The last 18 months have seen seemingly dramatic developments in international relations, especially within the Western world. Brexit threatens to distance the UK from its European allies; the election of Donald Trump as US President has damaged transatlantic relations and the rise of populism and nationalism in many countries has led to a lack of internationalist responses to global and regional crises.
Caught up in all of this is NATO, the military and political alliance of 28 Western countries. Founded in 1949 as a reaction to an expansionist U.S.S.R., NATO has struggled to find a new raison d’etre since the end of the Cold War. Organisational restructuring, enlargement and novel approaches to political cooperation and military intervention have kept NATO relevant and to an extent, mitigated its lack of a clear identity. 2017 however, has brought and will bring new challenges that might fatally undermine the foundations of the Western alliance.
There are mainly three short-term developments that could have such an effect. Firstly, the election of Donald Trump as US President and his conduct and pronouncements since taking over office. Then there is the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn being elected Prime Minister of the UK and thirdly, Germany will take to the polls later this year, with the prospect of the hard-left party “Die Linke” joining a coalition government. Dramatic changes in the administrations of these countries and a possible reversal of long held attitudes towards NATO would have implications for the alliance, especially given the huge influence of the US, UK and Germany within the organisation.
Trump has already sparked controversy by demanding European countries fulfil the NATO pledge of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, but also by declining to fully throw his weight behind Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. Trump’s agenda, his populism and his ties to Russia also seem to hollow out the platform of shared ideas, values and interests that the alliance stands on.
As the potential Prime Minister, an increasingly likely prospect given his continuous rise in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn would also put NATO under unnecessary strain. In the past, the Labour leader has called for the alliance of Western liberal democracies to be "closed down". Although his party’s manifesto contains a commitment to NATO (p.120), Corbyn is no great friend of NATO and at the very least would probably not strengthen it.
In Germany, there might be a change of government as well. If Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats fail to win a majority with centre, centre-right parties, the Social Democrats could attempt to form a left-wing coalition with the Greens and the hard-left, post-communist ‘Die Linke’. And while the mainstream left-wing parties support NATO, Die Linke has called for the Western alliance to be abandoned and a new alliance with Russia to be formed. Die Linke’s radical foreign policy remains the main obstacle to a coalition with other left-wing parties but a change in the polls might tempt the Social Democrats to go for this option though, and a compromise of the three parties cannot be entirely dismissed.
NATO faces challenges in some of its largest and most important countries. Should the UK and Germany distance themselves from NATO, then an alliance that has held the West together for nearly 70 years might completely disintegrate. Nevertheless, the Trump presidency has raised fundamental questions on the future course of the Western alliance. Although citizens in NATO countries feel an increasing affinity with one another, short-term cynicism might break the integrity of the Western community. With an expansionist Russia and a dictatorial Turkey, this could not have come at a worse time.
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