NATO and the International Order: It was Kind of Nice, Wasn’t It?

by Stephen M. Saideman

People have been asking me lately–what is the big deal with this international liberal order?  What has it ever done right? What has it ever given me? There are lots of pieces to it, but I am focused on NATO for obvious reasons, including my assignment at next week’s Kingston International Conference on Security.

So, here’s Mattis’s quote from the NAC (North Atlantic Council) Defense Ministerial:

and my reaction.

I used to scoff at the usual NATO existential crisis stuff–that NATO needed a reason to exist in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, that there was some conflict within that might lead to the alliance breaking up, etc.  But now I am in the club of those who fear for NATO’s future.  Why?  Trump.  It is that simple.  Putin actually did more for NATO unity in 2014 than anything else by making folks remember NATO’s day job–keeping Europe peaceful and, as a result, prosperous.  But his gambles on Trump, on Brexit, on supporting right wing aspiring autocrats (Orban of Hungary, Erdogan of Turkey, etc) have worked out.

The alliance has worked and changed our conception of alliance not just because it is far more institutionalized than any other alliance past or present, but because all of it relied on largely shared values.  Not just democracy but democracy with embedded liberalism–that governments played a role in adjusting to international shocks, made easier by international cooperation.

And now is a splintered G-7 meeting due to Trump using “national security threat” to play a particularly problematic card–to impose tariffs on allies without the consent of Congress.  To be clear, this is the opt out card built into the agreements.  He does not really believe that these countries or their exports to the US are any kind of threat, but he does not believe in norms, rules or the future. So, Trump has used this exception, antagonizing everyone except maybe the Italians (their own populist election results are handy for self-destruction).

So endeth the shared values.  Orban has already promoted illiberal democracy, and Trump would too if he could articulate anything (note that Gorka is back, and Gorka is a living embodiment of Orban’s illiberal democracy).  True, Trump is not the US, but he is, alas, 40% of it, and the GOP seems ok with selling out American values for tax cuts and court seats.  So, even if/when the Democrats come into power, they will not be able to reassure the Europeans and the Canadians.  After all, this big split is the most significant … since the last Republican president and the misconceived Iraq war of 2003.

So, how can NATO provide security by reassuring nervous members and deterring adversaries?  The lack of common values undermines NATO credibility–will the US show up if Russia does something?  Perhaps not since Trump is now trying to get Russia back into the G8 despite everything Russia has done since seizing Crimea.

NATO isn’t dead, and I hope to see signs of life when I go to the expert side party at the summit next month. But NATO is far from healthy, and I worry that we soon look back at those 70 years Mattis speaks of and wistfully remember the good old days.  Maybe the good old days weren’t as good as they seem, as Billy Joel reminds us, but they were better than the days before that–WWI, WWII and all that.

 

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