Recent NATO summits have been tense. Since his presidential campaign, President Trump has repeatedly hammered the other NATO members for not contributing adequately to the alliance. This streak of criticisms, spun as a means to get other NATO members to contribute more, has only served to drive a wedge between the United States and the other alliance members. Additionally, the Trump Administration is pursuing tariffs against allies of the United States, most of whom are also members of NATO, which only serves to further the divide between the United States and its allies.
But why should the United States stay invested in NATO? With the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s adversary, what is the value of a transatlantic alliance organized to combat a threat that no longer exists? With Russia’s renewed foreign policy aggression and China’s rising confidence as a global actor, the United States needs to maintain its network of collective defense arrangements, such as NATO, in order to promote international security and check rival rising powers.
All of these collective defense arrangements are mutually beneficial for the United States and its allies. The United States’ allies gain protection from regional antagonists, and the United States gains a bloc of allies that it may call upon in its time of need. While it is true that, in the case of NATO particularly, not every ally has lived up to its financial obligations, the alliance still offers benefits to the United States. For example, it is relatively inexpensive for the United States to base soldiers in Germany due to the access and support the German government grants the United States. This burden sharing and forward deployment capability will be essential for the United States as it confronts its international rivals, Russia and China.
To say that the United States no longer has international rivals is naïve at best. The Soviet Union may be long gone, but its ghost survives in the form of Putin’s Russia. After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the majority of the former Warsaw Pact states have joined NATO and most of the remainder continue to seek membership in NATO. Only in the past decade has Russia been able to do something about NATO’s expansion. The 2008 invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and the destabilization of Ukraine are all efforts to counter NATO’s expansion and, in Russia’s view, prevent encirclement. Taken in account with Russia’s foray into Syria’s Civil War, the deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad, and the misinformation campaign it has sponsored throughout the West, and it is clear that Russia is still an antagonist to the United States.
NATO may be the bedrock of the United States’ alliance system, but it must also look toward its allies in the Pacific. While there has not been a “NATO in the Pacific” since SEATO dissolved in 1977, the United States does have several bilateral collective defense arrangements with its Asia-Pacific allies, notably Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. These alliances will become increasingly critical to maintain as the People’s Republic of China assumes its place as a global power. China’s rise has been talked about for decades, but it is only in the past few years that China has truly begun to assert itself on the global stage. Global trade initiatives such as the One Belt, One Road project and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are designed as alternatives to “Western” organizations. While traditionally a land power, China has been aggressively expanding its naval presence in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Chinese claims in the South China Sea have created regional tensions, which have been exacerbated by the construction of military island bases in disputed areas.
As Russia and China continue to rise, they will attempt to make a place in the sun for themselves. Through trade practices and election meddling, it is clear that neither are friendly to the United States’ interests. The world is headed toward an era where three major powers will dominate global affairs. Russia and the United States still have enough nuclear weapons to annihilate all life on Earth, and China maintains a formidable nuclear deterrent of its own. The United States, through its alliance network, is in the best shape to return to this Cold War-like atmosphere. Russia will have to rebuild their alliance systems, while China must work to not alienate its regional partners through its border disputes. However, should the United States alienate its allies through trade disputes and whining about burden sharing, the United States may find itself with fewer friends in an era of renewed international tension. The United States needs its allies just as much as they need the United States.