Austin argues that allies such as those in NATO are essential to our national security, and that they have too often felt that the United States has ignored them or failed to consult them. This is clearly an oblique swipe at former president Donald Trump, whose undiplomatic manner and open disregard for many traditional allies, such as Germany, harmed relations. But for all of his bluster and errors, Trump grasped something that eludes Austin and others: Tensions with our allies exist because there are fundamental disagreements regarding the nature of the alliance itself, not solely because of one man’s clumsy foreign policy.
NATO was formed in 1949 as part of a global strategy to contain the Soviet Union. Its mission was to ensure that Soviet forces could not conquer Western Europe and dominate the North Atlantic. The United States formed other regional alliances to perform similar roles elsewhere. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization was established in 1954 to battle Communist expansion in that region, while the Central Treaty Organization arose in 1955 to contain Soviet expansion in the Middle East. U.S. bilateral defense treaties with South Korea and Japan served to contain Communist designs in the Northern Pacific. All of these separate alliances were geared toward stopping one threat, which all allies faced equally.
Neither the United States nor its myriad allies face a unitary threat today. While our Pacific allies are consumed with Communist China’s rise, many NATO allies do not share this anxiety. Israel and our Arab allies fear Iran’s nuclear program, something apparently of little concern to many in East Asia and Europe. Even among NATO allies, there are different perceptions of the threat from Russia. Eastern European countries that border Russia and countries harboring Russian troops spend more on their national defense than most central European countries, such as Germany and Italy. The first set of NATO allies wonder whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will treat them like he has treated Ukraine; the second set, hundreds of miles away from the nearest Russian military bases, don’t share the same level of concern.
It’s no wonder, then, that citizens of our allied nations feel very differently about Trump than the Biden administration seems to believe. A 2019 poll released at former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit showed that people in Western Europe, Canada and Australia thought U.S. leadership under Trump was a negative force for global democracy. Citizens elsewhere, however, thought the United States played a positive role. These views were especially strong in Asia and in the Middle East, where Israelis and Arabs thought the United States was a force for good. Eastern Europeans also were strongly positive toward the United States. It’s clear that Trump’s unilateral and often bellicose approach to Iran, China and Russia — which Western Europeans often disliked — was music to the ears of other allies.
Austin also needs to grasp how unwilling citizens in many NATO countries are to fulfill their treaty obligations. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2019 asked thousands of Europeans in NATO countries whether their country should use military force to defend another NATO country against a Russian attack. A median of 50 percent opposed using their country’s military to defend another NATO ally, the central promise contained in the NATO Treaty’s Article 5. Only 34 percent of Germans and a paltry 25 percent of Italians supported upholding their country’s treaty obligations. Perhaps that’s why Germany’s already-shrunken military is utterly unprepared to fight; many Germans don’t want it to.
Whispering sweet nothings in diplomatic ears will not solve this conundrum, nor will it help bridge the wide gap in views between our allies. Simply put, our Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European allies want the United States to confront dangerous foes and are willing to back our efforts with their own. Many of our Western European allies don’t and are more willing to temporize with China than join a global effort to contain it.
The United States needs allies, but it also needs allies that agree on the alliance’s purpose and are willing to carry their share of the load. We desperately need to reform our alliances and restructure our military to meet our urgent challenges. That gargantuan task would tax any administration. It’s troubling that the Biden administration seems not to understand that it needs to do so.