Is NATO Still Relevant?

Apr 20th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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Two years of full-scale war in Ukraine have reshaped the military alliance called NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization):  Finland and Sweden have now joined, an unintended consequence, as afar as Vladimir Putin was concerned, of his brutal aggression against Ukraine.  It is probably correct to argue that NATO is now more united than it has been since the fall of the USSR in the 1990s.  NATO announced this month that two-thirds of the alliance’s members have met the goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. That is a marked increase from a decade ago. But, at the same time, former President Donald J. Trump, the likely Republican candidate, said this month that he was willing to let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” against NATO allies that do not fulfill their commitments on military spending.

Matthew Mpoke Bigg of the Wall Street Journal provides a helpful summary about NATO:

  • What is NATO?  The mutual-defense alliance was established in 1949, after World War II, by the United States, Canada and 10 European countries.  The treaty for which the alliance is named has 14 articles by which all NATO members must abide. Perhaps the most important is Article 5, which declares that an attack against one member state is an attack against them all.  That article placed Western Europe under U.S. protection in the face of a Soviet Union that was cementing its domination over Central and Eastern Europe and appeared then only to be growing in power and ambition.  After the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, the alliance took on a wider role. NATO forces—made up of troops volunteered by member states—operated as peacekeepers in Bosnia in the 1990s and bombed Serbia in 1999 to protect Kosovo, where the alliance still has troops.
  • Which countries are members?  In addition to the United States and Canada, the countries that became part of NATO in 1949 were Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.  Since then, 19 more European states have joined: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Turkey, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.  Finland became NATO’s 31st member state last year, having abandoned a longstanding policy of military nonalignment. That added one of Western Europe’s most potent militaries to the alliance while at the same time extending NATO’s commitment to collective defense to a country that shares an 830-mile border with Russia.  Sweden is the 32nd member to recently join.
  • How has the war in Ukraine changed NATO?  The most visible sign of the evolution of NATO is the accession of Finland and Sweden, as members.  Although the alliance does not directly provide military aid to Ukraine, NATO countries, led by the United States, the biggest overall donor, have sent tens of billions of dollars of equipment. All NATO member states discuss military aid to Ukraine at monthly meetings. The alliance has also helped to coordinate Ukraine’s requests for humanitarian aid.   The war has also given new centrality to countries along NATO’s eastern border, particularly the Baltic States and Poland, a country that has acquired significant clout within the alliance. The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, was among the first foreign leaders to visit Kyiv after the invasion began and has been one of its most hawkish backers.
  • Where does Ukraine’s membership stand?  NATO membership is a central goal of Ukraine’s foreign policy, part of its plan to secure its future within the European Union and the West. As far back as 2008, NATO said Ukraine would eventually become a member. Russia’s invasion raised the stakes, and the government in Kyiv applied to join NATO in 2022.  NATO has promised that Ukraine can join eventually—without giving a timeline—and has drawn up a list of overhauls the country must embrace before that can happen. It is unlikely, however, that Ukraine could join NATO while the war lasts, because it would draw the alliance into direct conflict with Russia.

It is important in any discussion about the relevance of NATO to ask why many Republican leaders are skeptical about NATO and, in some cases, hope to withdraw the United States from NATO.  Columnist David Brooks offers several important observations about the Republican Party in 2024.

