Incoherent Empire: The Case for Getting Out of NATO

December 18, 2008

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Incoherent Empire: The Case for Getting Out of NATO

Another NATO conference, another example of geopolitical futility. At the alliance’s recent ministerial meeting, the Europeans rebuffed Washington’s push for speedy membership for Georgia and Ukraine. NATO is coming up on its 60th anniversary, and it is completely bereft of a raison d’être. The organization has changed from a military alliance directed at protecting U.S. security to the international equivalent of a gentleman’s club.  Only Washington has serious duties, to protect everyone else. 

America and Europe should continue to cooperate on issues of shared interest. But it is time for Washington to turn European security over to Europe.

In 1948 the world was in the midst of the Cold War. War-ravaged Europe remained an economic laggard vulnerable to communist subversion, democratic left-wing movements, and Soviet pressure.  Joseph Stalin may never have contemplated an invasion of the West, but a U.S.-led alliance became the obvious means to, in Lord Hastings Ismay’s immortal words, keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

At the time the relationship served U.S. interests. Domination of Eurasia by a hostile hegemonic power would create an unstable and dangerous geopolitical environment. An American defense shield would give Europe time to recover economically, stabilize politically, and reconstitute militarily. The alliance was created in a particular time and circumstance to serve a temporary need. President Dwight Eisenhower warned against turning the Europeans into permanent security dependents.

By the 1980s, NATO’s justification had grown threadbare.  The sclerotic Soviet empire was still evil, but totally ill-prepared to launch a war of conquest to the Atlantic.  Although the Europeans were fully capable of defending themselves, they saw little threat from Moscow and refused to up their military outlays or back Washington’s strategic priorities elsewhere around the globe.  With the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, NATO lost its essential purpose.

The U.S. no longer faced a hostile, hegemonic power, let alone one capable of conquering much if not most of Europe and Asia. As former Soviet allies looked westward, there was no one for America or Europe to defend against. Embarrassed alliance officials debated giving the quintessential anti-Soviet military organization new duties, such as fighting the illicit drug trade and promoting environmental protection. About the only thing NATO advocates didn’t suggest was turning tanks into bookmobiles to distribute inspirational literature to disadvantaged youth across the continent.

None of these proposed substitute duties made the slightest sense.  With the Soviet threat eliminated, the anti-Soviet alliance should have been either disbanded or turned over to the Europeans.  Instead, NATO became an end rather than a means, to be preserved irrespective of circumstances, and its supporters settled upon two new roles.

The first was to conduct “out-of-area” activities—military action in regions unrelated to Europe’s defense.  However, European unity was rare enough when the continent’s security was arguably at issue (witness the dispute over building a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union).  The further afield the alliance moved, the less agreement the members could reach.  Today policy towards Russia divides not only Europe from America, but Western from Eastern Europe.  Even when the majority of states favored military action, as in the Balkans, few could or would contribute meaningful military forces, and for actual combat purposes.

Although the Europeans have been busy with peacekeeping missions hither and yon—two years ago Sen. John McCain lauded the fact that “Every member of the latest round of expansion is currently contributing to NATO operations”—they possess very little combat capability.  While serving as America’s permanent representative to NATO, Ambassador Nicholas Burns pointed out that just three to five percent of European military forces were deployable beyond their own boundaries, compared to roughly 75 percent of America’s armed services.

In 1999 NATO went to war against Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened to attack a member state.  In practice it was an American operation.  So too is Afghanistan.  The British, Danes, and Canadians really fight, but most NATO contingents operate under bureaucratic rules of engagement, or “national caveats,” and often far from where they are needed.  Resistance to Washington’s call for additional troops for Afghanistan demonstrates the limits of NATO’s supposed role.  Even worse, countries like Albania and Estonia provide minuscule numbers of troops for one operation or another and expect aid money and security guarantees in return.  The Economist magazine hilariously called such nations “valued allies in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan—small in numbers, but strong in symbolism.”  The emphasis should be on the small, and often very small, “in numbers.” The U.S. bears the primary burden of combat operations, as “NATO” really stands for North America and The Others

Even when the European contributions have some value, NATO is not necessary.  In practice, these “NATO” missions are essentially U.S.-led coalitions that could be organized outside of the formal alliance structure.  Washington receives little military benefit in return for protecting allies which prefer to spend money on their generous welfare states.

