For decades, Stanley R. Sloan has belonged to the small group of NATO-watchers who offer eminently readable accounts of where the Alliance comes from and where it is going. US historian Lawrence Kaplan calls Sloan “the most important American authority in the field of NATO historiography”.
Sloan worked in the Congressional Research Service for 25 years as the senior specialist in international security policy. His work for Congress, for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and for the Senate NATO Observer Group makes him a seasoned observer of transatlantic security affairs scene. Through several books, numerous articles and countless public speaking engagements on both sides of the Atlantic, Sloan has become the grey eminence of NATO affairs.
After having reviewed the first edition of Sloan’s “Defense of the West” some years ago, the second edition warrants another look. The reason becomes clear when one compares the sub-headings. In the first edition, it reads “NATO, the European Union and the transatlantic bargain”. By contrast, the second edition reads “Transatlantic security from Truman to Trump”. The reader can guess the reason for this change. In the second edition, Sloan covers the Donald Trump presidency – a presidency that challenged NATO in unprecedented ways. Since the main part of the book is largely identical to the previous edition, this review focuses mostly on the new material.
“Defense of the West” is the fifth book of a series that started in 1984, with Sloan’s “NATO’s Future: Towards a New Transatlantic Bargain.” In this book and in many that followed, Sloan effectively built on former US NATO Ambassador Harlan Cleveland’s description of NATO as a “transatlantic bargain”. That bargain was the United States’ commitment to the rebuilding of Western Europe after the devastation of World War II, in exchange for Europe gradually organising for its own defence. In Cleveland’s view, the bargain worked “because the bargaining goes on within a framework of common interest, perceived and acknowledged.” Cleveland acknowledged that burden-sharing issues would remain difficult, even labelling NATO “an organized controversy about who is going to do how much”, yet he insisted that “no matter how much the bargain changes, the constant is a consensus among allies that there has to be a bargain.”
In Sloan’s view, a new transatlantic bargain would include greater European responsibility as well as continued North American engagement in European security affairs. Such a bargain was neither to come about overnight, nor was it to be measured merely by comparing defence expenditures. This becomes clear throughout the main part of his book, which offers a solid history of NATO. By contrast, Trump’s transactional view of NATO reduced the transatlantic bargain to a mere business deal – and a bad one at that, as the Europeans, in his view, were freeriding at the expense of the US taxpayer. Sloan agrees that many Allies did not spend as much on defence as they should have. However, Trump’s insistence that the Allies owed the US “past dues” was, as Sloan points out, “completely inconsistent with the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty and the allies’ practice over the past 70 years.” Sloan puts “the Trump disruption” in its broader context: the rise of illiberalism and populism in many Western countries, the global financial crisis, and the “Brexit shock” had shattered the West’s optimism in the attractiveness of its own political and economic model. He clearly shows that Donald Trump’s political rise was not a singular event. Still, with his unique personal style, Trump confronted NATO with a major challenge.
While Trump did not spare with criticism of NATO, he refused to criticise Russia and its aggression against Ukraine. At the Brussels Summit in May 2017, he avoided any direct reference to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the crucially important clause that postulates an obligation to help an Ally in case of attack. A few weeks later, in a speech in Warsaw, Trump finally committed to Article 5, but the damage had already been done. The US seemed bent on abdicating its leadership of the Western Alliance.
Sloan praises NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, who had “followed a deliberate strategy of continuously complimenting allies for their accomplishments … urging them to do more, and praising Trump for having produced whatever progress had been achieved”. Stoltenberg’s panache in handling the US President did not go unnoticed. He was invited to address a joint session of the US Congress – the first head of an international organisation ever to do so. This invitation demonstrated that despite Trumps unilateralist mannerism there was still another multilateralist United States out there.
Sloan contends sarcastically that Trump helped unite the Europeans, but “he largely united them against the Unites States, rather than behind it.” While Sloan admits that Trump (and Brexit) did compel the EU to agree several steps toward closer security cooperation, he views these steps less as being within the logic of a new transatlantic bargain, but rather as expressions of scepticism about the future of this very bargain. In combination with the global decline of the public image of the United States under Donald Trump’s presidency, Sloan worries whether the damage done may even be beyond repair. He concludes his analysis of the Trump years with a blunt verdict: “On balance, by 2020 Donald Trump had done more to weaken American leadership of the West … than even his most severe critics might have anticipated before his inauguration.”
So far, so bad. And now? Can the Biden Administration – which came into office after Sloan’s book was released – repair the transatlantic relationship? In the final part of his book, in which Sloan sets out the numerous external and internal challenges that the West is facing, it becomes clear that meeting them will require much more than a more cooperative and conciliatory US Administration. As far as external challenges go, Sloan notes a revisionist Russia, conflict and instability in the Middle East and North Africa, the continuing fragility of Afghanistan, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber threats, information wars, and the Chinese challenge. He also mentions the pandemic and environmental challenges, although only briefly.
Sloan starts his list of the West’s internal challenges with the ambivalence surrounding the future of US leadership. He is worried that a polarised “dysfunctional American political system” will not generate the political continuity that Washington needs if it wants to be an effective leader. Other internal challenges arise from inadequate European defence spending, European economic and political vulnerabilities, and insufficient cooperation between NATO and the European Union. The latter is particularly dear to Sloan’s heart. While he has discarded his earlier idea of a “Transatlantic Community Treaty”, which was supposed to bring together all NATO and EU member states in one unifying framework, he realises that the comprehensive approach to meeting modern security challenges requires more NATO-EU cooperation. This cooperation would focus “on the external threats to transatlantic security and values rather than on competing philosophies and organizational structures.”
Overall, compared to his previous books, Sloan appears more pessimistic about the future of the transatlantic security relationship. In part, this is because of the shock caused by President Trump, who at times seemed to be willing to withdraw the US from NATO altogether. But Sloan is also concerned about the West getting it wrong more broadly, notably by not standing up to defend its values. “Perhaps the future of the West”, he contends, “comes down to a very fundamental choice: Should the United States and its European partners acquiesce in Russia’s geopolitical demands for a buffer zone between Putin’s kleptocracy and the democratic West … or should they assert with actions as well as words, the liberal values that they hoped would shape post-Cold War Europe?” It is clear how Sloan would answer this question, but he is less sure how some parochial Western democracies would answer it.
Like the previous version, the book is clearly aimed at a student audience, as demonstrated by the “questions for discussion” at the end of each chapter. This comprehensiveness is also a weakness, however. There is a considerable amount of repetition, and while some issues are discussed in depth, others are just briefly touched upon, as if the author did not have the time to analyse them in greater detail. Still, “Defense of the West” is an impressive volume: it offers a well-informed, jargon-free history of NATO, as well as some almost philosophical reflections of a seasoned observer of the transatlantic community.