Declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization dead has been a pastime of analysts since the end of the Cold War. The alliance, today 28-members strong, has survived 65 years because its glaring contradictions were often overlooked, given the dangers of an expansionist and nuclear Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact subjects. 

From its beginning, NATO had billed itself as a democratic Western bastion against Soviet totalitarian aggression—if not always in practice then at least in theory. NATO never had much problem keeping Greece and Turkey in the alliance despite their occasionally oppressive, rightwing military dictatorships, given the strategic location of both and the need to keep the pair’s historical rivalries in-house. If the alliance’s exalted motto “animus inconsulendo liber” (“A free mind in consultation”) was not always applicable, NATO still protected something far better than the alternative. 

The United States opposed and humiliated its NATO partners France and Britain during the Suez crisis of 1956, without much damage to NATO at large. True, a petulant France after 1959, gradually withdrew its military participation—and yet secretly still pledged to fight with the alliance in the case of a Soviet attack. The 1989 unification of Germany progressed without a hitch, largely because an economically all-powerful Fourth Reich was happy to allow its historic rivals and NATO partners France and Britain to remain Europe’s only nuclear powers. 

During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the U.S. managed to leverage a few NATO countries in joining its interventions, while assuming the majority could either stand clear or damn the United States without much consequences to their American-guaranteed security. Ditto the two Iraq wars and the kerfuffle over the Bush administration’s dichotomy between “old” and “new” Europe.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and its arch nemesis, NATO limped on. Some had assumed that the often quoted aphorism about NATO’s mission from Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General—“to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”—was no longer relevant and so neither would be NATO. But note that Ismay had said “Russians” not Soviets. He knew well that the historical tensions between an always ambitious Moscow and its vulnerable European neighbors transcended Soviet communism.  

In the 1990s, the alliance had been reinvented as a way to reassure newly liberated Eastern European countries that their embrace of Western social democracy would be safe from the specter of post-Soviet Russian expansionism. Of course, there were NATO squabbles over the decision to bomb Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of power—and rumors, for example, that Greek officers stealthily had collaborated with their Serbian military counterparts, apparently out of Balkan Orthodox solidarity. Nonetheless, NATO has always survived its undemocratic members, expansions both wise and foolish, duplicitous insiders, and pouty major players.

Today, the situation seems different. The current problem is not that NATO will end with a bang, but rather that it will go out with a whimper, given that the insidious forces of the new century are more pernicious than the occasional infighting and turf battles of the twentieth century. So far no one has addressed the modern paradox of NATO. Its present membership and geography mock its title. It is hardly a North Atlantic Treaty Organization, given that just two countries, the U.S. and Canada, reside on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Its 28-nation membership is now as much Mediterranean and Eastern European as North Atlantic. And it has no central organizational principles about where and when it should or should not intervene, much less criteria under which a member should be admitted—or expelled. By 2000, NATO had devolved into a sort of quasi-European Union organization that happened to include the United States largely for its money and guns.

More importantly, the European Union’s strain of post-Cold War socialism was at odds with the original notion of a muscular democratic and anti-communist NATO. This might explain why European NATO members have cut $45 billion from their annual defense budgets in the last two years alone. The EU gradually sought to consolidate many of the NATO members under the aegis of growing cradle-to-grave entitlements that by needs came at the expanse of military readiness. “Soft Power” was the EU answer to supposedly ossified NATO deterrence—a wonderful cop-out that allowed European social democracies to divert budgets to domestic spending while taking the moral high ground of outsourcing quaint and outdated ideas of hard power to a less sophisticated and rather unruly United States.

Few NATO countries since 1994 have kept their promises to invest at least 2% of their GDP in defense (the alliance-wide average was 1.6%). The few who did like Greece, Poland, or Estonia were not major international players. In the last twenty years, the United States has whined that it has provided a quarter of the yearly military wherewithal of the alliance—more if U.S. training and indirect support are included—even though by the logic of geography and geopolitics, America remains the most secure of its members.

To square the circle that America needed NATO less than NATO needed it, a sort of abusive parent-teen relationship ensued. The U.S., like the proverbial harping but enabling dad, whined at European NATO members, as if they were petulant teenagers, begging them to at least cool the rhetoric and be nice to their benefactors. Both Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to play along with this charade, understanding the historical consequences (two world wars in the twentieth century alone) of ripping the credit card away from the dependent teen and kicking him out the door. 

