US President Donald Trump andCanadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend the NATO summit at the Grove Hotel on 4 December 2019 in Watford, UK. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend the NATO summit at the Grove Hotel on 4 December 2019 in Watford, UK. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Future of America’s Ailing Alliances

NATO turned 70 this year, an event that would seem to merit the pop of a cork or two. But the anniversary passed in desultory fashion.


  • In-depth view
  • 9 Dec 2019
  • 12 min read


NATO countries as well as other American allies are expressing a loss of confidence in American leadership. Many observers blame Donald Trump – and indeed, his tweets, flip remarks and disdain for US allies would seem to justify this charge. But American alliances confront problems that are far more fundamental. Given profound changes in both global and domestic politics, a debate about the future of these alliances is not only predictable but necessary.

A zombie alliance?

The mumbled huzzahs at NATO’s anniversary celebration in London reflect tensions plaguing the alliance. Trump chides the European allies as free-riders, declaring ‘we’re the schmucks paying for the whole thing.’ Trump may say it more bluntly than other leaders, but he’s not alone in his frustrations. By keeping defence spending at 1.25 per cent of GDP, argues Walter Russell Mead, Germany signals that NATO is no longer a security priority, and is ‘thumbing its nose’ at Trump, the US, and its European partners. Germany is not alone; only seven of 29 NATO members meet the spending target. Commentators argue that for NATO to survive, the allies will need to contribute more. As Hans Kundnani writes, ‘The only way the US security guarantee to Europe might be made sustainable in the long term is for Europeans to make a greater contribution to their own security.’

Beyond finances, NATO’s very purpose is uncertain. Even the alliance’s supporters describe it as ‘dead,’ ‘brain dead,’ ‘dying,’ a ‘corpse,’ or a ‘zombie’: an organization lurching around in search of a mission. Scholar Barry Posen argues, ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed the last vestiges of a major security threat to NATO, and with it, the rationale for the American military presence in Europe.’ A reappraisal of the alliance, he argues, ‘is long overdue.’

Such a reappraisal would ask, what is NATO about?  Heather Conley questions, ‘[s]hould NATO fight terrorism, fight insurgents in Afghanistan, defend against Russian aggression, deter China's desire for technological superiority -- or all or none of the above?’ If NATO’s purpose is to fight terrorism, it can’t agree on who terrorists are. In Syria, Turkey is fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and demanding that NATO call it a terrorist group; Macron declared that the YPG ‘fought with us, shoulder to shoulder, against ISIS’ and lambasted Turkey for fighting alongside ‘ISIS proxies.’

Or, if defending against Russia is NATO’s purpose, it’s hard to explain Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin, German cooperation with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, or Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system. ‘How is it possible,’ wonders Macron, ‘to be a member of the alliance, to work with others, to buy our materials and to be integrated and buy the S-400 from Russia?’

Maybe NATO is about China. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in London that ‘China is coming closer to us’:  ‘We see them in the Arctic, we see them in Africa, we see them investing heavily in European infrastructure and of course investing in cyberspace.’ Britain and France have joined the US in the South China Sea to assert freedom of navigation rights challenged by China. Worried about security vulnerabilities, the Trump administration is lobbying its partners to ban Huawei technology from their digital infrastructure. But European countries seem confident they can work with Huawei while managing vulnerabilities. More broadly, NATO allies fear that challenging China politically will backfire on them economically. In particular, Greece, Hungary and Italy are tilting toward China because of investment.

NATO’s identity has also become unclear. In the populist backlash that has swept across Europe and America, some members of the alliance are starting to contest the liberal project that lies at its core. ‘The new fault line in the alliance,’ Brookings’ Constanze Stelzmuller writes, ‘is between the defenders of a liberal, peaceful international order based on globalization (and liberal, open societies at home), and its adversaries.’ NATO countries are not only moving closer to China and Russia, some governments are retreating from liberalism at home.

NATO’s divisions are stretching and deepening at a time when China and Russia are skillfully exploiting them, and are more assertively pushing back against aspects of a liberal order that their governments see as hostile to their interests. Russia sent military forces into Ukraine claiming they were ‘self-defence groups’ of locals who bought their Russian rifles and uniforms in shops. If Russia were to target Estonia, Lithuania or another NATO country, it is all too easy to imagine several NATO allies refusing to act: blaming fake news, and questioning whether an invasion even occurred. It’s hard to imagine how NATO would survive such a crisis. Before it occurs, NATO’s supporters need to debate what interests they agree upon, and how the alliance – or some alternative version of it – can serve those interests in this new world.

