Lots of hand-wringing and more this week as France's President Emmaneul Macron said that NATO is in trouble because of American unreliability. There is a lot to this, but I do want to credit Macron for doing the whole "hey, the Emperor is wearing no clothes" thing. American leadership is fundamental to the alliance--not just showing up if something bad happens, but pushing the alliance towards doing more, towards adjusting to new threats, and dealing with older ones.
That is not happening now for a couple of reasons. First, Trump's fixation with the 2% issue crowds out every other issue. Trump has focused entirely on a false belief--that NATO countries owe the US for spending under 2% of GDP on defense--and this is the focal point of every US-NATO discussion since 2017 (yes, today is the anniversary of Trump's electoral victory. Yuck). I have blogged here extensively on how dumb the 2% standard is, how the goal of 2% is aspirational--to be reached in 2024 rather than today or yesterday, and that this is all bad for the alliance.
Second, the concept of brain death seems dramatic, but one could consider the US the nervous system of NATO--connecting its members and transmitting directives and policy plans. Maybe the State Department is not the site of the US "brain" but any observer of US foreign policy will notice that there has been, indeed, brain drain at State (never recovered from Tillerson's emptying out of expertise), the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Mattis never fully staffed it, mostly letting the Joint Staff make policy), and at the National Security Council (four National Security Advisers--Flynn, McMaster, Bolton, the new guy--plus lots of turnover in staff who are spending most of their time worrying about testifying about Ukraine or buying Greenland). Who is making NATO policy in the US? Is there anyone staffing the respective NATO desks in these various agencies? Are there, dare I say it, PC's (principal committee meetings) on NATO that involve more than just 2%? No.
Third, in the aftermath of Turkey/Syria, shouldn't NATO members be concerned? That Trump moves American troops out of the way of an aggressive dictator after a phone call? Given Trump's positive relationship with Putin, which runs deeper and longer than the one with Erdogan, shouldn't folks be concerned?
Of course, this is all a bit much coming from Macron. Why? Because Macron has been a bit of a force for instability as well, disrupting the politics of Macedonia by denying it a chance to start the EU membership process. People might forget, but the stability of Macedonia is a concern. The 1999 Kosovo campaign was (almost?) as much about preventing Macedonia from blowing up and causing problems for Greece/Bulgaria/Turkey as it was about the plight of Kosovars. Given the Russians and Chinese some playing room in the Balkans is a bad idea. Plus Macron may be making a move to try to push forward European Defence stuff--that is, having the EU lead as NATO falls apart. France seeking a non-US security institution in Europe is an old theme. However, it ain't going to happen because, well, getting the Europeans to play well together on defence tends to require ... US leadership. France is simply not up to the task as Germany's Angela Merkl pushed back pretty quickly.
Should Macron have said this so nakedly? Probably not. Is NATO in trouble? Yeah, because the US is led by someone who is hostile to NATO's existence. It really does turn on the 2020 election. I am not sure NATO can handle four more years of Trump. It is normal and inevitable for countries to hedge and seek alternatives when an ally becomes unreliable. Folks may point to the American troops in Europe, and say that they will remain there to deter any (Russian) threats. But they are commanded by the President of the United States, not by Congress, not by Europeans. If Trump chooses not to deploy them in a crisis, if Trump chooses to block consensus at NATO, that is, well, the ballgame. We have known this for some time, but wishful thinking was the theme du jour until Mattis went away (and they were overrating Mattis).
So, yeah, my basic take on all of this is: duh. Trump is bad for NATO. This is one of the promises he has kept from the 2016 race. Expect more hedging, although perhaps not quite as loud as Macron's. The only way to reduce this tendency? Elect a Democrat in 2020.*
* Successful impeachment/conviction of Trump might make a difference as well since Pence is not as hostile to NATO. But that outcome is significantly less likely.