NATO is the most successful military alliance, in terms of preventing confilct, that history has ever known; but its future is at risk
By Julian Lewis
The House Magazine – 27 January 2017
Conventional conflicts are harder to deter than nuclear war because, whilst everyone would lose in a nuclear exchange, evenly-matched conventional forces do not guarantee equal military outcomes. A potential aggressor may still gamble on gaining a decisive victory. Thus, it is as true today as it was in 1949, when NATO was founded, that the only reliable deterrent to conventional war in Europe is our alliance with the world’s strongest country, coupled with the message – broadcast loud and clear – that an attack on any NATO state means war with America right from the outset.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of America’s late entry into the First World War, and last December was the 75th anniversary of America’s late entry into the Second World War. If Germany’s leaders had known that attacking Belgium in 1914 or Poland in 1939 would immediately have meant war with the United States, would they have been deterred from embarking on aggression? I believe the answer is "yes". A trans-Atlantic alliance could have preserved the peace of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, just as it did in the second half despite the intensity of the East-West confrontation. So why would President Trump wish to dismantle NATO, the most successful military alliance, in terms of preventing conflict, which history has ever known?
The short answer is that he seems to have no such intention. True, he referred to NATO as “obsolete” but, as is clear from his interview in The Times on 16 January, his use of the term referred to a perceived failure to recognise new threats from terrorism as well as old ones from Russia. In the President’s opinion, steps have been taken to meet this deficiency, but he has a second reservation about NATO – one which is widely shared here in the United Kingdom. Apart from Estonia, Greece, Poland, the UK and the USA, the Alliance’s guideline to spend a minimum of 2 per cent of GDP on defence remains nowhere near fulfilled by almost two dozen NATO countries, including those most stridently supporting a separate EU “Defence Identity” without the United States.
A distinct EU defence organisation would be strong enough to provoke, but too weak to deter in the absence of a US guarantee. At a stroke it would take Europe back to the risks, the gambles and the uncertainties which plunged the Continent into conflict twice in a generation. No wonder that Mr Trump states, in the same newspaper interview, that
“NATO is very important to me”
and that his attitude to Mrs Merkel and Mr Putin is that
“I start off trusting both – but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all.” (Emphasis added)
Of course, if America turns away, Europe will have little chance of deterring anything other than a nuclear threat from Russia, thanks to the British and French deterrents; but we know very well that the new US President prides himself on being a shrewd negotiator, as well as the political heir to Ronald Reagan. Those of us who remember President Reagan with admiration and respect need no reminding of his commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance and his appreciation of the central role of NATO in preventing the Third World War.
Perhaps we need to document this for the benefit of Mr Trump. His character is what one former Secretary of Defense might have described as a “known unknown”. Yet, it seems to me most likely that, by confronting the ‘free-riders’ within the Alliance, the President actually aims to strengthen NATO by ensuring that all its members properly fund their Armed Forces in future.
If this is correct, it will indeed be ironic that the politician who caused most anxiety to the Alliance may turn out to be the source of its salvation.