Bigger than ever before and stronger than it has been for a long time: NATO is presenting itself to the outside world in top shape for its 75th birthday.

At a ceremony at the headquarters in Brussels this Thursday, it will be celebrated that since the defense alliance was founded, neither Russia nor any other state has dared to attack a NATO country. Behind the scenes, however, the mood is gloomy in many places. New proposals from Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg show how great the concerns are about a possible change of power in the USA. And the question arises as to whether what it claims to be the most successful military alliance of all time doesn’t have to worry about its future.

An overview of the situation:

The Trump scenario

Even if top politicians don’t want to talk about it in public, hardly any other scenario is causing as much concern in NATO these days as the possible return of former US President Donald Trump to the White House. The Republican recently made it clear during a campaign appearance that he would not provide American support to allies with low defense spending in the event of a Russian attack. And in an interview he warned: One should not forget that NATO is more important for Europe than for the USA, because there is an ocean, “a beautiful, big, wonderful ocean” between the USA and “some problems” in Europe.

All of this is problematic because NATO, as a defense alliance, relies on the principle of deterrence. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is relevant for this. It regulates the obligation of assistance in the alliance and states that an armed attack against one or more allies is viewed as an attack against all.

Hot topic of defense spending

By making it clear that allies with, in his view, too low defense spending could not count on US aid under him as president, Trump is counteracting the principle of deterrence. The matter is particularly critical for NATO because the USA is a nuclear superpower whose deterrence potential cannot be compensated for by other allies – and many European NATO states are still not meeting the alliance’s common defense spending target.

The most recent statements made by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg in the debate show how seriously the matter is viewed. The Norwegian reacted unusually sharply to Trump’s comments, saying: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines our entire security, including that of the United States.”

No more US pennies for Ukraine?

Another horror scenario in Europe is that Trump could stop US support for Ukraine, which is being attacked by Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently said after a meeting with the Republican that he had told him that he would not spend “a single penny” on the war if he returned to the presidency.

As a precautionary measure, Stoltenberg has already suggested internally that in the future a NATO mission should take over the coordination of arms deliveries to the Ukrainian armed forces, which was previously organized by the USA. He also wants to persuade the alliance partners to promise Ukraine military support worth 100 billion euros over the next five years before the US presidential election.

Typ Scholz vs. Typ Macron

Even if the Trump scenario does not materialize and Joe Biden remains US President for another four years, the Ukraine war could become a dangerous test for NATO. With the increasing costs and the difficult situation at the front, tensions among allies have recently increased.

For example, on the one hand there are politicians like Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), who do not want to supply certain weapons such as Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine out of fear of further escalation – and on the other hand, there are heads of state like French President Emmanuel Macron, who do so for deterrence reasons alone do not want to rule out the use of ground troops in Ukraine. It is currently completely unclear how NATO would react if Russian troops at the front were to achieve greater successes again and there was another threat of Kiev falling.

Controversial topic China

This is all somewhat reminiscent of NATO during Trump’s term in office from 2017 to 2021. At the time, Macron described the alliance as “brain dead” due to a lack of coordination between the allies.

How egotistical NATO states act even in today’s times of crisis was recently shown when Sweden and Finland wanted to join NATO as quickly as possible in view of the Russian war against Ukraine. The allies Turkey and Hungary delayed Sweden’s admission process by almost two years – among other things to force concessions on arms deals.

And there is currently an argument behind the scenes about how to deal with China. The USA is pushing for NATO to focus much more on threats from the emerging great power in the future. In countries like France and Germany, however, there are fears that Washington also wants to use the alliance for the economic power struggle with Beijing and that conflicts could be further intensified.

World police operations are history

Meanwhile, NATO supporters can give hope that the alliance has always managed to adapt so far. After the alliance was founded on April 4, 1949 in response to the perceived threatening policies of the communist Soviet Union, it was responsible for providing a deterrent counterweight to eastern military power during the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, NATO temporarily took on the role of a kind of world police.

Among other things, it intervened in the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Libya and, after the Islamist attacks against the USA on September 11, 2001, played a key role in the war against the Taliban and the terrorist organization Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. For the first time, Article 5 was activated for the USA, according to which an armed attack on a NATO member is considered an attack against all members. The alliance then experienced perhaps the biggest debacle in its history in 2021, when the withdrawal from Afghanistan ended in the Taliban retaking the country.

Arming for deterrence and defense

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hardly anyone has talked about it anymore and NATO’s focus is once again clearly on deterrence and defense against Russia. Eastern allies in particular fear that Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin could also consider an attack on the Baltics – especially if his troops are successful in Ukraine and NATO appears divided internally.

On Thursday at the NATO birthday party with the foreign ministers of the member states, an attempt will probably be made to create a completely different impression. Together they want to once again invoke solidarity and send messages of deterrence to Putin. “All for one, one for all” will be the sentence that will be sent as a message to the world by the now 32 NATO states.