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NATO turns 70 this week. Here’s how the alliance stays relevant — despite Trump.

The alliance has ways to cope.

- April 1, 2019

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will be in Washington this week to celebrate the alliance’s 70th birthday. He can expect a difficult meeting with President Trump, an outspoken critic of the NATO alliance, and a warm welcome from Congress.

But troublesome anniversaries are not new for NATO. The alliance has developed effective coping mechanisms to maintain its relevance and cohesion.

Other anniversaries have been rocky

NATO has had difficult anniversary gatherings before. During the 1960s, multiple disagreements eroded the cohesion of the alliance — symbolized by France’s 1966 withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military structure.

This internal disarray made NATO’s 20th anniversary in 1969 particularly tricky, because Article 13 of the 1949 Washington Treaty stated that parties would be free to leave the alliance after 20 years. That made 1969 the potential expiration date of the alliance.

In 1989, NATO’s 40th anniversary coincided with dramatic changes unfolding in Europe. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union created uncertainty and raised questions about NATO’s long-term viability.

Ten years later, the outbreak of the Kosovo war interrupted NATO’s planned celebration for its half-centennial, which involved the accession to the alliance of three former Warsaw Pact states. The Kosovo challenge resulted in NATO’s first sustained military campaign.

How does an alliance of multiple states cope with these types of challenges? Along the way, NATO learned a few key moves:

1. Avoid public fights

When facing challenges related to cohesion, NATO refrained from publicizing its internal disputes. After France’s partial withdrawal in 1966, the other member countries, including the United States, consciously sought to avoid a public fight. Here’s why: The alliance had no desire to give France any excuse to pursue a complete withdrawal in 1969.

In 1999, NATO risked paralysis as the divisions over the Kosovo war threatened to block the alliance from taking action on other fronts. To limit the spillage from the discord around the air campaign, NATO consciously decoupled the military mission from broader goals and other alliance matters.

This paved the way for the alliance to celebrate its role in the democratization of former Warsaw Pact countries, which had now joined NATO. But 20 years later, this seems to be a far more relative success, considering the recent trend of democratic backsliding in Central Europe.

2. Disarm the opposition

NATO intentionally disarmed any opposition, as it did with France in the 1960s. French President Charles de Gaulle had justified his country’s partial withdrawal from NATO by underlining the lessening Soviet threat. Instead, he pursued his own policy of detente with the communist bloc, which essentially allowed him to question the long-term relevance of the alliance.

NATO formally established a role in detente after the French withdrawal, effectively taking the wind out of de Gaulle’s sails. This move also helped emphasize the alliance’s continued significance, despite the changing East-West context.

In the late 1980s, alliance members preemptively countered the view that the major changes in the communist world would undermine NATO’s raison d’etre. In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remarked, “You don’t cancel your home insurance policy just because there have been fewer burglaries on your street in the last 12 months!” Since future challenges in a changing Europe were not clear, NATO could act as an important hedge against uncertainty.

3. Add new mandates

The ambiguity of the NATO treaty language helped the alliance navigate challenging periods. NATO added new core functions, including a responsibility to promote East-West detente during the 1960s, which, in turn, fostered cohesion and emphasized a sense of continued purpose.

This “mandate creep” equally manifested itself during the late Cold War. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO anticipated new tasks to ensure its long-term survival. At the July 1990 summit, the NATO allies formally linked their security to that of their former adversaries in Central and Eastern Europe.

In addition to expanding its security tasks, the Kosovo campaign marked the beginning of NATO’s mandate creep into military missions. NATO, by acting without authorization from the U.N. Security Council, took on an additional crisis management institutional role. Some critics, however, have argued that NATO’s geographical expansion, be it in membership or in its missions, was unwise.

4. Rely on U.S. leadership

Ultimately, the leadership of major powers, especially the United States, played a key role in overcoming the challenges in all three historical cases. But this was particularly apparent in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush pushed for a “Europe whole and free.”

Bush was adamant that NATO remain a major player in Europe, despite the region’s unfolding changes. Promoting a unified and stable Europe allowed Bush to both push back against calls for retrenchment and to ensure continued U.S. leadership and involvement in Europe.

U.S. leadership equally played a key role in maintaining cohesion within the alliance in 1999, in multiple ways. First, the United States played a key role in promoting NATO enlargement, culminating with the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Second, absent U.S. leadership and capabilities, the agreement on the type of military action and the resulting air campaign in Kosovo, as well as its execution, would not have been feasible.

How will NATO cope in 2019?

Trump’s hostility to NATO and the lack of U.S. leadership make the situation in 2019 quite different from past challenges to alliance unity. Yet in the past two years, the alliance has shown signs of relying on the three other coping mechanisms. U.S. officials and their NATO counterparts “precooked” agreements before last year’s NATO summit in Brussels, for example — a move to prevent Trump from disrupting the meeting.

Stoltenberg has tried to disarm Trump’s criticisms, praising him for pushing other countries to spend more on defense. And the alliance, despite the public spats on burden sharing, has made inroads in bolstering its military readiness to respond to a resurgent Russia.

The big question for 2019, perhaps, is whether the presence of these first three coping mechanisms, absent U.S. leadership, will be sufficient to lift NATO from its anniversary blues.

Garret Martin is a professorial lecturer at American University’s School of International Service.

Balazs Martonffy is an adjunct instructor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and just received his PhD from the American University’s School of International Service.