Is NATO headed for a crackup?

That could have been a headline from any of the last three years. Having run for president on an "America First" platform that included demands that allies pay the U.S. to defend them, and a rapprochement with Russia, the country against whom NATO's collective defense is organized, Donald Trump predictably caused regular conniptions in European capitals.

But the latest shocks are coming from the other side of the Atlantic. Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron Trumpishly declared that NATO was experiencing "brain-death," and called for Europe to achieve "strategic autonomy" from the United States. Though he came in for criticism from all sides — from his German allies, from American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Macron doubled down yesterday at the NATO summit in London, repeating many of his prior criticisms and pointedly highlighting disagreement with the U.S.

It's tempting to read Macron's posturing as just that: an attempt to grab the spotlight, score some points off the deeply unpopular American president, and assert his own leadership within Europe at a time when Germany and Britain are adrift and his own approval ratings are rising off abysmal lows. But tensions within NATO have been building for decades, and Macron was criticized within Europe not so much for the content of his remarks but for his unwelcome candor.

The most obvious point of conflict between the United States and its European NATO allies has been over burden sharing. The United States complained since well before the Trump administration about our allies' low levels of investment in defense and their consequent inability to contribute adequately to the collective self-defense that is NATO's avowed mission. But as Macron impolitely pointed out when Trump crowed about incremental European increases in spending, numbers are far from the heart of the alliance's problem.

The United States has deliberately structured NATO as a force-multiplier for American power and discouraged our European allies from maintaining a truly independent defense capability, either on a stand-alone basis or in the form of a unified European defense force. Smaller NATO countries have been encouraged to specialize to such a degree that their militaries can barely operate outside of NATO's framework at all. As a consequence, when the United States wants to initiate an action — such as invading Iraq — that some major NATO allies oppose, we can act independently, even if it has significantly negative consequences for their security. But our European allies cannot do the same, a point brought home by the Libyan war which Britain and France urged but could not pursue without the U.S. Air Force. That the war proved a disaster for European interests actually furthers the case that Europe needs to be able to act independently; they need to own their own mistakes to have a chance of learning from them.

NATO's continued expansion, meanwhile, has hardly been driven by the security needs of either the United States or our major European allies. How could tiny, landlocked North Macedonia, NATO's latest addition, contribute to anyone's defense? Rather, it has been driven by America's desire to foreclose independent action by those countries and prevent them from forming partnerships with a rival power, such as Russia. But that same expansion has made European security more precarious by progressively limiting Russia's own sphere of action, prompting it to test NATO's commitment to collective defense as well as attempt to influence the internal politics of NATO member countries in a favorable direction through surreptitious and damaging means.

The argument over Ukraine that erupted in the midst of the impeachment hearings exemplifies the structural problems with NATO as it currently exists. Europe has both far more to fear from a hostile Russia than America does, and far more to gain from a productive relationship. Its interests in Ukraine, then, largely relate to how the conflict there affects the course of Russian foreign policy. Will coming to Ukraine's defense chasten Russia and give it second thoughts about fomenting similar trouble in Estonia? Or will it confirm Russia's fears of encirclement, which could be salved by surrendering Ukraine to a Russian sphere of influence? America's interests in Ukraine, though, have everything to do with its own globally hegemonic conceits, which is why the Trump administration has provided more lethal aid than its predecessor did while also undermining the moral arguments for Ukrainian independence and fostering a bilateral relationship with America on a frankly corrupt basis. Even if America changes course under the next president, it is hard to imagine that our policy toward Ukraine will properly express Europe's own balance of interests.

America and our European allies retain a great many interests in common. We would both benefit from stability in the Middle East, from a less revisionist Russia, and from a serious effort to combat climate change. But our interests don't dovetail perfectly, and Europe's inability to act independently puts a continual strain on the alliance. It is no accident that one of Macron's chief complaints is that Turkey, a NATO member which has retained a capable independent military, has been acting in ways contrary to European interests — in purchasing a Russian anti-aircraft missile system and in its incursion into Syrian Kurdistan — all without even consulting with its allies in Europe. He would like France to be able to do the same, staring down an American president if necessary before he did it.

Should America object? Only if, in fact, a key objective of NATO as currently constituted truly is to keep Europe in a state of perpetual dependency. But it is not obvious that a dependent and incapable Europe is of use to America, or that a more independently capable Europe would be a threat. The question is not whether Europe will, or should, trust America ever again, but whether a continent as wealthy and potentially powerful as Europe should be basing its foreign policy on trust in a beneficent patron rather than trying to build a productive reciprocal relationship.

Which is a good thing, because it means that a more enlightened American president could plausibly encourage our European allies to move in precisely the direction that Macron has undiplomatically suggested they go: to develop a degree of strategic autonomy and, in consequence, take on the primary burden for collective security on the European continent. That's a process that would take many years, not only because it will require substantial investments on the part of multiple European countries, but because it will require those countries to renegotiate European institutions that are looking far from stable themselves these days. But that process would be far more likely to end happily for both America and Europe if it were undertaken cooperatively than in an atmosphere of vituperative mutual accusation.

NATO's increasingly unhappy trans-Atlantic marriage is unlikely to break up any time soon. It's far more likely to limp along through sheer inertia while getting less and less functional. Perhaps it's time to consider a conscious uncoupling instead.

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