NATO Isn’t What You Think It Is

An attack on one isn't really an attack on all and four other misunderstood facts about the Western defense alliance.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
A woman walks across a carpet ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, on July 11, 2018. (GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)
A woman walks across a carpet ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, on July 11, 2018. (GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Of all the goofy things that Donald Trump has done as president, nothing ignites the outrage of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment more than his disregard for NATO. They think his trade policy makes no sense, believe he’s getting played by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, are horrified by his fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders, and fear he is stumbling toward a stupid war with Iran. But going after NATO is like criticizing baseball, kicking a friendly puppy, or lobbying for rapid and unilateral disarmament. To do so isn’t just a matter of intelligent policy disagreement for these folks; it’s almost an act of heresy.

Unfortunately, both sides in this rancorous debate base their views on some profound misunderstandings of NATO’s past, present, and likely future. As a public service, therefore, I offer here my top five things you need to know about NATO.

1. Article 5 is not a tripwire for war.

In an interview with Tucker Carlson of Fox News last week, Trump offered a bizarre and ill-informed interpretation of the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty. When Carlson asked him to explain why his son should be prepared to help defend Montenegro (NATO’s newest member), Trump said he had asked the same question himself, called the Montenegrins “very aggressive people,” and then warned that “they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. Now I understand that—but that’s the way it was set up.”

Wrong, Donald. If one actually reads Article 5, it says: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area” (my emphasis).

Translation: While an attack on a NATO member is to be viewed as an attack on all of them, this would not apply if a NATO member starts the conflict. More importantly, Article 5 does not commit any of the parties to use military force, although the use of force is clearly an option. Rather, it calls upon all the parties to “assist” the members that were attacked, but it does not specify the precise form such assistance would take.

To be sure, in many scenarios the use of force would be appropriate, as it was when the United States invoked Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks and its NATO allies sent their own troops to Afghanistan and adopted other measures to counter al Qaeda. But NATO has declined to use force to help member states in the past, and whether it does so in the future would depend on the specific scenario involved, the options available, and the interests of the members at that time. That is why Article 5 was written as it was. As on many other issues, Trump was uninformed, confused, or being deliberately misleading.

2. NATO is not a club, and there are no dues.

Trump has repeatedly complained about NATO burden sharing and claimed that European states “owe us a tremendous amount of money” for protecting them. Such complaints about so-called European free-riding go back decades, of course, but Trump’s charges misstate the issue and miss the point. There are no membership dues in NATO, and none of the members has ever committed to pay the others for protecting it. Rather, each state decides how much it is willing and able to spend on defense, and the alliance as a whole tries (with varying degrees of success) to coordinate these defense preparations in order to produce a more capable force.

There is no question that NATO’s European members spend a smaller percentage of GDP on defense than the United States does. They don’t spend it very efficiently either, so their actual combat power is much less than America’s. For this reason, U.S. leaders from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama have been critical of Europe’s level of effort—and sometimes in very pointed terms. But the real issue, as I’ve noted before, isn’t the amount that European nations spend; after all, they spend far, far more than Russia does every single year. Europe could double its defense spending tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be a whole lot safer, both because it would need to change how it organizes its defense and because it is not clear what it should spend the money on anyway. Improving Europe’s capacity to police borders against migrants would probably yield greater benefits than buying more tanks, supersonic aircraft, or artillery pieces.

Moreover, simply comparing U.S. and European percentages of GDP doesn’t tell you what level of effort is the right one. Europe may be spending too little, or maybe the United States is spending too much. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that both statements are true. In either case, it’s surely odd for Trump to try to jawbone Europe into paying more while simultaneously shoveling more of the American taxpayer’s money into the U.S. Defense Department’s gullet. Pro tip: If you want your allies to spend a bit more on their own defense, try spending a bit less to subsidize them.

3. NATO expansion was a mistake. Really.

If Trump is mostly confused about NATO, its most ardent defenders remain committed to a set of truisms and dogmas that were questionable when first advanced and have become less and less defensible with time. Chief among these myths is the idea that NATO expansion would create a vast zone of peace in Europe and give the alliance a new and lofty purpose in the wake of the Cold War.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. For starters, NATO expansion poisoned relations with Russia and played a central role in creating conflicts between Russia and Georgia and Russia and Ukraine. It’s not the only reason, of course, and I’m not saying Moscow’s responses were legal, proper, justified, or based on an accurate perception of NATO’s intent. I’m only suggesting that Russia’s response was not surprising, especially in light of Russia’s own history and the George H.W. Bush administration’s earlier pledges not to move NATO “one inch eastward” following German reunification. The architects of expansion may have genuinely believed that moving NATO eastward posed no threat to Russia; unfortunately, Russia’s leaders never got the memo (and wouldn’t have believed it if they had).