Barack Obama, however, is a president of a different sort from his predecessors. By temperament and ideology he has no special investment in Europe. Indeed, his knowledge of recent European history is patchy (the Americans liberated Auschwitz; Austrians speak Austrian; the “death camps” were Polish, etc.). He envisions European social democracy and pacifism not as a NATO irritant, but as a model. After his own massive defense cuts and imposed sequestration, Obama will be the first president in modern history to see U.S. defense spending dip below 3% of GDP. Obama’s retreat from foreign policy—the loud but symbolic “Asian pivot,” “leading from behind,” and the general recessional from the Middle East—are the public manifestations of a deeper reluctance to worry much about European security—or for that matter U.S. military primacy abroad.

Yet once an American president calls NATO’s bluff—either out of chagrin or ignorance—the treaty will represent little more than a ceremonial organization of epaulettes and ribbons without much will or might. Vladimir Putin understood that reality when he went into the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He had been slapped in 2008 a bit by George W. Bush for annexing Ossetia, and then rightly understood that newly elected President Barack Obama felt that even light censure was too severe. Hence was born “reset”. But to Putin reset meant resetting an originally weak reset—or apologizing to Putin for Russia pushing about the Georgians. 

The Eastern Europeans also have come to understand that NATO is a toothless nag.  Faced with Russian aggression and NATO indifference, it has not been a hard choice for Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and even Poland to about-face and cut deals of understanding with Vladimir Putin. In much of Eastern Europe there is a new opportunistic sympathy for Putin, expressed as a sort of cheap disgust with a supposed trans-Atlantic decadence that has led to a Lotus-eater like Western listlessness. In reality, those living between Western Europe and Russia accept that Vladimir Putin is more likely to bully than NATO is to protect them. Or perhaps it is worse still: there is a greater risk for a NATO power to alienate an adversary like Putin than their supposed benefactors in Brussels.

Recep Erdogan’s Turkey is an even greater threat to NATO. He represents not the twentieth-century authoritarianism of Kemalist predecessors who at least were secular and anti-Soviet in an anti-Soviet alliance, but rather an Islamism more in sympathy with NATO’s existential enemies than with its ideals. Turkey is now bullying Greek Cyprus over oil exploration, perennially starting trouble with Israel, championing the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while stealthily colluding with elements within ISIS. Turkey’s enemies—the Kurds, the Greeks, the Cypriots, or Israel—are more likely to be friends of the United States. At home, Erdogan is well on his way to replacing consensual government with an autocratic Islamic state, where wired elections function as they do in Iran, largely as in-house fights among rival theocrats. 

Many observers are worried that NATO might dissolve if Vladimir Putin were soon to invade fellow member states like Estonia or Latvia, if only to dare the alliance to respond. But the organization might equally unwind were a volatile Turkey to start a regional war with almost any of its neighbors, given that many NATO members would prefer to side with Turkey’s enemies rather that with Erdogan.

In sum, NATO is confronting a tripartite existential danger. First, Putin is a far more sophisticated adversary than the old Soviet apparatchiks—projecting confidence, religion, values, and traditions to appeal to the very states that he would absorb.  His argument is that European appeasement and disarmament are not just dangerous for NATO members on Russian borders, but the logical ramification of an endemic social and cultural wasteland for which he offers a confident alternative. 

Second, Turkey is a far more wayward member than France or the old member dictatorships ever were. The past NATO bond was anti-communism; and all members, from socialists to autocrats, agreed. But the new ostensible mission of NATO involves a deep distrust of Islamism and its many anti-Western agendas—from a would-be nuclear Iran to ISIS and al Qaeda. Every member but Turkey would agree. Turkey is not just aberrant in this regard, but increasingly antithetical to the entire democratic and liberal pretenses of NATO itself. 

Third, Barack Obama is not the typical hectoring American president, but a European doppelganger who cannot chide NATO to man up to its responsibilities. Not only does he not believe that its members must step up, but he also does not believe that America should either. 

The epitaph of NATO will be that its many weak members won their half-century philosophical argument over its one strong member. Europe got what it wanted and thereby by its indifference has almost destroyed the very organization that it so opportunistically slighted—and always counted on.

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