NATO’s foreign ministers will gather in Washington, D.C., on April 4 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance. But their festivities will hardly mask the profound anxiety about NATO’s future that is building on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. President Donald Trump is, of course, the leading cause of the disquiet. His broadsides against allies for not spending enough on defense, his public ambiguity about whether the United States will stand by its commitment to collective defense, and his reported desire to withdraw the United States from the alliance raise fears that 2019 could be a year for eulogizing NATO rather than feting it.
Trump’s diatribes are not the only cause of the unease. A broadening chorus of realist strategists claims that the United States is overdue for a major strategic retrenchment and that it is past time for Europe to tend its own garden. Even staunch defenders of NATO express doubts about its future. Some worry that the growing U.S. preoccupation with East Asia will lure the United States away from its Atlantic calling and generate transatlantic tensions over how to deal with the rise of China. Others fear that democratic backsliding among members is compromising the alliance’s values-based solidarity. Close NATO watchers are concerned that EU efforts to more deeply integrate European foreign and defense policy could ultimately weaken the Atlantic link. And debate rages on both sides of the Atlantic as to whether NATO enlargement has enhanced or eroded European stability and whether to continue expansion despite the costs to the West’s relationship with Russia.
These worries are unwarranted: NATO at 70 is actually in remarkably good shape. Yes, European allies have been laggards on defense spending, and some members—Hungary, Poland, and Turkey in particular—have tarnished democratic credentials. But NATO has demonstrated an impressive ability to adapt to the changing geopolitical environment since the Cold War’s end, ensuring that the United States and Europe remain each other’s
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