Let Europe Be Europe

Why the United States must withdraw from NATO.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Over the course of the disastrous 20th century, inhabitants of the liberal democratic world in ever-increasing numbers reached this conclusion: War doesn’t pay and usually doesn’t work. As recounted by historian James J. Sheehan in his excellent book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, the countries possessing the greatest capability to employ force to further their political aims lost their enthusiasm for doing so. Over time, they turned away from war.

Of course, there were lingering exceptions. The United States and Israel have remained adamant in their determination to harness war and demonstrate its utility.

Europe, however, is another matter. By the dawn of this century, Europeans had long since lost their stomach for battle. The change was not simply political. It was profoundly cultural.

The cradle of Western civilization — and incubator of ambitions that drenched the contemporary age in blood — had become thoroughly debellicized. As a consequence, however willing they are to spend money updating military museums or maintaining war memorials, present-day Europeans have become altogether stingy when it comes to raising and equipping fighting armies.

This pacification of Europe is quite likely to prove irreversible. Yet even if reigniting an affinity for war among the people of, say, Germany and France were possible, why would any sane person even try? Why not allow Europeans to busy themselves with their never-ending European unification project? It keeps them out of mischief.

Washington, however, finds it difficult to accept this extraordinary gift — purchased in part through the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers — of a Europe that has laid down its arms. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have pushed, prodded, cajoled, and browbeaten European democracies to shoulder a heavier share of responsibility for maintaining world order and enforcing liberal norms.

In concrete terms, this attempt to reignite Europe’s martial spirit has found expression in the attempted conversion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from a defensive alliance into an instrument of power projection. Washington’s aim is this: take a Cold War-inspired organization designed to keep the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in, and transform it into a post-Cold War arrangement in which Europe will help underwrite American globalism without, of course, being permitted any notable say regarding U.S. policy.

The allies have not proven accommodating. True, NATO has gotten bigger — there were 16 member states 20 years ago, 28 today — but growth has come at the expense of cohesion. Once an organization that possessed considerable capability, NATO today resembles a club that just about anyone can join, including, most recently, such military powerhouses as Albania and Croatia.

A club with lax entrance requirements is unlikely to inspire respect even from its own members. NATO’s agreed-upon target for defense spending, for example, is a paltry 2 percent of GDP. Last year, aside from the United States, exactly four member states met that goal.

The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe — today, as always, a U.S. general — still presides in splendor over NATO’s military headquarters in Belgium. Yet SACEUR wields about as much clout as the president of a decent-sized university. He is not a commander. He is a supplicant. SACEUR’s impressive title, a relic of World War II, is merely an honorific, akin to calling Elvis the King or Bruce the Boss.

Afghanistan provides the most important leading indicator of where Washington’s attempt to nurture a muscle-flexing new NATO is heading; it is the decisive test of whether the alliance can handle large-scale, out-of-area missions. And after eight years, the results have been disappointing. Complaints about the courage and commitment of NATO soldiers have been few. Complaints about their limited numbers and the inadequacy of their kit have been legion. An immense complicating factor has been the tendency of national governments to impose restrictions on where and how their forces are permitted to operate. The result has been dysfunction.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s famous assessment of the situation in Afghanistan leaked to the media last year, most observers focused on his call for additional U.S. troops. Yet the report was also a scathing demand for change in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "ISAF will change its operating culture…. ISAF will change the way it does business," he wrote. "ISAF’s subordinate headquarters must stop fighting separate campaigns." The U.S. general found just about nothing in ISAF’s performance to commend.

But McChrystal’s prospects for fixing ISAF run headlong into two stubborn facts. First, European governments prioritize social welfare over all other considerations — including funding their armed forces. Second, European governments have an exceedingly limited appetite for casualties. So the tepid, condition-laden European response to McChrystal’s call for reinforcements — a couple of battalions here, a few dozen trainers there, some creative bookkeeping to count units that deployed months ago as fresh arrivals — is hardly surprising.

This doesn’t mean that NATO is without value. It does suggest that relying on the alliance to sustain a protracted counterinsurgency aimed at dragging Afghans kicking and screaming into modernity makes about as much sense as expecting the "war on drugs" to curb the world’s appetite for various banned substances. It’s not going to happen.

If NATO has a future, it will find that future back where the alliance began: in Europe. NATO’s founding mission of guaranteeing the security of European democracies has lost none of its relevance. Although the Soviet threat has vanished, Russia remains. And Russia, even if no longer a military superpower, does not exactly qualify as a status quo country. The Kremlin nurses grudges and complaints, not least of them stemming from NATO’s own steady expansion eastward.

So let NATO attend to this new (or residual) Russian problem. Present-day Europeans — even Europeans with a pronounced aversion to war — are fully capable of mounting the defenses necessary to deflect a much reduced Eastern threat. So why not have the citizens of France and Germany guarantee the territorial integrity of Poland and Lithuania, instead of fruitlessly demanding that Europeans take on responsibilities on the other side of the world that they can’t and won’t?

Like Nixon setting out for Beijing, like Sadat flying to Jerusalem, like Reagan deciding that Gorbachev was cut from a different cloth, the United States should dare to do the unthinkable: allow NATO to devolve into a European organization, directed by Europeans to serve European needs, upholding the safety and well-being of a Europe that is whole and free — and more than able to manage its own affairs.

As with Nixon and Sadat and Reagan, once the deed is done everyone will ask: Why didn’t we think of that sooner?

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University.