Think Again: NATO

Why Europeans can defend themselves, but won't until Washington makes them.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"NATO is vital to Western security."

Only foreign policy elites believe that.

In April 1949, a dozen nations, including the United States, Great Britain, and France, signed the North Atlantic Treaty. The first secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Hastings Ismay, famously remarked that the alliance had three purposes, all in Europe: to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

NATO achieved this mission decades ago. Yet the alliance has continued to grow in the post-Cold War years: Today, it has 28 members, all but two of which are European. And while NATO struggles to find a precise mission in the absence of the Soviet threat, it maintains unparalleled popularity among foreign-policy elites in member states. It is like the third rail of national security policy — only "unserious" people question NATO.

Two years ago, Philip Gordon, then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said, "NATO is vital to U.S. security." Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder claims it is "an alliance that is more needed by more people than ever." Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations explains that the NATO wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya "demonstrate NATO’s utility and its contributions to the individual and collective welfare of its members."

This has not proven a particularly persuasive argument to the public, which wonders, not unreasonably, why the United States must keep 40,000 troops in Germany, especially when its leaders have spent the past 13 years warning that the greatest national security threat is terrorism — while fighting one war in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. A 2012 Rasmussen poll revealed that 51 percent of likely voters wanted to remove all U.S. troops from Europe, with only 29 percent opposing that measure and 20 percent uncertain.

There have been a few outliers in Washington who have questioned the seemingly anachronistic emphasis on Atlanticism during a supposed "pivot" to Asia. Relative NATO skeptics, like Senator Rand Paul, have limited themselves to fighting rear-guard actions against legislation like the 2011 bipartisan amendment calling on President Obama to provide Georgia with a Membership Action Plan. But with the Russian annexation of Crimea and threats against eastern Ukraine, American supporters, particularly hawks like John McCain, see a validation of their views and are insisting that recent developments show why NATO is vital.

On the contrary, this is the perfect moment to demonstrate the shakiness of the case for the Atlantic alliance. 

"NATO enhances U.S. military capability."


Traditionally, the case for any alliance is that, as a whole, it is more powerful than the sum of its members. But the military contributions of NATO’s European member states have not cleared that bar for some time. Consider Europe’s contributions to the two most recent combat operations involving NATO forces.

While troops from some NATO countries have fought and died in disproportionately high numbers supporting the U.S. nation-building project in Afghanistan — the only time Article V was ever invoked — other NATO countries have placed national "caveats" on how their forces may be used. Frequently these were unofficial, but some gained notoriety. German troops, for example, were prohibited from leaving their bases at night. Other countries, like Italy, stipulated they would respond to requests to move their troops to areas where fighting was taking place within 72 hours. (This was later revised down to six hours.) And the list goes on. As a 2006 Congressional Research Service report noted, these caveats were "intended to preclude the affected units from participating in offensive combat operations or other operations that carry a high risk of casualties."

The Libyan "kinetic military action" was another illustration of NATO’s combat readiness. Eight of the 28 NATO member states helped the United States oust dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. But the group ran out of munitions while beating up on a Libyan military that had been mostly neutralized by American air power just days prior. This sorry performance inspired an internal NATO report lamenting that the alliance is "overly reliant" on the United States to prevail in even the simplest of conflicts.

The United States currently keeps its troops stationed in Europe — the bulk of its NATO costs are in paying, equipping, and maintaining them — in large part as a function of its Article V commitment to the alliance, which states that an attack on one member state will be treated as an attack on all. Washington presently accounts for more than 70 percent of overall NATO military expenditures, despite comprising roughly 56 percent of NATO’s GDP. Although in 2006 all NATO members committed to spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, currently only the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Greece are meeting that commitment.

"But Ukraine! Russian expansionism is likely to revitalize NATO." 

Don’t bet on it.

With Russian forces annexing Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine, it didn’t take long before the NATO secretary-general proudly declared that "NATO is back," and that the current crisis "must lead to increased defense investment in Europe." But with a NATO mission that has been set adrift, atrophied European defense expenditures, and eroded political consensus on the alliance’s future, there is little reason to believe that the alliance can pull itself together diplomatically, financially, or militarily, even in the wake of Russia’s provocations.

Besides which, it’s unclear that despite its provocations, Russia actually presents much of a threat. Its GDP, $2.1 trillion in 2013, was slightly less than that of Italy and Portugal combined. It confronts severe demographic challenges, and it possesses life expectancy, alcoholism, and other variables all out of step with modernized, developed countries. Its military, though large and nuclear-armed, is hardly in better shape. While beating up on the poor Georgian army in 2008, the Russian side experienced serious operational difficulties. Without a sophisticated, nationwide air defense system, Georgian forces shot down five Russian planes, including a Tu-22 M3 strategic bomber. Russian ground forces suffered severe communications and targeting difficulties. The Russian military is weak and constrained, and the further it gets from home, the weaker and more constrained it gets.

Given these handicaps, the idea that Russia could somehow snatch enough European power to threaten Germany or France, to say nothing of the United States, seems unlikely. Even for Russia to maintain an assault on Poland, its lines of communication would be stretched over more than 600 miles of mostly hostile territory. In light of the Georgia campaign, this seems fanciful. So while it’s fashionable in the West to shudder at Russian revanchism, this has amounted largely to pushing on political open doors. Russia’s smash-and-grab military tactics were successful in South Ossetia and Crimea because of political support among the populace.