Furthermore, expanding NATO increased the number of places the alliance was formally obligated to defend (most notably the Baltic states) but without significantly increasing the resources available to perform that task. Once again, proponents of expansion assumed these commitments would never have to be honored, only to wake up and discover they had written a blank check that might be difficult to cover. And we now know that expansion brought in some new members whose commitment to liberal democracy has proved to be fairly shallow. This situation may not be a fatal flaw, insofar as NATO has tolerated nondemocratic members (e.g., Turkey) in the past, but it undermines the proponents’ claim that NATO is a security community based on shared democratic values and an essential element of a liberal world order.

4. NATO is an anachronism.

Everyone knows Lord Ismay’s famous quip about NATO’s core mission: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Irony aside, that pithy summary made a good bit of sense during the Cold War, and especially during NATO’s earliest years, when the U.S. commitment was less certain, the Soviet threat loomed larger, and Germany’s post-World War II evolution was just beginning and its endpoint uncertain. None of these rationales applies today.

For all the hype about a resurgent Russia and its obnoxious efforts to interfere in other states’ democratic processes, Russia is in fact a declining power that poses no threat to dominate Europe. Its population will decline over time, its median age is rising rapidly, and its economy remains mired in corruption and overly dependent on energy exports whose long-term value will probably go down as well. Remember, we are talking about a country whose entire economy—the ultimate foundation of national power—is smaller than Canada, South Korea, and Italy. Putin has played a weak hand well, but the brutal fact is that Europe does not need the United States to protect it, especially considering that France and the United Kingdom also have nuclear deterrents of their own.

Nobody needs to worry about keeping the Germans down either. Germany’s population is shrinking and aging, too, and there is no danger of Germany reverting to its Wilhelmine or Nazi past, and even worrisome right-wing nationalist groups such as the Alternative for Germany party sound more like German isolationists than future empire builders. If anything, the danger is that Europe’s largest economy won’t do enough to help fix the continent’s continued economic woes. As former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski put it back in 2011, he was less fearful of German power than of German inaction.

NATO’s dirty little secret, I believe, is the fear that if the United States leaves, its European members will fall back into the sort of interstate rivalry that repeatedly convulsed the continent in the past. Few Europeans (or Americans) say this openly today (although people such as Christoph Bertram did back in the 1990s), but its true purpose now is to preserve America’s role as Europe’s “pacifier” of last resort. The problem is that Trump doesn’t buy it, and protecting Europe from its own worst instincts is a harder sell when the United States faces rising deficits (again), a major geopolitical challenge from China, and cannot seem to extricate itself from Afghanistan, the Middle East, or the far-flung and open-ended war on terror.

5. The United States cannot fix NATO.

There’s no question that Trump’s handling of NATO has been deeply disruptive, to no good purpose. After all, if you want to get tough with China on trade and do more to constrain Iran’s activities in the Middle East, a smart strategist would get Europe on your side and work constructively with them toward these ends. Trump has done precisely the opposite: tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran, starting trade wars with everyone he can think of, insulting European leaders, and driving his own image (and that of the United States) down to levels unseen in years. That might suit some of America’s adversaries, but it is hard to see how it advances any of the country’s core interests or even Trump’s own stated goals.

Even so, NATO’s present problems predate Trump and are largely the result of long-term structural forces. In the absence of a common, clear, and present danger, sustaining an elaborate multinational alliance was always going to be difficult, and it is in some ways a testimony to past diplomatic artistry that NATO has kept going as long as it has and despite the failures in Afghanistan and Libya and the divisions that erupted over the war in Iraq. Even if Trump had stuck with the status quo, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment, and played nicely with Europe’s leaders, it would not have reversed the gradual erosion of the trans-Atlantic partnership.

A better course would have been to start a gradual, constructive, and if possible amiable decrease of the U.S. security role in Europe, making it clear to U.S. allies that Washington no longer believed it needed to maintain a security presence there and that it planned to be either completely or nearly out in five to 10 years. The United States might conceivably remain a formal member of NATO, but it would no longer station forces there, no longer insist that the supreme allied commander in Europe be a U.S. officer, and no longer expect the Europeans to fall obediently into line whenever Washington barked orders. Trade, investment, and tourism would continue, and U.S. arms manufacturers would be free to sell to European buyers if these states decided to bolster their defenses. Meanwhile, the United States would be free to focus on other problems.

Contrary to what you might think, I’m not anti-European, let alone anti-NATO. The alliance was a bold achievement for its time and one that served both the United States and Europe well in the past. But as I wrote back in 1998: “[N]othing is permanent in international affairs, and NATO’s past achievements should not blind us to its growing fragility. Instead of mindlessly extending guarantees to every potential trouble spot, and instead of basing our foreign policy on a presumption of permanent partnership, it is time for Europe and the United States to begin a slow and gradual process of disengagement. This is going to happen anyway, and wise statecraft anticipates and exploits the tides of history rather than engaging in a fruitless struggle to hold them back.” It was true back then and is even truer today.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.