For all intents and purposes, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – the foundation for American security for the past seven decades – ceased existing on May 25, 2017.
While attending a highly anticipated (some might say dreaded) meeting with NATO heads of state and government in Brussels, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a speech railing against member-states who have failed to meet economic obligations to the defense pact, going so far as to indirectly abrogate the alliance’s cornerstone: the provisions for collective defense under Article V of the treaty.
Article V is the backbone of the NATO alliance: that an attack against any individual member will be treated as an attack against all members, and will be met with a requisite response. Article V is perhaps the biggest piece of what incentivized the Europeans to resist Moscow throughout the nuclear-tinged threat of the Cold War era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Europeans steadily gutted their militaries, redirecting funds to ballooning social programs and pensions.
I cannot emphasize enough that while the breach between the United States and the rest of NATO is happening on the Trump administration’s watch, this is not a position that will change once Trump is gone.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration made it clear to the NATO allies that future relations would be viewed through the prism of cooperation on anti-terror programs. In response the French and Germans partnered with the Russians to oppose the Iraq War. During the first Obama administration, the White House explicitly asked NATO to increase its troop commitments to the Afghan conflict to prevent the Taliban’s re-emergence. With a very few exceptions the European allies didn’t just fail to provide, they rejected Obama’s request with fanfare.
I’m not asserting the Americans’ wars were smart plays, or that the link between anti-terror programs and other aspects of strategic policy is what I would have done. I’m saying that the American complaint that the European allies are not carrying their weight – and that there is an explicit link in the American mind between anti-terror support and ongoing NATO security guarantees – is neither new, nor a surprise, nor merely the position of a political outsider like Trump. This is policy. This is bipartisan. This is done.
And holy crap does that throw a lot of things up in the air!
So what does life after NATO look like?
- United States. Freed from needing to maintain static deployments throughout Europe or from preparing for mass Army deployments to the Continent, and freed from needing to be responsible for global security in general, the United States can revert to their pre-World War II strategic posture: one of permanent offense. Few troops manning front lines. Little need to rush to the aid of every country on the planet. Yet boasting a military capable of intervening anywhere, anywhen. For the roughly 4.5 billion people on this planet whose physical and economic security was dependent upon active, constructive American engagement, an America that is a persistent wild card is quite possibly the worst outcome of all. And what does the U.S. need to put into place to make this happen? Not a damn thing.
- United Kingdom. Theresa May has already struck a deal with the Trump administration to more closely coordinate strategic policy. This wasn’t done because of NATO’s imminent end, but because of Brexit. The Brits leaving the EU means they need to massively increase the size of their diplomatic and intelligence operations. May offered to trade the information such operations generate for a closer alignment with the Americans. From the point of view of the London-Washington alliance, the hard work has already been done.
- Russia. Moscow has been praying for a breach between the Americans and the Europeans for decades, and the day has finally arrived. Not a moment too soon either. The Russian demography is in terminal decline and the country will largely lose the ability to field a credible army in just a few years. Russia’s current borders are completely indefensible with its current military, much less a smaller one, so Moscow believes it must expand to something more closely resembling the old Soviet borders. This will bring it into conflict with eleven different countries, five of which are standing NATO members. The one country that could have stopped a Russian assault? The United States. Expect Russian operations within, against and beyond Ukraine to accelerate now that the Americans are no longer a major factor.
- Poland and Romania. Warsaw and Bucharest are, well, screwed. Poland and Romania are two of the five countries that the Russians feel they must at least partially secure. Neither have a hope of fighting off the Russians without massive amounts of outside assistance, and with the Americans exiting stage west they will be forced to turn to local powers – powers with which both have less than ideal relations.
- Germany. There is zero hope for Poland without tens of thousands of German troops fighting on Polish soil. Considering that currently Germany doesn’t have tens of thousands of deployable troops, and even if they did, historically German troops haven’t tended to leave Poland after being there, and Warsaw-Berlin relations are about to become dizzyingly complicated. Every time the Germans have armed, the result has been a broad-spectrum European war. It is far too soon to call that inevitable, but unless the Germans prove comfortable with Russian troops within a couple hundred miles of Berlin, the era of German pacifism is nearly over.
- Turkey. The Turks have been de facto out of NATO for over a decade, following a breach in relations with the George W Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war. Now, how much progress the Russians make in the Balkans and Caucasus is largely up to politics in Ankara. Figuring out the specific path forward is an exercise in futility. Not only are the Turks only now waking up from a century long geopolitical coma and they have yet to figure out what about their neighborhood really matters to them, Prime Minister Erdogan is cut from the same nationalistic, populist cloth as the American, Polish and Russian presidents. But whatever happens, relations with the Germans will be key. Germany and Turkey are the only countries in Europe that have the potential manpower to hold off, much less roll back, a Russian advance…and the two are currently in a spat that is dangerously close to severing formal diplomatic relations.
- Sweden. The final three NATO countries the Russians will target are the Baltic Trio of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three Baltic states count Sweden as their strongest and most enthusiastic sponsor. Sweden now has a choice to make. Continue with its policy of neutrality and watch its Baltic apprentices die, or act. Sweden has the military, economic and diplomatic strength to forge and lead a Scandinavian alliance to bulwark the Balts against the Russians. Now we’ll see if they have the will.
- Japan. Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his election (and then the second one, after May, to visit after inauguration), and he came with a big fat bribe. Abe knows that Japan is likely to find itself in a full-court conflict with China in the not-too-distant future and needs to be sure the Americans will at a minimum remain neutral. Assuming no American-Japanese hostilities (and the bribe seems to have done the trick), Japan is highly likely to give the Chinese a drumming. The Chinese are more dependent upon maritime supply lines for both merchandise exports and energy imports, while the Japanese navy has longer reach and less strategic exposure. And now that Japan’s second new carrier is fully operational, the Japanese are pretty much good to go.
- China. For Beijing the Americans leaving NATO is quite possibly the worst outcome of all. If the Americans are not nailed down defending a long land border in Europe, American power becomes far more freeform. That hugely expands the role of the American Navy in American strategic planning, and the Navy is the branch most capable of containing Chinese power. Even if American relations with Japan were to significantly cool, China just became completely boxed in.
One final thought:
We have not had large-scale regional – much less global – competition outside of the American-Soviet rivalry for 70 years expressly because the Americans took care of pretty much everything. But the Americans have been moving slow-motion in the general direction of disengagement from their Cold War alliance system since 1989. Today’s developments are not the final word on that disengagement, this is simply the end of the interim where people didn’t really know where the Americans stood. We are only now starting to understand the degree to which the Americans just are not going to be there.
Remove the Americans and every country in the world – starting with the European nations – needs to figure out how to look after their own economic and physical security. Different countries will have different ideas of how to do that, and many of those ideas will be mutually exclusive. History is about to start moving again.
And history is bloody.
Should you find any of this interesting (or terrifying) you can read more at the link to the archive at the top of this email. And in a shameless plug, my newest book – The Absent Superpower – has a full chapter on the coming war between Russia and the Europeans.