The second new task for NATO was to help integrate the newly freed states of Central and Eastern Europe into the West.  Foreign Relations Committee Chairman (and vice president-to-be) Sen. Joe Biden observed earlier this year:  “During the 1990s, NATO became a force for the promotion of a Europe whole and free in ways its founders, I don’t think, ever fully imagined.” It’s a worthy goal, but while alliance membership may demonstrate allied favor, it provides only limited assistance in transforming authoritarian political and collectivist economic systems. The Membership Action Plan process cites “demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights” and “promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility.”  However, NATO has no particular expertise in promoting democratic process, rule of law, market economics, “social justice,” civil society, and, yes, “environmental responsibility.”

In contrast, these are objectives that the European Union is far more capable of accomplishing.  The EU requires legal and political changes, and enforces its standards with some rigor. The organization can apply sanctions to enforce its rules even after a country enters: the EU recently suspended some aid programs in Bulgaria because of persistent government corruption.  If NATO has any value, it is as a military alliance, not an international variant of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

But lack of purpose has not stopped NATO from continuing to expand to states of decreasing geopolitical relevance to America. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Central and Eastern Europe rushed in. Then came the Baltic nations, bringing the alliance to within 60 miles of St. Petersburg. Balkans states—Albania and Croatia—received their invitations last year, with Macedonia delayed only because of an esoteric name dispute with NATO member Greece.  “Once Albania and Croatia formally join NATO, their people can know if any nation threatens their security, every member of our alliance will be at their side,” exulted President George W. Bush.  And the Bush administration continues to push, despite strong opposition from several of core NATO members, for inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine.

What is the West, let alone the U.S., achieving with this willy-nilly expansion? 

Officials talk much of stability and democracy, while the Washington Post editorializes about “defending the independence of Russia’s democratic neighbors.” Gary Schmitt and Mauro De Lorenzo of the American Enterprise Institute worry about “international law, energy security, NATO’s future, and America’s credibility when it comes to supporting new democracies.” Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman wrote an article hyper-ventilating over Moscow’s “challenge to the political order and values at the heart of the continent.” 

No one, however, seems to talk about security—at least for the U.S. or Western Europe. They don’t because they can’t.

Six decades ago Washington safeguarded a critical continent, which it had just helped save from Nazi German domination, from what it feared would be communist Soviet aggression.  Today the U.S. is promiscuously distributing security guarantees to small countries, many of which have more to fear from domestic instability than foreign attack, and none of which were ever seen as impinging upon American security.  Given today’s criteria, or lack of criteria, for membership, is there any nation not qualified to join?  Why not Armenia, Nepal, Chad, and Indonesia?  Perhaps Tonga, Brazil, and Grenada?  Or even Russia, as Victoria Nuland, America’s permanent representative to NATO, proposed two years ago?

Despite persistent instability and rebellion in Central and Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War, Washington sensibly refused to consider going to war to liberate East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland again. When Americans spoke of “Captive Nations,” they typically meant the three Baltic states, but never advocated bombing Moscow to rescue the prisoners.  And no one spent much time worrying about Croatia being part of Yugoslavia, Albania being the lone Maoist outpost in Europe, or Georgia and Ukraine being part of the Soviet Union as well as Tsarist Russia. Freedom in all of these cases was recognized to be a matter of human sympathy, not national interest.

In fact, remaining the dominant member of NATO makes no sense for the U.S. at any level.  First, America remains a global colossus, accounting for roughly half of the globe’s military outlays. It faces no hegemonic rivals, no alternative powers which can compete let along defeat Washington—even in their own neighborhoods.

China comes in at number two in military expenditures, but starts from a far smaller base and is focused on deterring U.S. intervention along its borders. Russia is only number three, and has lost any pretense of global reach, other than with its nuclear arsenal. It will take far more than Moscow’s estimated outlays of $70 billion annually, roughly one-seventh America’s current non-Afghanistan/Iraq military expenditures, to enable it to rival Washington. There is but one global hegemon, and it is the U.S.