Beyond their hollow militaries, there is little political support among the more important European NATO countries even for defending smaller NATO member states, to say nothing of Ukraine. An April poll of Germans, after the Kremlin annexed Crimea and menaced Eastern Ukraine, revealed that 53 percent of Germans did not want to do more to help defend even existing NATO members in Eastern Europe. The same is true in the United States, where a May 2014 poll taken after the Russian annexation of Ukraine found that 36 percent of Americans wanted to remove U.S. troops from Europe, 39 percent to maintain them at their current level, and 25 percent were undecided.

There is little appetite in Europe for a U.S.-Russian conflict, and even less of an appetite for one in which European countries would be asked to exert themselves in any meaningful way.

Europe hasn’t proved its worth. Meanwhile, in some ways NATO may actually have made it tougher to deal with Russia.

"There’s no reason NATO should frighten Russia."


In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker sat down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, looked him in the eyes, and told him that if a unified Germany could be a NATO member, the alliance’s jurisdiction would not move "one inch eastward." The problem with Baker’s words, as historian Mary Elise Sarotte points out, is that Moscow never got them in writing. It’s true that Baker never "promised" that the alliance would "never" expand to Eastern Europe; but that’s what Gorbachev heard. After the Soviet leader publicly agreed to the terms of German unification, including its NATO membership, Western leaders would emphasize that they had kept their pledge not to do anything to, in Gorbachev’s phrasing, "diminish the security of the Soviet Union." Unsurprisingly, though, Western and Soviet and Russian leaders would come to define that phrase somewhat differently.

Since then, Russia has made clear that it views the expansion of NATO territory and military power as a threat. However innocent the West believes its intentions, it isn’t hard to see why Russia would be concerned. In 1999 NATO added the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. And over the next 10 years, that list grew to include Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia. In 2008, President George W. Bush suggested adding Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance, for the first time absorbing not simply former Warsaw Pact members, but former Soviet republics themselves.

The cost of surrounding Russia militarily is that Russia feels surrounded militarily. Allowing NATO to die after it achieved its mission after the Cold War would have left Moscow with a freer hand in Eastern Europe — and some current NATO member states would have faced negative consequences. Their relations with Russia would have reflected relative power and geography, and they would have had to defer to Russian prerogatives more than at present.

At the same time, other states, such as Ukraine, have arguably been worse off as a result of NATO’s persistence. Its internal politics have been more consequential to Moscow because not only of its economic orientation, but also because of the threat that it may someday become a NATO member. The downside of drawing lines across Europe, as NATO has, is that lines have two sides. And being on the non-NATO side of the line makes one a particularly appetizing target for predation, incentivizing the Kremlin to act before it’s too late. The choice facing, say, the Baltic states becomes even starker.

NATO expansion has validated the narratives of Russian nationalists and made Russian liberals look like suckers, a nuance that is lost on many in the West.

"Absent NATO, Europe couldn’t defend itself."

With NATO, it won’t.

"Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus," political commentator Robert Kagan once said, but the dirty little secret is that Washington never wanted Europeans to get their act together on defense. From NATO’s founding, American policymakers were concerned both with preventing Soviet domination of Europe and with preventing the emergence of a "third force" of Western European power divorced from Washington.

From at least the early 1950s, U.S. officials focused at least as much on containing Europe as on containing the Soviet Union. As Texas A&M political scientist Christopher Layne has written, NATO was designed with the purpose of preventing European defense cooperation. In 1952, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson cabled instructions to the U.S. Embassy in Paris that NATO must be prioritized because it would "preclud[e] possibility of Eur Union becoming third force or opposing force."

Throughout the Cold War, American policymakers worked to ensure a weak Europe that depended on the United States for its security. As then-National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote to President John F. Kennedy in 1962, it would be better if the United Kingdom would spend its resources on conventional arms and "join with the rest of NATO in accepting a single U.S.-dominated [nuclear] force." The United States reacted angrily to French President Charles de Gaulle’s Europe-centric policies and worked to scuttle the Franco-German Treaty of 1963 by intervening in German domestic politics to get the Bundestag to alter the treaty preamble in a way that reinforced NATO’s — U.S. — primacy. At every turn, Washington opposed European security cooperation on the thinking that all decisions should go through the White House. As Acheson remarked, Washington did not "need to coordinate with our allies. We need to tell them."

By the early 1990s, Europeans — in keeping with the edicts of the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union in 1993began working together on integrating their foreign and security policies. But at the 1998 NATO summit, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright neatly delineated the three things about European security cooperation that Washington would oppose. Labeling them the "Three D’s," she said that Washington sought "no diminution of NATO, no discrimination, and no duplication" of the alliance’s functions. This continued in the Bush administration, when in 2003 it called a special meeting with NATO to discuss European defense integration. At that meeting, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns condemned European security cooperation as "one of the greatest dangers to the transatlantic relationship."

Aside from Washington, there are other obstacles to European defense cooperation. European nations disagree about burden-sharing and about the degree of integration that would be desirable. Germany prefers not to think about defense issues at all, which has driven the French and British, uncomfortably, to sign a set of bilateral defense treaties (the Lancaster House treaties) in 2010. Some of the more ambitious European proposals, such as "permanent structured cooperation," resemble the completion of the European state-building project, in that they involve folding national European militaries into something resembling a single European military. Washington should support more European defense integration, and a smaller role for itself in European defense matters.

NATO has produced some benefits, but the costs to the United States — tens of billions per year, validating Russian nationalist narratives about the West, and infantilizing its European partners — are often ignored. Washington should cut the Europeans loose, and encourage them to cooperate with each other on European security matters. With a combined GDP larger than the United States and a benign threat environment, Europeans are capable of defending themselves, but won’t until Washington makes them.

<p> Justin Logan is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute. </p>