National Column: What is the point of NATO?

by Thomas Walkom

Donald Trump says too many NATO countries, including Canada, don’t pay their fair share of defence costs. The U.S. president is right about that. But the real question facing the 29-member alliance is far more fundamental.

What is the point of NATO these days?

In 1949, when the then 12-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed, its purpose seemed obvious. Western European nations were unnerved by what they saw as Soviet expansionism. The United States was embarking on an anti-Communist crusade. A transatlantic military treaty spoke to both needs.

For countries like war-devastated Britain, NATO was a way to keep the traditionally isolationist U.S. involved in European defence.

For the U.S. it was a means to project American power and contain the spread of world Communism.

For Canada it was an opportunity to play a role on the world stage as a recognized, albeit mid-level, military power.

While technically a mutual defence arrangement, NATO was always biased toward protecting Europe. The Canadians and Americans stationed military forces in West Germany. But the reverse did not occur.

No one expected the Soviets to invade Alaska.

Now, with the Soviets long gone, the implicit bargain behind NATO has been disrupted. Is the alliance now designed to protect Europe from Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet Russia?

The Baltic nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, hope so. The three former Soviet republics formally joined NATO in order to win that protection. And the alliance has obliged by rotating troops (including Canadians) through the region.

Former Soviet satellites such as Poland also see NATO membership as a way to forestall Russian domination.

Ukraine, which has already lost territory to Russia, would love to join the NATO club – although the existing members are less enthusiastic.

But does the U.S., which is the centrepiece of NATO, agree that Russia poses a threat? The Trump administration’s new military doctrine, which downplays anti-terrorism and focuses instead on confronting Russia and China, suggests that it does.

But Trump himself does not. He talks of the need to warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. He has harsh words for NATO. While he no longer insists that the alliance is obsolete, he has pronounced it a bad deal for the U.S.

At one point he declared that it was even worse than the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Echoing former U.S. president Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Trump says that America picks up the bulk of the costs of the alliance. In this he is right. The U.S. pays for 22 per cent of NATO’s direct spending. More importantly, the U.S. spends far more on defence – including the defence of Europe – than any of its allies.

The Americans have long pushed for NATO members to spend at least 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence. And while America’s allies routinely agree (they did so again four years ago), they rarely deliver.

In 2017, only four of the 29 NATO countries – Estonia, Greece, Britain and the U.S. – met the 2-per-cent target. Canada spent just 1.29 per cent of its GDP on defence and appears to have no plan to reach the 2-per-cent level.

Trump accuses Canada of being a free rider. But the real story is that, in practical terms, NATO does not mean much to Canadians. They prefer their governments to spend money on things that do – which is why successive Conservative and Liberal governments have been so miserly when it comes to defence.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will travel to Latvia to visit Canadian troops stationed there before repairing to Brussels for a NATO summit. He will praise the troops, praise Latvia and praise NATO. But he will almost certainly not commit more money to the alliance.

Why should he? NATO may be nice to have around. But it isn’t what it used to be.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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