Second, Russia is capable of dominating neither Asia nor Europe.  China is the emerging superpower-to-be, while the European Union members already outspend and outbuild Russia militarily.  Despite the Putin government’s professed power pretensions, Russia’s conventional military has little reach beyond its immediate border. And that isn’t likely to change much in the future; indeed, with the decline in oil prices and crash in stock market values, Moscow is weaker today than during its August war with Georgia. With a GDP and population greater even than that of America, the Europeans can outmatch Russia no matter how much more Moscow devotes to its military.

Third, NATO expansion in any direction multiplies liabilities rather than assets.  While the original alliance members spend as little as possible on the military, Britain and France, at least, nevertheless maintain competent and well-equipped militaries. None of the newer NATO members are able to defend themselves let alone make a meaningful combat commitment overseas. But all have a variety of internal weaknesses, border disputes, and international conflicts. Bringing countries like Albania, Georgia, and Macedonia into the alliance creates ever new risks with no corresponding advantages.

The most serious of those dangers is confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.  During the Cold War Washington understood that defense guarantees and troop deployments as part of a military alliance meant a willingness to go to war. The potential of escalation to nuclear weapons constantly pressed both sides to back away from sometimes superheated rhetoric. Flashpoints such as Berlin and Cuba were so feared because the stakes were recognized as being so high.

The end of the Cold War seemed to eliminate the frightening prospect of a conflict going nuclear out of mistake or desperation. But the August battle in the Caucasus resurrected that possibility.  In September, President George W. Bush announced:  “It’s important for the people of Lithuania to know that when the United States makes a commitment … we mean it.” Including trading Washington and New York for Vilnius and Kaunas, or Tbilisi and Kutaisi?

Indeed, foolishly expanding the alliance to Russia’s border helped create the crisis with Moscow.  Vladimir Putin may be ruthless and authoritarian, but the Russian public supports him for reasons that Western policymakers cannot dismiss. Although the Bush I administration promised not to expand NATO in return for a peaceful Soviet retreat from Central and Eastern Europe, the Clinton administration rapidly extended the quintessential anti-Soviet alliance up to Russia’s borders. The war against and subsequent dismemberment of Serbia similarly ignored Moscow’s traditional security interests, treating the recently demoted superpower as if it was of no account.

To most Russians extending NATO to former constituent republics of the Soviet Union, into the Balkans, and even to territories long part of imperial Russia—and ever further from traditional Western security interests—looked more than a little like a conscious policy of encirclement.  Telling Russians that NATO had nothing to do with their country as the alliance leapfrogged to their border suggested that Westerners believed Russians to be fools, which they most assuredly are not.  Talk of adding Georgia and Ukraine gave Moscow further evidence of the West’s presumed malign intentions.

Yet expanding NATO, with its promise of collective defense, isn’t enough for some analysts.  Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation writes: “The United States may need to give special security guarantees to Poland and the Baltic and other NATO states in the region.” It sounds like the military equivalent of “double secret probation” in the movie Animal House.

It’s time for a NATO rethink.

The alliance is a means, not an end. And NATO’s end has been fulfilled. Europe has recovered from the horrors of World War II; west and east have reunited; the continent is capable of fielding any size and quality of military force that it desires. American guarantees and forces are not needed to prevent its subjugation by outside forces, whether from Russia or, even more implausibly, some other hostile state.

However, NATO is ill-suited to transform itself to meet other objectives. It is, at base, a military alliance—no one needs a second European Union.  Senators Graham and Lieberman recognize that the organization has no other serious purpose when they called for “reinvigorating NATO as a military alliance, not just a political one.” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski made a similar point after the Russo-Georgian War: “NATO needs to recover its role, not just as an alliance but as a military organization.”

After six decades, however, it should be obvious that there is no real support among the most important European powers for such an effort. And there’s no reason for Washington to continue filling the gap.

