Obama: With NATO, smaller countries hold larger ones accountable

Former President Barack Obama spoke Saturday on the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during a town hall in Berlin with emerging European leaders.

At the event hosted by his foundation, the former Democratic president was asked by a town hall participant what smaller countries like the Baltic states could do to stress the importance of international alliances like NATO.

Obama suggested that these smaller nations in alliances “reflect internally the values of democracy, freedom, rule of law” so they can hold the larger countries accountable.

“I think when there is backsliding internally then you have less moral force in that argument,” Obama said.

Obama said the alliances created “a structure and a set of aspirations so that small countries, defenseless peoples, vulnerable groups could appeal to the ideals and the principles and take that charter or piece of paper and say, ‘Look this is what you said’ and that gave some leverage and force to the argument that over time improved the situation.”

Obama also said he recognizes “there are some strains” currently between the United States and NATO.

President Donald Trump has threatened to leave NATO several times privately, and as recently as last year, according to the New York Times. He has frequently criticized NATO members for not meeting the target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. Trump has also slammed the alliance as “obsolete” and last year appeared to waver on whether the US should come to the defense of all NATO member countries, though he had previously committed to Article 5, which deems an attack on one member of NATO an attack on all countries in the alliance.

Obama said on Saturday that “as President, I was very clear that there were no junior or senior members of NATO and that Article 4 and Article 5 means what it says and that it has to be not just talked about with nice phrases but there has to be planning and work done to prepare for the possibility of mutual defense.”

Article 4 of the treaty, if invoked, lets the members consult when any of the nations feels threatened. Article 5 has only been invoked once, in support of the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

“We unfortunately, I think, stand at a crossroads now, a time when we took for granted some of that progress, didn’t tend to our democracies, and our alliances and our international institutions as well as we should have, didn’t update them and adapt them to new circumstances, and as people started feeling insecure or frustrated because of economic changes, technological changes, demographic changes, we got this backlash and reaction to that order,” Obama said. “So our challenge now is how to we refresh and renew these ideas.