The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion NATO’s summit shows the alliance is strong. But it must be much stronger.

President Biden gestures during a news conference at the NATO summit in Madrid on June 30. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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This week’s NATO summit in Madrid shows that the transatlantic alliance remains a powerful force for good. It also shows how much further most European members must go for it not to become a strain on U.S. resources.

NATO has been floundering in recent years for an obvious reason: Its primary rationale had disappeared. It was created in 1949 to counter the aggressive designs of a Soviet Union that remained openly committed to global communist revolution. Its membership was restricted to Western powers whose aim was to contain the Soviets within Europe and prevent it from conquering more of the then-globally dominant continent.

That rationale largely disappeared after the Soviet Union’s collapse and dissolution in 1991. European members naturally cut back on their military investments, reasonably thinking that the chances of a major war in their backyard were low. European powers such as Germany and France continued to believe this even as Russian President Vladimir Putin rebuilt his country’s military and invaded Georgia and annexed part of Ukraine. Their last-minute diplomacy to try to convince Putin not to invade Ukraine was the final example of this belief.

Russia’s invasion has cast aside this false sense of security, leading most European allies to commit to significant rearmament. The accession of traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland to the alliance, which will be completed soon, is a sign that all of free Europe has awakened to Russian aggression. That is a welcome, if belated, development.

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But deeds will matter more than words. NATO’s own figures show that only eight to 10 of the alliance’s 30 member nations spend the minimum recommended 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense. Neither soon-to-be members Sweden nor Finland reach that level either, although both have pledged to increase defense spending in the coming years. Not surprisingly, only the nations bordering Russia (Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) or that have Russian troops near their border (Romania, which must contend with Russian troops in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria) have rapidly hiked defense spending after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

NATO allies cannot let the eventual end of the Russo-Ukrainian War change this newfound resolve. Putin has shown his true colors and has become even more bellicose since the invasion began. He recently gave a speech in which he praised Peter the Great’s seizure of Baltic territory from Sweden in the 18th century even though Moscow had no legitimate claims to the land. Putin noted that Slavic peoples had lived in that region along with Finno-Ugric people, something that is still the case in Estonia — a NATO member — today. Russia has a long history of Pan-Slavism — the notion that Russia is the natural protector of all Slavic peoples. Applying that today would place Russia in charge of almost all of Eastern Europe, returning the continent to the political reality of the Cold War.

Europe’s rapid rearmament will also help reduce the strain on U.S. resources. President Biden’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States would increase its military presence in Europe is good for the alliance. But it also shows how much the region depends on the United States in the short-term. China’s rapid rise means the United States will increasingly have to deploy its forces to Asia, even as our allies in that region rearm, too. Given the United States’ already massive budget deficits, it is regretfully unlikely that we will rearm quickly enough to shoulder the major burden in both regions. This means Europe will need to rearm rapidly so it can assume the primary responsibility of defending its own land, sea and air.

Doing so would cement bipartisan support for the United States’ continued serious commitment to NATO. Trump-aligned conservatives have long complained, with much justification, that Europe’s underinvestment in its own defense resulted in the United States essentially subsidizing the continent while underinvesting in its own national security. If Europe can rise to the challenge, traditional conservatives could confidently argue that NATO is a serious, multinational alliance rather than a pact to ensnare the United States abroad. If Europe backslides later this decade, no one should be surprised if the United States starts to disengage and leave the continent to its chosen future.

European voters so far support the new consensus to stand against the Russia’s threat. A poll of Germans in March found that 78 percent supported its government’s announcement of a new 100 billion euro defense spending hike, while another recent poll found that large majorities of Germans backing all four major parties were willing to make economic sacrifices to stop Putin. A recent poll conducted for NATO also found significant support in most European countries for increased defense spending and little appetite to reduce it. European leaders will follow their citizens if they do the right thing.

NATO will only be strong in the long run if European members want it to be. Let’s hope the continent’s resolve remains.