Two developments in recent days highlight NATO’s mounting crisis of relevance. One was French President Emmanuel Macron’s stunning comment that ““What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” It was not a casual, off‐hand comment either. When asked whether he still believed in the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, under which an attack on one ally is considered as an attack on all, Macron answered: “I don’t know.” Indeed, Macron has been in the vanguard of efforts for several years to create an independent “Europeans only” defense capability through the European Union, a move that reflects declining confidence in NATO’s unity or reliability.
A statement coming out of Berlin at approximately the same time as Macron’s comment illustrated why his diagnosis of NATO’s probable brain death is correct. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government announced with considerable fanfare that it definitely would be able to meet the annual defense spending target of two percent of Gross Domestic Product that Alliance members adopted several years earlier. German officials acted as though the announcement was good news, although it was nothing of the sort. Attaining the two percent goal, they pledged, would take place in 2031; previously, however, the self‐imposed deadline had been 2024. Only in the realm of cynical government propaganda could such a delay be considered anything other than a policy failure.
If Germany were serious about European defense, especially about the need to deter the supposed security threat coming out of Russia, Berlin would be able to meet or exceed the two percent spending level in 12 months, not 12 years. Yet German officials remain quite content to underinvest in defense and instead continue free‐riding on U.S. military efforts. Germany may be the worst free‐rider, but it is a behavioral pattern that is common among most European members of NATO.
Macron echoes other European officials in blaming President Donald Trump for the decline in confidence about NATO’s continued effectiveness. There is little question that Trump’s complaints about allied free riding and his comments that the Alliance may be “obsolete” have rattled European political leaders and European publics. However, as I discuss here, here, and here, the causes of NATO’s problems go far deeper than dissension about President Trump’s statements or actions.
A much more fundamental cause is diverging security interests and preferences between the United States and its European allies. That estrangement is reflected in surging neutralist sentiment in European public opinion. A September 2019 European Council on Foreign Relations survey, covering 60,000 people in 14 European Union countries, highlighted the lack of unity. That was evident even regarding NATO’s mission of standing up to Russia. When asked “Whose side should your country take in a conflict between the United States and Russia?” the majority of respondents in all 14 EU countries said “neither.” Indeed, in most of the countries, the pro‐neutralist view topped 70 percent.
Moreover, signs of European discontent with Washington emerged well before Donald Trump became president. Sentiment for both European neutrality and a more assertive, independent foreign policy has been building for years. A June 2015 Pew Research Center survey of public opinion in eight NATO countries showed that a median of 49 percent of respondents thought their country should not defend an ally. France, Italy and Germany—three of the largest and most important European powers–all had majorities opposed to fulfilling their country’s obligation under Article 5.
As an effective security institution with a united purpose, NATO has been dying for years. That development should not be surprising. The Alliance was a Cold War creation to deal with Cold War security challenges, and that world disappeared nearly three decades ago when the West’s totalitarian menace, the Soviet Union, dissolved. It is past time to pull NATO’s life‐support plug and accept the reality that the Alliance is indeed brain dead.