he North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a source of strength for the United States and the nations of Europe, but Europe is endangering NATO’s continued existence through its own actions. If NATO is to remain an effective mutual-assistance defense force, then all the member states must step up and demonstrate their willingness and ability to bear their portion of the burden of alliance membership. Make no mistake, it is Europe’s unwillingness to do so thus far, and not the election of President Donald Trump, that has created the vacuum that invited the present reevaluation of NATO’s future. When it comes to mutual security in Europe, the question that currently haunts the continent is “How much does Europe want it?”
It is true, however, that the United States has some responsibility for the present situation. It helped to found NATO and voluntarily bore a disproportionate economic and military burden within the alliance for much of its history. This was done for a purpose. Following World War II and the profound devastation of the European continent, the relatively untouched United States economy provided Europe with financial resources in the form of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild its industries. The U.S. also carried most of the military burden within the alliance, allowing its European partners to spend more on reconstructing their shattered societies. These efforts only accelerated after the fall of the Soviet Union and the arrival of “the end of history.” Except history never really ends.
The decade of the 1990s, characterized by “peace dividends” and the downsizing of American military forces to include the removal of many forward-based units from Europe, was soon followed by the terror attacks of 9/11. After the Twin Towers fell, NATO as an organization invoked its Article V common-defense clause for the first time, in support of the United States, and began to send expeditionary units to Afghanistan to support U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts there. However, despite increases in activity, there was no real increase in the size of the military forces within most NATO members. Their focus continued to be on internal domestic entitlement spending and supporting the maturation of the European “experiment.”