Whether Georgia or Ukraine, Albania or Croatia, or even Estonia or Poland, should enjoy the benefit of a multilateral shield against possible Russian revanchism is a matter for the rest of Europe to decide. In the first instance, these countries should do more themselves.  For instance, neither Poland nor Ukraine need be military pushovers. Warsaw has announced a multi-billion dollar military modernization program and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is pressing his government to increase defense outlays. Georgia needs to look more to protecting its territory than participating in U.S. or NATO missions elsewhere. (It also would help if such nations did not initiate conflict with Russia, as, it has become increasingly obvious, did Tbilisi.)

These countries also should work together to ensure that any aggression by Moscow would be costly, too costly to make it worthwhile.  Similar regional cooperation is occurring among Finland, Norway, and Sweden.  Moreover, the rest of Europe should assess the risk of Russian aggression and the appropriate response. Instability on the periphery of Europe is a far greater worry for Berlin, Paris, London, and Rome than for Washington. It’s time they took over primary responsibility for their continent’s security.

The point is not that the U.S. should be indifferent to the fate of the rest of the world, but that it should become the off-shore balancer rather than the meddler of first resort.  The Europeans have far more at stake in any continental conflict and could spend a lot more on the military to deter aggression and win any war. Let them do so.  Washington should be watchful and wary, ready to help prevent a potential hegemon from gaining control of Eurasia. Which, today, means watching for a power that doesn’t exist. If such a power arises in the near future, it will be China, not Russia. 

Leaving NATO for the Europeans means not second-guessing their defense decisions. Europe is full of talk of doing more militarily. French (and current European Union) President Nicolas Sarkozy blusters about passing the Lisbon Treaty and creating a more robust EU force. Karsten Voigt, who coordinates German-American relations in Berlin, expresses hope for “an equal partnership” in “foreign and security policy.” 

But, in fact, there is little sentiment in Europe to take the steps necessary to create the sort of collective military necessary to be treated as a great power. British Defense Secretary John Hutton warns: “Success in Afghanistan is fast emerging as the test of NATO’s relevance in this new post-cold war age.”  Otherwise, “NATO will risk being irrelevant, a talking shop where process is everything.”  Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations similarly contends, “Afghanistan will be viewed in Washington as a litmus test of whether Europeans should be taken seriously as strategic partners.” If they fail, as they almost certainly will, that’s okay. They have no enthusiasm for Washington’s largely militarized (and thus largely misguided) campaign against terrorism.

Europeans have little more enthusiasm for defending Europe.  EU ministers recently agreed on creating a deployable force of 60,000 EU troops—but only “in the years to come,” whatever that means. The people and politicians of Europe may view the risk of war as too small to warrant devoting more resources to their militaries. They may decide that the Eastern Europeans and beyond are not in real danger or are not worth saving.  That’s fine too.  After six decades of treating Europe as a helpless dependent, Washington should metaphorically kick its child out of the house, leaving the Europeans with full control over—and responsibility for—their own destiny.

Moreover, turning NATO over to Europe would in no way limit formation of future “coalitions of the willing” to cooperate in military expeditions elsewhere.  Recognizing the threat to European commerce posed by increasing piracy caused the EU to send a small naval force to patrol waters off Somalia. Nevertheless, most European states are unlikely to enthusiastically join in real conflicts requiring real forces:  witness the reluctance to send a peacekeeping force to Congo or transform the ceasefire monitoring mission into a peacekeeping operation in Georgia, let alone engage in combat in Afghanistan. At best, the alliance encourages some countries which otherwise wouldn’t participate to mollify Washington by reluctantly send minimal forces hobbled by national caveats. The price to the U.S. of such “help” isn’t worth paying.

American foreign policy, and the institutions created for its advance, should reflect geopolitical circumstances. NATO was created in the aftermath of World War II to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  The alliance has fulfilled its objective. It’s time for Washington and Europe to move on.

What should come next for European security? It’s up to the Europeans. Americans spent the last six decades looking after friends and allies around the world. It’s time they started looking after themselves.
   
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies:  America’s New Global Empire.

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