit and packed up his toys and left the party early. Another multilateral summit with democratic allies, another embarrassment for Trump and the country he’s supposed to lead. Sigh.
Nato is facing a crisis sparked by Trump. The leader of Nato’s most important member regularly criticizes the alliance. He acts as though Nato countries owe the United States money as part of a protection racket, revealing a lack of understanding of the value of the alliance and how Nato works (countries don’t pay one another). He praises the leader of Russia – Nato’s biggest adversary – and asked for Russia’s help to win his campaign in 2016. He abruptly pulled US forces out of Syria with no coordination with Nato, despite the potentially major implications for European security.
The Syria withdrawal appeared to be the last straw for France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Tired of vacuous Nato summits spent tiptoeing around Trump, Macron let loose in an interview with the Economist, saying that Nato is suffering from “brain death”. Macron claimed that Europe does not recognize how dangerous Trump is to the alliance and that it’s time for Europe to take responsibility for its own security. And Macron is not the only leader who’s had enough. In London, while sitting next to Trump, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, pushed back against Trump’s criticism that allies don’t do enough, schooling the president about Canada’s significant contributions to transatlantic security. Allied leaders could be seen on camera making fun of Trump, which seemed to be the cause of Trump’s precipitous departure.
But Nato’s problems are bigger than Trump, and no matter how much longer he’s in office, Nato members will have to contend with threats to the very nature of the alliance. Nato’s first out-of-area mission in Afghanistan has sputtered along without conclusion. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, invaded Syrian territory which was being defended by three other Nato allies – the United States, Great Britain and France. Turkish and Hungarian leaders have gutted their democracies and warmed up to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, with Erdoğan going so far as to purchase weapons from Russia.
In order to remain relevant, alliances must evolve, which Nato has done before: after the cold war Nato embraced new members, and after 9/11 it took on terrorism. Nato’s last “Strategic Concept” – the document outlining its priorities – was adopted in 2010. To adapt to today’s world – a newly aggressive Russia, an unreliable US president, growing challenges from China and instability within the EU – Nato must evolve again.
To strengthen the alliance, Nato’s members must look to the organization’s roots. Nato was created to deter the Soviet Union, protect the fledgling democracies of western Europe, and bind the United States and Europe together. Replace the Soviet Union with Russia, and these three goals are as relevant as ever. Here’s how to achieve them.
First, Nato members must maintain its democratic identity. Nato is not just a military alliance – it represents values embodied by democracy. While Nato included some non-democratic states during the cold war, today democracy is a prerequisite for Nato membership. But the erosion of democracy in Turkey, Hungary and elsewhere threatens the very identity of Nato. Nato must impose consequences on those members who no longer reflect its values – or maybe they should not be members at all.
Europe and the United States are under attack from Russian active measures to undermine democracy
Second, members must see Nato as part of the broader transatlantic relationship. America’s commitment to defend Europe through Nato provided the security necessary for Europe’s democracies to flourish and for their economies to integrate and grow. The European Union blossomed under Nato’s protection, and together the two institutions welcomed new members when the cold war ended. But the EU faces serious challenges, from Brexit to democratic erosion in member states like Hungary and Poland. Nato’s future cannot be divorced from the future of the European project – keeping the continent united and free. For Europeans, that means not taking for granted what they’ve built in the EU. For the United States, that means building a “special relationship” with the EU, as my Center for American Progress colleague Max Bergmann suggests.
Third, Nato must have the right Russia strategy. Russia’s provocations against eastern Europe are seen as existential threats for those countries that were formerly behind the iron curtain. Europe and the United States are under attack from Russian active measures to undermine democracy. Nato must deter Russia, and it must support its neighbors like Ukraine who want to be closer to Europe but face threats from Russia. This does not mean Nato should return to a cold war footing – Nato must deter and defend, but it also must find a way to cooperate with Russia on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons and push for dialogue to reduce tensions, while leaving the door open to Russia to change course.
Fourth, Nato allies must build stronger bonds with the world’s democracies. From Japan to South Korea, South Africa to Indonesia, Ghana to Costa Rica, democracies across the world share values and interests – and often face similar threats that undermine democratic institutions. Nato members must look abroad – not for military alliances, but for partnerships with other democracies and forums like the Community of Democracies to tackle global issues from climate change to internet freedom.
Nato is not braindead. But it does need a shot of adrenaline – and that can only be provided by its member states once again embracing the values that birthed Nato.