Fifteen years ago, it was common to ask if NATO still served a purpose. The Cold-War-era alliance, designed to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, had outlasted its primary enemy. Though NATO was (and remains) active in post-9/11 fighting in Afghanistan, it was natural to wonder if the transatlantic alliance was obsolete in a new world order.
Those questions are rarely heard today. After a brief holiday from history, old challenges haunt the West again. Western Europe in particular is facing divisive political crises, a migration crisis, cycles of terror and a resurgent and troublesome Russia.
Still a shadow of its one-time Soviet stature, especially compared with the U.S., Russia could not hope to defeat an energized Western alliance in a sustained conflict, hot or cold. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to commit vast sums of his country’s limited wealth to its armed forces, and he’s prepared to use those armed forces in ways previously thought unthinkable. Through regional physical aggression and global cyber-agression, Putin is demonstrating that even a weak Russia can be dangerous (no doubt largely because of that very inferiority complex).
There remains no better way of meeting these threats, and others, than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
President Donald Trump does not understand this, or pretends not to. He peddles the fiction that NATO countries are delinquent in “payments” to the U.S. (that’s not how it works) and seems unconcerned about preserving the postwar security arrangements built by the United States to its enduring advantage. This is shortsighted and dangerous for America and for its allies.
Still, there is some truth in other things the president has been saying about his NATO allies and their “free-rider” problem (note that was Barack Obama’s preferred term for the disappointing commitment of European allies, reminding us that this is not a new problem or a matter merely of Trump’s ill temper). America’s willingness to spend heavily on defence has undeniably allowed its allies to spend less than they should, to the detriment of the alliance’s strength.
This certainly includes Canada. Obama also gently chastised Canada for under-spending on defence while addressing Parliament during his final visit to this country. “We’ll be more secure when every NATO member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security,” Obama said almost exactly two years ago. “Because the Canadian Armed Forces are really good … the world needs more Canada. NATO needs more Canada. We need you.”
Obama applied flattery to Canada’s bottomless insecurity and was met with grateful applause, but not much else. Trump says the same thing more bluntly, and the response is outrage. Maybe that means we’ll finally listen. Because both presidents are right. It’s time for the prime minister and other NATO leaders to stop paying lip service to NATO and start properly supporting the forces that give NATO its necessary hard power at a time when it counts as much as ever.
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