Last year on the campaign trail, President Trump consistently lashed out against NATO arguing, “It’s obsolete.” He then said that NATO wasn’t designed to fight terrorism. Now, he’s saying it’s no longer obsolete. But, here’s the deal: NATO’s never been obsolete.
Established during a turbulent and unsteady time, NATO was founded in 1949 to oppose and deter Soviet influence and expansion in Europe. The old continent has been more secure since its inception. In fact, there hasn’t been a major war in Europe since.
Not only has NATO helped maintain a war-free Europe, but it’s also brought stability, peace, and international order—making the world a much safer place. However, this doesn’t mean the work of NATO is over—far from it. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s mission has evolved from deterring Russian influence to combatting terrorism and taking humanitarian action. It’s carried out new missions beyond defending its own members. NATO has also expanded its membership to countries in Eastern Europe and has developed a partnership—The Partnership for Peace (PfP)—with non-member countries who wish to build an alliance with NATO. The goal of this partnership is to “increase stability, diminish threats to peace, and build strengthened security relationships.”
NATO’s continuous presence in the Balkans seeks to maintain stability in the region after years of unrest in the former Yugoslavia. NATO’s first use of force came in 1994 during the Bosnian War. It was the first time it took action outside of its traditional scope—to defend members who were attacked. Nonetheless, this was the first time NATO intervened on humanitarian grounds. Through air operations, its military intervention helped support the U.N. mission in the region—leading to an eventual peace agreement between the parties in conflict. Thanks, in part, to the support of NATO, the security situation in the Balkans is more stabile. Since 1999, NATO retains a peace operation in Kosovo—the Kosovo Force (KFOR)—to safeguard its national security. Its continuous presence in the region also helps ensure the public safety and order of those living in the region.
In 2011, NATO members—at the request of the U.N. Security Council—came together in collective action to deploy forces to Libya to oust the brutal dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi and his forces. This was the second time NATO intervened on humanitarian grounds. The operation was successful because it had the support of NATO members and other regional partners and the United Nations. Had NATO not intervened, a despot would still be ruling Libya.
NATO is also involved in lesser-known operations including combatting pirates off the Horn of Africa, stopping human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea, and supporting African Union forces in Somalia.
Finally, let’s not forget Afghanistan—its most important and longest lasting mission. When the United States was brutally attacked on September 11, 2001, NATO members invoked Article 5 for the first time in the history of the organization, immediately deploying forces to Afghanistan. Since the country continues to deal with instability and terrorist infiltration from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, NATO members remain present, working on bringing peace and stability to the region. However, its mission has transitioned from one of military action to a supportive role in training, advising, and assisting local Afghan security forces.
NATO is far from perfect—just like other international organizations—but that doesn’t mean its existence is irrelevant. The mere existence of this entity has helped deter countries—especially major powers—from fighting with one another, preventing major wars. Members of the alliance made a commitment to assist one another when threatened and attacked by a non-member. It is this commitment that has maintained the international order.
For President Trump to “defeat ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups”—as he promised he would do during his inaugural address—he can’t retreat from the world because doing so would make it harder to fight terrorism. Without the support of critical allies, it’s nearly impossible to rid the world of terrorists. The problems of the world are far too complicated for one country to solve on its own. In addition, retreating from the world puts America’s national security at risk, weakening American power, which contradicts Trump’s position on “Mak[ing] America Great Again.” As the leader of NATO, America has the opportunity to protect its interests, which in turn helps maintain its superpower status. After all, isn’t that what Trump wants? To “make” the United States the leader of the world. It is thus in his best interest to stop flip-flopping on NATO and instead, give it its full support.