Strategy

Declining “€œthe West”€”€”Why It’s Past Time We Got Out of NATO

August 19, 2008

Declining “€œthe West”€”€”Why It’s Past Time We Got Out of NATO

In a 1955 foreign-policy cabinet meeting, Dwight Eisenhower is reported to have remarked, “€œAdenauer’s the West’s ace in the hole.”€ The president was of course referring to the chancellor of the German Federal Republic, Konrad Adenauer, who was at the time rather assiduously pursuing good relations with Washington and taking the lead in the establishment of various international institutions: from the European Coal and Steel Community to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which firmly aligned the Federal Republic with U.S. policy in the Cold War.

While in Washington, Adenauer might have been an “€œace in the hole,”€ in Berlin, Jacob Kaiser, part of the Protestant, more nationalist wing of the Christian Democratic Party, accused the chancellor of being “€œmore American than the Americans”€”€”insinuating that Adenauer was willing to forswear reunification with East Germany in order to please his American masters.

Adenauer had decided early on that his country was incapable of confronting the Soviet Union alone, and it would be best served by throwing in its lot in with the Yankees. This said, to understand Adenauer as a willing pawn of hegemonic America is to overlook a crucial aspect of his foreign-policy making. Much like his contemporary Charles de Gaulle, Adenauer sprang from a generation rooted in pre-World War I Europe, and one hardly enthralled by “€œthe American way of life.”€ And in many ways, Adenauer’s support of NATO represented not so much subordination to Washington as a return to the kinds of cultural, transnational “€œEuropean”€ organizations he”€™d been working to develop decades earlier.  

As a Roman Catholic, Adenauer believed in Hilaire Belloc’s formulation, “€œEurope is the faith, the faith is Europe.”€ As a politician, Adenauer had long been associated with European integration, taking membership, for instance, in the eccentric Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-European League, joining Winston Churchill and Ludwig von Mises among others. With images of Napoleon, Nietzsche, and Kant displayed at every meeting, Kalergi built a movement based on anti-communism and a program for European countries to unite as a singular “€œWorld Power,”€ lest the continent be swallowed up by the U.S., U.S.S.R., or even the rising states of Asia. It’s no coincidence that throughout Adenauer’s correspondence on NATO, he described the American sphere of influence as “€œChristian,”€ “occidental,”€ as “€œthe West”€”€”terms he juxtaposed with the “€œbarbarian”€ and “€œAsiatic”€ Soviet Union.  

For Adenauer, joining NATO was less about being “€œpro-American”€ than being a “€œgood European.”€ And though the chancellor’s perspective was rather esoteric, his hope that the alliance might represent a united Western culture was shared by many in Washington.

In an essay advocating the abandonment of NATO, I”€™ve begun with Adenauer to emphasize that, at a fundamental level, any decision regarding the alliance must take into account broader questions of value”€”this “€œWest”€ the alliance is supposedly defending. The recent conflict in Georgia has proven, once again, that NATO now mainly serves to multiply America’s burdens and increase the likelihood that small conflagrations might turn into world wars. From a strictly “€œrealist”€ perspective, it’s clear we should get out.

But of equal importance is the fact that the concept of “€œthe West”€ advocated by the post-Cold War alliance has little to nothing to do with Adenauer’s dream of cultural unity. Indeed, the new “€œWest”€ has become an ideological justification for the kinds military campaigns that have yielded disastrous results in the Balkans and the Middle East. For more cultural reasons as well, it’s past time we left NATO behind.  

After the famous Malta Summit of 1989, in which the American president and Soviet premier mutually declared the Cold War to be over, George H. W. Bush assured Mikhail Gorbachev that, following the admittance of a re-unified Germany, NATO would not take on new members to its east”€”a promise Bush kept.

But beginning with the Clinton administration, and continuing in earnest under the second Bush, “€œNATO expansion”€ became the overt policy of the White House and State Department. One by one, Estonia, Latvia, Romania et al. joined NATO, and Bush 41’s promise to Gorbi was thrown to the wind.

It’s certainly understandable why an Estonia or a Latvia would want to become a part of NATO, why they would want to get on the winning side of the Cold War, why they would have residual hatred of Russia after years under the Communist boot. Less evident is exactly what Washington hopes to gain by NATO expansion.

In 1999, NATO published a “€œhandbook”€ that included a “€œMembership Action Plan“€ (MAP), written to offer “€œfeedback and advice”€ that would assist countries in gaining admittance to the alliance. The handbook’s language reads much like an advertisement for a summer Chemistry camp”€”sign up now so you don”€™t miss the “€œnext round of NATO enlargement … at the Summit meeting in Prague in Novemeber 2002.”€ In order to “€œget in,”€ as a guidance counselor might say, “€œ[a]spirant countries are expected to achieve certain goals in the political and economic fields.

