Biden tells NATO leaders: ‘America is back’

Hard line: Biden wants NATO to take a firmer stance against Russia and China. © Getty

Is NATO still necessary? Yesterday, Joe Biden arrived in Brussels to show other leaders that the USA is ready to take a leading role again. But some question the organization’s relevance.

“A sacred commitment.” This is how President Joe Biden recently described Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits every member of NATO to treat an attack on one member as an attack on them all.

In ordinary times, this would be an unremarkable thing for a US president to say. But Biden is speaking in the long shadow of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who disrupted NATO conferences and frequently threatened to leave the organisation.

Yesterday, Biden met other representatives in Brussels, to try and repair the damage of the last four years.

Some, however, think Trump might have had a point. They argue that NATO was an alliance forged for a very different era – and that it is no longer relevant in the modern day.

The North Atlantic Treaty was written in 1949. At that time, the whole of Eastern Europe was under the control of communist governments allied with the USSR.

But the communist governments of Eastern Europe collapsed in the 1990s. Many former communist states are now members of NATO. For some, this means the treaty no longer has any purpose.

Yet others argue that NATO still has a role to play. Biden wants it to act as a bulwark against the dictatorships of the 21st Century. He wants it to prove that democracies can compete with the authoritarian political models used by rising powers like China. And he also wants it to take a firmer line against Russia, which he accuses of subverting Western democracy.

Some experts think the problem for Biden is that many of NATO’s own members are increasingly authoritarian. In Turkey, President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan has drastically expanded his own powers, locked up journalists and persecuted minorities. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has extended state power over the media and the judiciary.

While these leaders and their countries remain in NATO, many suggest it will be hard for the organisation to be taken seriously as a champion of democracy.

And others still, point out that there is also a growing rift between the USA and its European allies. During the Cold War, Europe and America were united by their opposition to communism and their fear of Soviet power.

But today, their interests are quite different. The USA has accused Russia of interfering in its elections and believes it is a threat to democracy. European states, however, want to maintain close diplomatic relations with Russia because they are dependent on the Eastern giant for their supplies of natural gas.

The same is true of China. The USA sees China as a growing threat to its military and economic might. But most of Europe benefits from Chinese trade and does not want to alienate the superpower. When NATO members are divided on such fundamental issues, it is difficult to see how the organisation can function effectively.

Is NATO still necessary?

Nat-no

Yes, say some. In the 1990s, there was widespread optimism that the age of dictatorships was over, and that every country would, in time, become a liberal democracy. Today, however, some of the world’s biggest powers are authoritarian regimes, and there are fears that smaller countries will try to emulate them. Liberal democracy needs a champion, and NATO can serve that purpose.

Not in the least, say others. NATO is a relic of the Cold War, created to defeat an enemy that no longer exists. Today it is hopelessly divided over how to respond to countries like Russia and China and regularly embarrassed by the dictatorial ambitions of member states like Turkey and Hungary. It cannot defend liberal democracy when so many of its leaders fail to uphold its ideals.

You Decide

  1. Is it good for one country, like the USA, to have so much power over others?
  2. Does NATO help international cooperation or hinder it?

Activities

  1. In a small group, design a new logo for NATO to represent its new purpose in the 21st Century.
  2. Get in a small group and choose some countries to enter into a new international alliance. Write a mission statement for the organisation.

Some People Say...

“The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation – a force for construction and destruction.”

Jonathan Haidt (1963 – ), American social psychologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that US leadership in NATO has become increasingly fragile in recent years. At successive conferences, Donald Trump abused other national leaders, stormed out, and ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Germany. Although Biden wants to work with Nato, he has also taken decisions that other NATO leaders disapprove of, like pulling US forces out of Afghanistan. Many European countries have defied US demands that all NATO members spend 2% of GDP on defence.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not NATO is really prepared for modern warfare. Article 5 commits all members to respond to an invasion of any single member state, but many of their enemies today are not states but terrorist groups and militias that launch standalone attacks, rather than invasions. As such, it is often unclear whether or not a country has truly been “invaded”, meaning that other countries would be treaty-bound to respond.

Word Watch

North Atlantic Treaty
In addition to creating a defensive pact between its members, the treaty committed signatories to seek peace and stability in the North Atlantic.
NATO
An organisation of 30 states, mostly in North America and Europe, that cooperate on military matters.
Brussels
The capital of Belgium and the location of NATO headquarters.
Communist
An economic and political system based on the abolition of private property and the principle of mutual cooperation, rather than competition.
USSR
A communist state set up in 1917 covering what is today Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Georgia and the Baltic States. For 40 years it was one of the world’s two superpowers.
Bulwark
A firm permanent defence against something considered hostile. Literally, the outside of a defensive fortification.
Authoritarian
A form of government in which the state exerts active control over much of everyday life.
Tayyip Recep Erdoğan
The current president of Turkey. An Islamist, he has been criticised for eroding the country’s 100-year-old secular constitution.
Viktor Orban
In power since 2010, Orban has caused disquiet over his Euroscepticism, hardline stance against immigration, anti-semitism.
Cold War
A term used to describe the long period of diplomatic hostility between the USA and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991.

Subjects

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