Some Allies, like some animals, are more equal than others. Although NATO formally makes decisions by consensus, with every Ally having the same standing, in practice its decisions may be disproportionately shaped by the views of its larger members, in particular the US.
NATO, like any organisation, needs capable leadership if it is to function effectively. In view of its historical role in Europe, size, global status, and defence posture, this role naturally—and irreplaceably—falls to the US. In return for investing in European security through its leadership, the US reaps benefits that include regional stability, influence in Europe, forward basing to help secure its interests beyond the NATO treaty area, and a reasonable expectation of at least political support from its Allies for its global policies and activities.
The European Allies, meanwhile, have been able to take a more relaxed approach to their own defence, safe in the knowledge that it is underwritten by US combat (and nuclear) power. While these arrangements have sometimes led to arguments about burden sharing, they have endured because both sides have recognised that the costs are outweighed by the benefits.
Perhaps more importantly, although there are examples such as Suez in 1956 and Iraq in 2003, the fact that the US and European Allies share common values, interests, and threat perceptions, mean that they are rarely in fundamental disagreement. These circumstances have together allowed US leadership to be benign. When there have been policy differences with the European Allies, the US has been able to prevail through persuasion, rather than compulsion.
This model was badly damaged by the Trump presidency. Donald Trump rejected the view that the US also benefits from its alliances, preferring to see US investment in the security of other regions on a transactional basis—the US provides protection in the expectation of a tangible return, such as support for US foreign policy goals, contracts for US defence firms, the direct sharing of costs, or personal favours for the President.
In NATO, Trump chose to amplify (and vulgarise) longstanding US calls that Europe should spend more on defence. He trumpeted the upturn in European defence spending—the billions of dollars he claimed poured into NATO at his insistence—for personal political advantage, asserting that, under his leadership, the US was no longer being taken advantage of by others. Seeing the Alliance as little more than a tool to appeal to MAGA sentiments, Trump’s leadership of NATO was at best, neglectful, and frequently toxic. This is, doubtlessly, the leading cause of NATO’s present poor state of health.
On the political level, the Alliance has thus largely stagnated for the past four years. The new Biden administration offers an opportunity for a fresh start, but the European Allies should not expect a reversion to the status quo ante. While the tone of the message from the US will certainly improve, its content is unlikely to change.
Long-term shifts in the international environment, particularly the rise of China, will continue to draw US eyes away from Europe. In NATO, the US will continue to expect the European Allies to do more, and to spend more, to satisfy their own security needs—after all, they have already shown they have been able to reverse the decline in their defence expenditure since 2014.
Meanwhile in Europe, a lingering mistrust of US commitment to NATO and the home-grown debate about European strategic autonomy—itself partly a response to a fear that the US might abandon its Allies—will also affect the character of transatlantic relations.
A Fresh Start – the New Strategic Concept
This year, the Allies are likely to begin discussing a new NATO Strategic Concept. The opportunity for them all to re-commit to the Alliance as an essential instrument of their common security will be an important symbolic step in restoring its health. But the Allies must also agree on the content of the new concept.
The development of a NATO response to the challenges posed by China is likely to be a particularly difficult point, and will be an early indicator of the state of the transatlantic relationship. The US has, with bipartisan support, characterised China as a revisionist power and wants the support of its Allies in dealing with this threat—it was at US insistence that NATO first made, in London in 2019, a (mild) reference to the need to deal with China together as an Alliance. The European Allies agree that a rising China presents risks but are generally more ready to acknowledge that there are also opportunities, to be more wary of a confrontational stance, and to be less convinced that NATO has a role in responding. Clearly, these views must be reconciled if there is to be a NATO policy.
US leadership has been, and will continue to be, essential to the Alliance’s success. But an Alliance that faces more and more diverse challenges, and will find more divergent opinions amongst its members, will be stronger if it discusses and reflects the views of all its members. The US must rebuild its leadership of NATO. But the European Allies should also strive for a stronger voice. To justify this, beyond the honeymoon period of a new US administration, they will need to answer US calls—and better respond to their own security interests—by investing more in improving their defence capabilities.