  • “The Republican Party in the 1920s, ’30s and early ’40s was steeped in pessimism, and that pessimism showed up as it often does: as nativism, isolationism and protectionism. In 1924, Republicans set strict immigration quotas with the Johnson-Reed Act. As World War II loomed, Senator Gerald Nye urged the passage of several neutrality acts to keep us from exporting arms to warring nations and opposed Lend-Lease to Britain. Senator Robert Taft supported the America First movement before the United States joined the war, and after the war he opposed the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was designed to lower trade barriers.”
  • “That version of the Republican Party ended in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Taft for the Republican presidential nomination . . . Ronald Reagan gets most of the credit, but it was Ike, not Reagan, who transformed the G.O.P. from an anxious, inward-looking party into a confident, outward-facing one. He and his internationalist successors believed that the only way to prevent more world wars was to build a multilateral democratic world order. They had the confidence to believe America could lead such an order . . . Ike’s confidence launched 60 years of Republican internationalism, gradually creating a party that helped defeat Communism and ushered in more global prosperity. Reagan amplified that sense of confidence and possibility. ‘Emerson was right,’ Reagan told the 1992 Republican convention. ‘We are the country of tomorrow.’ Reagan was confident enough to believe that America could welcome immigrants, benefit from their abilities and still remain distinctly America: ‘Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.’”
  • “It turns out that some political tendencies never really die; they just lie dormant for a few decades, waiting for the emotional mood to change. It’s conventional to say that Trump destroyed the postwar Republican establishment. That’s not quite right. The Tea Party’s extreme disgust with the course of American life was already flowing by 2009. The Pew Research Center detected a surge in American isolationism back in 2013. In 2004 only 8 percent of Republicans thought the United States’ power in world affairs was declining. By 2013, after Iraq and Afghanistan, 74 percent of Republicans thought American was in decline. By 2021, nearly a third of Republicans thought violence might be necessary to save America.  In other words, many Americans had concluded that the country had lost its greatness before Trump entered politics, but he magnified that sense and capitalized on it. Trump didn’t remake the party in his image. He restored the 1930s version of the party, merely adding a showman’s bravura and gold-plated fixtures.”
  • “If any event could have brought back the Eisenhower-Reagan trajectory, it was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And for a few months it seemed to. But isolationism is still on the march. As Thomas B. Edsall noted in The Times recently, between March 2022 and December 2023, the share of Republicans who say America provides ‘too much support’ for Ukraine rose to 48 percent from 9 percent. The message is eerily the same as it was in the late 1930s when the isolationists refused to confront the Nazis: America is too morally bankrupt, broke and corrupt to lead. We need to take care of our own.  People often say that history is a battle of ideas, but sometimes it is just a succession of moods. It was a culture of pessimism—Trump’s belief that we’re living in an era of ‘American carnage’—that restored the old G.O.P., not any set of arguments. America has a dazzling economy and dominant military strength. Military spending as a percentage of G.D.P. is dangerously close to its postwar low. But the Republicans apparently lack the self-confidence to believe they can improve the world, or the willpower to substantially try.”

At the February Munich Security Conference, Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, was skeptical about U.S. military support for Ukraine. “We simply do not have manufacturing capacity to support a ground war in Eastern Europe indefinitely,” he said. “And I think it’s incumbent upon leaders to articulate this for their populations.”  Wall Street Journal columnist, Daniel Henninger draws this poignant conclusion:  “We’re not there yet, but we’ve been at this decisional crossroads before. That would be the Munich Agreement of 1938. Historical parallels are never perfect . . . But Munich is worth thinking about. Mr. Putin’s actions and justifications evoke Hitler’s in the 1930s.  In 1936, Hitler’s military entered the German Rhineland on the French-Belgian border, an act forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. France and England didn’t object. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, an independent state, declaring it an ‘Anschluss,’ or political unification. Mr. Putin’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine was the start of a Russian Anschluss.  Months later in the Munich Agreement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, attempting to avert war, conceded that Hitler could occupy the German-speaking territories of Czechoslovakia in return for promising no further territorial expansions. Mr. Putin has justified his invasion of eastern Ukraine in part on the basis of Russian speakers there and has made similar threats against Latvia on behalf of Russian-speaking minorities. Last week the Russian police put Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on its wanted list for the ‘desecration of historical [Russian] memory.’”

Because so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump for president, it is important to hear from him specific foreign policy pronouncements.  Conservative columnist Henninger has a good list for starters:

  • What did Mr. Trump mean when he said he could end the war between Russia and Ukraine in 24 hours?
  • Does he in fact mean Mr. Putin should be allowed to annex eastern Ukraine?
  • Would he withdraw the U.S. from the roughly 50-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group?
  • Would he cede Russian-speaking areas of the Baltics to Mr. Putin? I would ask Mr. Trump if he thought the Munich Agreement was a mistake in 1938, or just poorly negotiated.
  • His recent remark at a rally that he’d let the Russians do “whatever the hell they want” was considered a negotiating tactic to make Europe spend more on defense. But I would like to hear Mr. Trump’s thoughts on related issues about the U.S. world role.
  • In May 2019, as president, Mr. Trump announced the end of military exercises with South Korea. Would he consider moving toward a more formal posture of armed neutrality, whereby the U.S. would have no formal alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or partnerships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia?
  • Mr. Trump says he personally can negotiate agreements with Mr. Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Does he think those pacts make the current push to increase spending on U.S. defense unnecessary? Mr. Putin denied this week that Russia intends to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Does Mr. Trump believe him?

NATO remains one of the most important defensive alliances on the planet.  It is vital to the security of the US as well as Europe.  Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine has brought the alliance once again to the forefront.  We need to hear from presidential candidates how important NATO is to them and to the foreign policy vision they want Americans to follow in voting for him.  Being president is a stewardship responsibility before God.  It is reasonable to expect candidates that many Christians support to answer these critically important questions.

See Matthew Mpoke Bigg in the New York Times (23 January 2024); Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal (22 February 2024);  and David Brooks in the New York Times (1 March 2024).

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