These include settling any international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means; demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights; establishing democratic control of their armed forces; and promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility. [Italics are in the original, bolding is mine.]

It’s likely that one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s chief motivations for cracking down on South Ossetia on August 7 was to settle “€œterritorial disputes”€ so that he might turn in a better NATO-membership application in a year or two. He obviously hoped for a generous interpretation of the “€œpeaceful means”€ clause…

What’s most remarkable about the 1999 MAP document, besides the lack of seriousness in tone, is the absence of any strategic objectives regarding new member states. India, the “€œworld’s largest democracy,”€ could qualify for NATO membership, so could Singapore, why not Liberia?”€”each of these countries introducing a whole new set of burdens and conflicts Washington would have to take responsibility for. 

It seems no one in NATO, or in the White House or at State, was willing to point out that instead of asking whether a prospective state promotes “€œwell-being and social justice”€ (whatever those thing are), NATO should probably be asking what each prospective country could do for the alliance, why each nation should be allowed into a collective security pact in which an attack on one is an attack on all. 

Along with unending NATO expansion came new NATO missions based on the 1990s buzz words of “€œhumanitarian invention”€ and “€œnation-building.”€ Thus in March of 1999, a Cold War alliance based on confronting world communism found itself bombing Serbia, a country that posed no threat to any NATO-member state, on behalf of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an Islamicist sepratist group once classified by the State Department as a “€œterrorist organization.”€ The end game has been an almost decade-long occupation of regions in the Balkans by NATO forces. 

After the 9/11 attacks, a swift, punitive campaign against Afghanistan (much like that imagined by John Keegan and Michael Scheuer) would have been in order for NATO. But again, the war in Afghanistan quickly became about “€œspreading democracy”€ and installing women’s rights in a poor, sparsely populated, barely industrialized Muslim nation. The occupation has no end in sight, and, understandably, many in the alliance are beginning to want out.

In testimony on Afghanistan to the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institute recently remarked, “€œTen years ago, the idea that NATO would be running a major military operation half way around the world would have seemed preposterous.”€ So true. And if the founders of NATO knew what the alliance was being used for, they”€™d turn in their graves.  

It”€™d be tough to find a better example of “€œmission creep“€ than the North Atlantic Treat Organization.

And yet in Washington, both parties are calling for full speed ahead.

This past April, President Bush attended the NATO summit in Bucharest with the express purpose of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance (a plan thankfully scuttled by the French and Germans.) Bush was hardly acting without support; indeed, before he left for Bucharest, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution in support of his efforts on behalf of Georgia. Obama and McCain both cast ballots.

Reading the text of the resolution, it appears as if the Senate wanted to grant NATO membership to Georgia on the basis of good behavior:

1. Human rights”€”check!
2. Democracy”€”check!!
3. Pro-Washington”€”check!!!

With all the good feeling about expansion, it’s easy to forget that if Bush, and McCain and Obama, had gotten their way in April, we’d now be in a shooting war with Russia. (Of course, one could argue that if Georgia had been admitted, Russia would never have sent troops into South Ossetia. Probably true. But this only means that we’d currently be in a perilous toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin.)  

It’s also become clear that Bush’s efforts in Bucharest had much to do with emboldening Georgian Presdent Saakashvili. As Morton Abramowitz writes in The National Interest Online, Georgia might have lost out on NATO, but its ruling party believed that Uncle Sam would back it on most anything”€”including cracking down on South Ossetia.

Quite simply … Saakashvili gambled and lost. Whatever Russia’s constant provocations and Vladimir Putin’s contempt for him personally, Saakashvili appears to have thought he could quickly retake South Ossetia in a fait accompli or, if he got in trouble, the United States and other NATO nations would send forces to rescue him.

NATO expansion”€”which the brain trusts at State and in both parties naively assume amounts to an increase of American power”€”has allowed a hothead like Saakashvili turn a domestic squabble into a new Sarajevo. Moreover, the concept of “€œthe West”€”€”which men like Adenauer saw as gesturing back to antiquity and uniting all European nations”€”has been replaced by abstract, historically ungrounded notions of “€œdemocracy,”€ “€œhuman rights,”€ and, worst of all, the “€œpromot[ion] of well-being.”€ Thus because Georgia is a “democracy,” it’s said that it is inherently in our interest to support it.

A vision of NATO defining and defending western culture certainly has its appeal”€”that America might lead such an alliance is even more seductive. But somewhere along the line, NATO became less about the Europeanism of Konrad Adenauer and more about the globalism of AEI. As NATO now seems to be on the verge of restarting a Cold War, it has become as clear as ever that in order to truly preserve “€œthe West,”€ we need to leave the alliance behind.    

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