The Outdated Alliance?
On NATO’s 70th anniversary, it is time for burden shedding—not burden sharing.
Washington is filled with sacred cows. And none is more sacrosanct than NATO. On the organization’s 70th anniversary this week, encomiums fill the air for “the strongest, most successful alliance in history,” as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put it.
At least one person in Washington disagrees: U.S. President Donald Trump. And although the State Department has affirmed that “the U.S. commitment … to NATO remains firm,” the organization’s future is far from certain, and this year’s birthday celebration is rather subdued.
When NATO was formed seven decades ago, the world was very different: The Soviet Union had advanced into Central Europe, and Western European nations were still recovering from World War II. NATO would help them, Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned, but it would not do so forever. When asked if the United States would need “to send substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution,” he assured Congress that it wouldn’t. Even Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s first commander and a future U.S. president, presciently warned that such an American garrison could “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide themselves.”
The Europeans eventually did recover but, as predicted, lagged in defense. The United States has for decades demanded that European countries spend more on defense—and they agree, only to inevitably fall short. The process endlessly repeats, teaching each generation of European leaders that no matter how little they do, Washington will defend the continent.
The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 put NATO’s survival in doubt. To give the organization a new raison d’être, officials suggested a plethora of improbable new duties. For instance, Robert Zoellick, then-counselor to Secretary of State James Baker, argued that it was necessary to “transform established institutions, such as NATO, to serve new missions that will fit the new era.” David Abshire, who had been the U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Ronald Reagan, suggested that the alliance “could coordinate the transfer of environmental-control technology to the East.”
Curious work for a military alliance.
NATO decided to stay relevant in two ways. First, it opted to expand its membership to countries formerly in the Soviet orbit. Second, it opted to undertake activities in nonmember nations. The former violated assurances that NATO had given Moscow in 1990 and 1991, fomenting Russian hostility. The latter transformed NATO into an offensive force, most notably during its mission in Serbia in 1999. Nevertheless, as U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar argued at the time, the choice was simple. The alliance would “go out of area or out of business.”
This process continues. Alliance solidarity led Europe into a protracted war in Afghanistan and the United States into a conflagration in Libya, even though neither conflict served the other allies’ interests. Expansion grows ever more far-fetched, with the alliance most recently adding Montenegro and North Macedonia, small states that face no obvious threat and can make no serious contribution to Europe’s defense. Against significant European opposition, moreover, the United States even supports bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the body.
As a result, some analysts today call NATO a “global alliance,” with pretensions to patrol much if not most of the world. All the while, Washington remains responsible for the vast majority of its combat capabilities in Europe and beyond.
The disparity among allies’ contributions causes constant friction. U.S. President Barack Obama lamented Europe’s “free riders.” In 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that there would be “dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” Future leaders, he suggested, “may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Enter Trump.
Unfortunately, the burden-sharing debate has been as unproductive as it has been lengthy. Europeans expect the United States to ride to the rescue in any crisis, so they see little reason to spend much on their own militaries, especially during economically difficult times at home. Yet the same U.S. officials who complain about lagging European defense efforts routinely reassure those allies of America’s enduring commitment. Washington even created the European Reassurance Initiative, recently renamed the European Deterrence Initiative, to increase U.S. manpower in Eastern Europe.
Yet Europe does not really need U.S. military support. Although scholars like the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis have argued that Russian resurgence makes NATO as important to European stability as ever, that is false. The continent matches the U.S. economy and possesses a larger population. Meanwhile, European states have roughly 10 times the economic strength and four times the population of Russia. They collectively spend four times as much as Moscow on armed forces. Obviously, collective action can be difficult, and European governments need to be smarter about their spending. However, a sense of urgency would overcome many of these problems.
But that doesn’t exist. Few Europeans perceive a serious enough threat to spend more on the military. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged as much when he recently told a conservative group that when he asks the Europeans what they are prepared to do about defense, they say, “It’s tough. Our voters just really don’t like to spend money on defense.” Although European countries did start to spend more after Russia intervened in Ukraine, the uptick has barely exceeded economic growth. As a percentage of GDP, Europe’s military outlays remain below those of seven years ago. In 2014, the number, which includes Canada, fell to 1.4 percent; last year, it was 1.47 percent.
The future is not likely to be much better.
To be fair, parts of Europe, especially on NATO’s edge, do appear to be more worried about the possibility of Russian aggression. But even if Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite his country’s economic woes, wanted to go after the Baltic states or Poland, he would risk further economic isolation and almost certain military retaliation. The Baltics’ ethnic Russian minorities do not look to Moscow as a protector and have shown little interest in securing its rule. Poland’s history promises an ever hostile population if conquered.
Perhaps that is why, according to Michael Kofman, a researcher at CNA, Russian military forces are not deployed for combat in the Baltic region. “Despite provocative air and naval activity concentrated in the area,” he wrote in 2017, “Russian forces based there are principally defensive, and aging to boot.” That could change, of course, but any attack would require massive redeployments. There would be no cakewalk.
As for Russia’s conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine, they do look threatening but also appear to have an essentially defensive purpose—prevent the two nations’ inclusion in NATO and protect the historic naval base of Sevastopol. Recent diplomatic disclosures revealed that Moscow had good reason to feel betrayed by talk of expanding the alliance. Russia’s actions cannot be justified, of course, but if Moscow had expanded the Warsaw Pact to Latin America, engineered a coup in Mexico City, and offered to bring that nation into an anti-American alliance, Washington would have been equally displeased. Consider Washington’s sharp reaction to Russian troops arriving in more distant Venezuela.
Given Europe’s size, economic strength, and lack of clear and present danger, it is time to end the fantasy of burden sharing. Last year, the United States devoted $1,898 per person to the military. NATO’s European members spent $503. If they take over the core duty of defending Europe, they could spend what they want without hectoring from Washington. They could conciliate or threaten Russia. They could add or eliminate sanctions. They could make whatever decisions they wish, but they would be responsible for the consequences.
The United States could become an associate member of NATO, or whatever the Europeans wish to call their new defense compact, and forge new agreements with Europe to cooperate where interests coincide. Rather than remain permanently entangled in disputes of little matter to Washington, it could informally play the role of offshore balancer, prepared to respond more directly to any unlikely hegemonic threat.
NATO has reached the venerable age of 70. It should be pensioned off and replaced with security architecture developed to meet current challenges. Instead, Pompeo quipped, member states were meeting this week “to make sure that NATO is around for the next 70 years.” Where will Trump take NATO? He is unpredictable and inconstant. Still, he spent years inveighing against NATO, and he finally has the power to do something about it. He should insist that Europe take over responsibility for its own security.