NATO's first Secretary General, Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, articulated the military alliance's mission succinctly: "Keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."
More than a half century later, the mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is murkier. The declaration issued in conjunction with last week's summit in Brussels clarified matters not at all.
It asserts an "unbreakable transatlantic bond between Europe and North America to stand together against threats and challenges from any direction." But, as I've written before, three of NATO's most important members — Britain, France and Germany — are standing apart when it comes to American efforts to use economic pressure to address the threats and challenges coming from the direction of Tehran.
The declaration also states that NATO allies "stand firmly in unity and solidarity in the fight against terrorism." Here, too, we have to ask: Since the Islamic Republic is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism — just this month an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Belgium in connection with a terrorist plot — how seriously can that statement be taken?
If Iranian jihadism and terrorism are not NATO's main concerns, what is? The Soviet Union is no more but, according to the declaration, its successor, the Russian Federation, is "violating international law, conducting provocative military activities, and attempting to undermine our institutions and sow disunity."
If that's the case, why was President Trump on Monday in Helsinki treating Russian President Vladimir Putin with undue deference? And why — as Mr. Trump correctly asked in Brussels — is Germany going full-speed ahead with a planned 800-mile-long pipeline through which vast quantities of natural gas are to flow from Russia to Germany?
Enriching Russia while simultaneously imposing economic sanctions on Russia is contradictory and self-defeating. Even more strategically consequential is the fact that the pipeline, Nord Stream 2, will increase Germany's already significant dependence on Russia.
Imagine this scenario: President Putin, who in recent years has seized territory from Georgia and Ukraine, menaces a NATO member — Latvia, perhaps. The military alliance is obligated to respond, but it's winter, and Mr. Putin threatens to shut down the pipeline and leave Germans shivering in the cold. Are you confident that Germany can be counted on to help force Russia to back down? (As you may know: Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, now working for a company controlled by the Russian government, is in charge of Nord Stream 2.)
Mr. Trump also complained about how little America's allies are spending on defense. Four years ago, NATO members agreed to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their GDP on their militaries. Of NATO's 29 members, only eight have met that obligation. By contrast, the U.S. spent 3.6 percent of its considerably larger GDP last year.
Once again, it's not just about the money. The larger concern should be that European forces are unprepared for combat.
Gary Schmitt, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently reported: "France has reduced its active duty force by more than 50 percent, eliminated more than 1,100 tanks out of a force of 1,350, and cut 600 combat aircraft from a fleet of 950. A similar story can be told about British and German forces."
A German Ministry report issued last month revealed that of Germany's 128 Typhoon jets, only 39 are ready for action. Tigre attack helicopters: 12 of 62. Leopard 2 tanks: 105 of 224. Submarines: 0 out of 6. Another report found 21,000 officer posts vacant.
More spending could fix what's broken — or not. If additional funds are used to give military personnel a raise, or boost pensions, or expand already bloated bureaucracies while shrinking the forces that actually do the fighting, the deficits in readiness and combat capabilities will further erode. Do European leaders not yet understand that such weakness emboldens their adversaries?
Remember, also, that the NATO member with the second-largest military is Turkey, which has become increasingly authoritarian and Islamist and, by the way, an ally of Russia. Ask yourself: In the scenario above, would Turkey fight Russia to save Latvia?
Let me name and hopefully shame one more NATO ally: Norway. A small nation that is extraordinarily wealthy thanks to North Sea oil, it fails to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense.
More troubling, as revealed by Orde Kittrie, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Norway's $1 trillion government pension fund has been boycotting and divesting from U.S. defense contractors. Why? Because they are involved in the production of nuclear weapons, considered by Norway unnecessary and immoral — despite the fact that NATO has officially declared America's nuclear umbrella "the supreme guarantee" of the alliance's security.
Look, I believe NATO is a uniquely valuable alliance. It is not, as Mr. Trump once charged "obsolete," but had he called it obsolescent, he wouldn't have been far from the mark.
Making NATO great again is worth the effort. But that effort needs to start with a candid assessment of the alliance's debilitated condition. Adequate investments aimed at achieving "peace through strength" must follow. Commitment and determination — more than most NATO members have demonstrated over recent decades — will be required.
Finally, NATO's mission needs to be updated, and made as clear as it was when Lord Ismay was running the show. At the very least, it should aim to keep the jihadists out, the Americans in and the Russians within their own borders.