Meanwhile, in Asia

American alliances face tough times in East Asia as well. In Japan, Tokyo congratulates itself on cleverly managing Trump and, as Yoichi Funabashi argues, a ‘broad consensus’ appreciates the president’s tough line on China. However, Funabashi notes, the Japanese see Trump as erratic; Tokyo was shaken by his decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and fears that ‘America First’ will lead to a US withdrawal from Asia. The administration’s ‘exorbitant cost-sharing demands’ for host nation support, writes Jesse Johnson, could reduce Japanese public support for stationing American forces.

Trump’s crude rhetoric about America as a ‘schmuck,’ and his demands that allies pay for ‘protection,’ distracts from the reality that Japan, like NATO, needs to spend more. Spending one per cent of GDP may have worked when the alliance faced the Soviet Union: whose GDP at its peak was only 37 per cent of American GDP, and whose army was pointed at Western Europe. One per cent will not work today. China’s rise has made the job of deterrence in East Asia significantly more challenging. Japan needs to spend more on defence not because it needs to pay America, but because today’s US-Japan alliance requires more capability to balance a wealthier and more capable competitor.

Burden-sharing negotiations will always be difficult, but changing strategic trends are pushing Japan and the United States together; both countries share an interest in preventing Chinese regional dominance. Compared to NATO, it’s easier to look at the US-Japan alliance and see the purpose of the alliance, what it stands for, and why it matters. To be sure, the way forward will be complex, as the allies need to coordinate, and may often disagree on, the right mix of containment and engagement toward China. But Japan and the United States, who enjoy tremendous warmth, deep and multiple connections, and a 70-year history of cooperation, seem up to the task.

Break the seal?

The alliance between the United States and South Korea, by contrast, is ‘in deep trouble.’ William Gallo writes Trump has vexed both the South Korean right and left. Conservatives worry that while Trump professes ‘love’ toward Kim Jong Un, the North continues to test missiles and remains solidly in the nuclear club. And Moon Jae-in’s liberal government is infuriated by Trump’s request for a fivefold increase in host nation support, which they and many in the public see as ripping off South Korea in order to send a message to other US allies.

Washington is also unhappy. Increasingly focused on China, US officials continue to call for trilateral cooperation between Japan and South Korea. But Moon’s government has resurrected divisive historical disputes, and has threatened to withdraw from an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a white paper that deleted Japan and declared Russia a ‘partner.’ Seoul rejects Washington’s formulation of an ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy and is the absent ‘Quint’ from the ‘Quad’ of liberal nations concerned about China’s growing regional assertiveness. And Seoul’s new defence agreement with Beijing? Yet another signal from Seoul to Washington that their alliance ‘sealed in blood’ is not about China. 

In addition to China’s rise, the alliance confronts another potentially game-changing trend: North Korea’s progress toward developing a second-strike nuclear capability. In its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, Pyongyang is moving closer toward a capability to target not only American friends and forces in East Asia, but American cities.

During the Cold War, Seoul and Washington shared an interest in thwarting a communist, Soviet-supported North Korea. In today’s world, leaders need to explain the alliance’s shared interests to the people in both countries who pay costs and accept risks to support it. Americans deeply value South Korea as an ally, and would presumably be willing to help with its primary security threat, North Korea, if Seoul supports American efforts to manage the rise of China. But if South Korea is unwilling to do that, this raises the question: what is the mutually beneficial purpose that justifies the United States paying costs and accepting staggering risks to defend it?

US foreign policy elites may wager that, as with the Soviet Union, deterrence will hold, the war will never be fought, and future generations will celebrate the peaceful liberation of North Korea, just as today we celebrate freedom and prosperity in the ROK. But American leaders need to make the case to their people that this is a good bet to take.

Sullen anniversaries, bickering leaders, mounting tensions. It’s tempting to blame all the chaos and spite on an administration that is steeped in both. But larger forces are at work. This is what it feels like when the world changes.