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What If NATO Really IS Obsolete?

What If NATO Really IS Obsolete?

President Trump’s pronouncements always generate froth, by his words and in the reporting and recrimination that follows.  But in Brussels, before his Helsinki meeting with Putin, he did, again, call NATO obsolete. Once any President raises it, the question takes on a life of its own.  And if NATO’s value is in doubt, who should be our allies?  That in turn raises the question: just what do we need for security?  While the President’s view about NATO is unsettling, raising the question should lead policy makers to examine their assumptions, and answer based on something beyond historical inertia.  The public deserves a considered discussion about NATO, alliances, and security, starting from the ground up.

Security is hard to define: so many developments in the world might pose threats.  The cyber realm can by itself transmit destruction; it also carries information and disinformation that can amount to attacks.  Aside from that infinity of hazard, who might take to terrorism against us, and what collapsed states might house them?  Which rising powers might overtake us, and will they employ military, economic, cyber, cultural, or some as-yet unimagined effort?  What about my job, and what about climate change?

Amid all the fears people seek security against, public discourse says little about what we need security for.  Absent an answer to that question, anything at all could pose a security hazard, and countering everything requires infinite resources.

Possible answers, after excluding everyone’s laundry lists of motherhood and apple pie, will range widely.  Americans might need only physical safety and equal market access throughout the world.  Some would hope to protect man’s capacity to find nirvana.

Presumably, most definitions would give democracy and other liberal principles high priority. Hopefully, most Americans would list living by our founding creed, the “self evident” truths over which the signers of the Declaration of Independence divorced their ethnic motherland — unalienable rights equally imbued in all, and government created to secure those rights.

A nation defined by a principle depends for its existence on validation of that principle.  Validation of our creed includes the traditional security that allows a free society to stay free, but also requires that measures to protect society comport with its principles.

What defense and diplomatic policies would serve this type of security need?  A range of configurations might work.  Anna Simons of the Naval Post Graduate School advocates a minimalist foreign policy, butting out of other nations’ sovereignty while punishing any transgression of ours.  John Ikenberry would revive the current Liberal World Order, as the best expression of America’s values.  Barry Posen of the Naval War College would revamp force structures to limit our commitments to certain key needs.  Zalmay Khalilzad sees room to make NATO more viable for the 21st Century.

A concern that has not been addressed is that today’s communications technology makes it possible actually to attack a country’s national narrative.  Narrative is not only the words expressing your values.  It includes actions and arrangements that fit your claims, and your ability to keep to them.  Security for America, and the shape of alliances, must reinforce America’s national narrative.

NATO membership includes many of the world’s firmly democratic nations, but a few that are moving toward authoritarian government.  It also excludes a number of deeply liberal democracies, most of them friendly to the U.S. and some formally allied but outside of NATO.  The premises of all those alliances are diverse, but none names the common commitment to liberal democracy.  Yet this is the basis for alliances that would fit our national narrative.  NATO itself may not — but, combing out the most egregious backsliders from liberal values, and asking the other liberal democracies to join, it could form the heart of a fitting alliance structure.

The grouping would likely comprise NATO members minus Turkey and Hungary, plus Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and perhaps Chile.  It could only be assembled in a strategically defensive orientation, protecting the needs of members’ liberal lifestyles and limiting its geopolitical power projection.  The group should encourage other nations to develop toward deeper liberalism, and tighten relations with any that do.  Countries that become deeply compatible, as, say, Indonesia, Ghana, or Brazil might in coming decades, should be offered membership.

Any arrangement of this sort is hypothetical and speculative.  But reflections of this nature are needed now, to look through fresh eyes at basic questions we already face.  Those questions will not abate, and enduring answers will require that we take them up with open minds.  But those answers should, in this new and disorienting age, start from our founding principles.






George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.