Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Americans Still Need NATO

The alliance is one of the best bargains in geopolitics.

By , a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The NATO flag
The NATO flag
The NATO flag at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on June 15. Valeria Mongelli/AFP via Getty Images

As NATO meets in Madrid this week, the question inevitably arises: Why does the United States need the alliance in the first place? Why is it worth risking New York to save Vilnius or Warsaw, capitals of faraway countries separated from the United States by a wide ocean? The answer lies in the way NATO has worked, as amply demonstrated in practice, for the simultaneous advancement of both American and European interests.

Although the U.S. security guarantee for its NATO allies has been at the heart of the alliance’s political-military framework, and the United States has spent considerable sums on the maintenance of defense capabilities as a result, this has never been a one-way bargain. These treaty relationships have afforded the United States a position of strategic leadership. As a result of America’s central role in trans-Atlantic and international relations that NATO cemented, Americans have enjoyed enormous economic prosperity and freedom.

Put more bluntly: Successive American governments have been afforded privileged status when it has come to issues including trade partnerships and access to bases in large part because of the outsized role that the United States plays in the defense of its allies. Nor would the United States have been able to sustain its significant portfolio of foreign military sales and defense technology cooperation activities without the strategic foundation laid by its role as NATO’s primary security guarantor for seven decades.

As NATO meets in Madrid this week, the question inevitably arises: Why does the United States need the alliance in the first place? Why is it worth risking New York to save Vilnius or Warsaw, capitals of faraway countries separated from the United States by a wide ocean? The answer lies in the way NATO has worked, as amply demonstrated in practice, for the simultaneous advancement of both American and European interests.

Although the U.S. security guarantee for its NATO allies has been at the heart of the alliance’s political-military framework, and the United States has spent considerable sums on the maintenance of defense capabilities as a result, this has never been a one-way bargain. These treaty relationships have afforded the United States a position of strategic leadership. As a result of America’s central role in trans-Atlantic and international relations that NATO cemented, Americans have enjoyed enormous economic prosperity and freedom.

Put more bluntly: Successive American governments have been afforded privileged status when it has come to issues including trade partnerships and access to bases in large part because of the outsized role that the United States plays in the defense of its allies. Nor would the United States have been able to sustain its significant portfolio of foreign military sales and defense technology cooperation activities without the strategic foundation laid by its role as NATO’s primary security guarantor for seven decades.

This position of leadership—manifested in its overseas presence—also allows the United States to set the international security agenda in both political and practical ways. America would not have been able to, for example, prosecute expeditionary and counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa were it not for the bases and pre-positioned equipment that the United States has been able to maintain on allied soil in Europe.

Coalition operations to stabilize the Balkans or conduct anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa would not be as comparatively straightforward (or maybe even possible) without the decades of interoperability standardization agreements, multinational training exercises, or the International Military Staff through which allies can collectively plan for and integrate their military operations. NATO’s structures also afford U.S. military leaders direct experience of the complexities of commanding multilateral military operations.

Another long-standing reason for U.S. engagement in the European theater is to enable U.S. strategic depth. Labeled “defense in depth” by security practitioners, military technological developments and adversary operations during the world wars demonstrated that the United States was no longer protected by the two oceans off of its shores. As a result, it was deemed strategically prudent to station U.S. forces overseas in order to be able to contend with adversary aggression—if not outright conflict—far away from the American homeland.

Not only did this make the American homeland less vulnerable to outright war, but forward presence was also viewed as relatively cost-effective—especially given the potentially enormous social, political, and economic costs of a war on the American continent. The advent of the nuclear age changed that calculation somewhat—intercontinental ballistic missiles made the American homeland vulnerable—but given that even a nuclear war with the Soviet Union would also likely involve combined arms combat in the European theater, the logic of defense in depth held.

Over the decades, that rationale has endured even as the strategic context changed. For example, a primary reason for U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks was to tackle the root sources of violent extremist groups before they could again build sufficient capability and capacity to conduct terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland. The war in Ukraine, along with the attendant concerns about the security and defense on the European continent that are now heightened, once again underscore the importance—and relative cost-effectiveness—of forward military presence. Moreover, the global political significance of the United States’ track record when it comes to maintaining these alliances over the long haul can arguably give the United States another kind of depth: credibility.

While the United States’ reliability as a security partner is frequently called into question in response to day-to-day events, taking a step back it is quite remarkable that U.S. commitments to its allies in Europe have weathered any number of geopolitical storms. The daily management of alliance relationships is a complicated business, of course. But in constructing and recalibrating security relationships with other states, including critical ties in Asia, the U.S. record of building and maintaining a long-standing alliance helps build credibility with others.

More broadly, NATO affords its members an extraordinary—and extraordinarily important—degree of strategic flexibility. NATO has proved capable of reinvention, as its post-Cold War experience showed. From the late 1990s until approximately 2014—and largely as a result of U.S. prompting—NATO was primarily focused on collective security and crisis management in Europe’s near abroad and the Middle East. Security interests were framed in terms of promoting global stability and prosperity—including through countering and dismantling terrorist groups outside NATO allied borders. In other words, contrary to expectations in the early 1990s, NATO endured and evolved to contend with myriad security challenges absent an overwhelming threat. And, by the way, against this backdrop, U.S.-European trade remained strong.

In 2014, as Russia annexed Crimea and began waging a proxy war in Ukraine, old adversarial geopolitics came rushing back. NATO’s role as a bulwark against an expansionist and revisionist power immediately gained renewed salience, although today the front line is considerably farther eastward than during the Cold War. Further complicating matters, despite any number of assurances by Brussels, Russia has made clear that it views NATO’s eastward expansion as counter to its own interests, and it views the existence of the alliance itself as a threat. Yet NATO is managing to both address the challenge of a revanchist Russia and tackle a broader array of security challenges to the alliance, including China, climate change, and advanced disruptive technologies.

More broadly, the lines between foreign and domestic policy, war and peace, civilian and military, public and private are all being blurred, calling long-standing approaches to contending with security and defense challenges into question. Nontraditional security challenges including disinformation operations, pandemic response, migration, and terrorism have put significant stress on the governments of allies on both sides of the Atlantic. None of these challenges can be tackled by one state alone, not even by the United States. And in these blurry spaces, NATO can—and has—played an important role in catalyzing solutions for these complex problems. For example, NATO played a key role in facilitating the international community’s response to the rise of the Islamic State, plans formed in the margins of the 2014 summit in Wales.

Strategic leadership, strategic depth, and strategic flexibility are why NATO’s value is difficult to overstate. It is a political-military arrangement that has proved remarkably resilient over decades and has consistently demonstrated its value to its members on both sides of the Atlantic. This is arguably why Vladimir Putin’s Russia is so intent on undermining it.

The strategic conundrum for the United States—and for its NATO allies—is therefore how to keep intact the alliance system that serves as the bedrock for myriad social, economic, and political benefits to its members in the face of an aggressive adversary. But defend its old and new allies alike the United States must. Otherwise it risks losing a leadership position and benefits that have become a central, if overlooked, aspect of American prosperity. In a very real way, the security of NATO allies is inextricably linked with American interests.

Kathleen J. McInnis is a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.