President Trump has been making news this week during his meetings with NATO Alliance members in Brussels, calling upon NATO members to pay more for their defense. Some news reports also claimed that Trump had threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO, but French President Macron disputed this version of events. Regardless, the once solid NATO Alliance seems to have lost its cohesiveness with the removal of the threat of the Soviet Union over two decades ago. While Russia ostensibly remains a threat to regional peace and Western interests, it does not have quite the same capacity to unite Alliance members as the Soviets once did. Indeed, Germany has recently sided with Russia on plans for a new Russian natural gas pipeline to Europe (more information about this here).
A bigger issue for NATO, however, is Turkey, which has been pulling closer to Russia's orbit even as the country's government has slipped deeper into Islamic and heavy-handed rule by its increasingly Putin-like president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey is buying Russian military equipment and building a nuclear power plant with the help of the Russians. In the past it has also bombed US-backed Kurdish allies in Syria and roughed up protesters against the regime in the U.S.
From the Russian viewpoint, tying Germany to it economically via the gas pipeline and Turkey to it militarily with defense systems makes sense as it would further weaken NATO and degrade U.S. power in the region. How could NATO fend off Russia's growing influence if two of its own member states have conflicts of interest with Russia? Would either country, or the rest of the Alliance, be able to counter future Russian actions in Ukraine? What about Syria after the Islamic State is no longer the unifying threat that it has been (and its power is rapidly waning)?
For all of Trump's oftentimes clumsy statements, such as saying that Germany is "captive" to Russia, his words do beg the larger question of just what is NATO's purpose? If Russia is really the international threat it is, then why are NATO members working with it and why did NATO not defend Ukraine when Russia annexed Crimea or helped start a rebellion in eastern Ukraine? Or, if Russia is not a threat, for what other purpose does NATO exist? Is it to run training missions, like Canada just announced they will be leading in Iraq?
It would behoove the U.S., though, to help NATO find its reason for being, rather than writing it off as a lost cause. That means, however, that the U.S. will have to continue to do the heavy-lifting with regards to NATO spending and military deployments. The alternative is that NATO members do increase their defense spending and then are left wondering what benefits a U.S. alliance gives them when Russia is so much closer and is supplying them with the fuel that their countries need.
(Image: NATO flag, public domain,