What Purpose Does NATO Serve?

Bruce Thornton,
What U.S. interests does the bloated bureaucracy advance — at our expense?
While the political class obsessed over act two of the House impeachment hearings while normal people ignored them, NATO met in London for an international photo-op and a celebration of the treaty’s 70th anniversary. Nothing of substance happened, and no needed reforms were discussed. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union made NATO irrelevant, no one can say what strategic purpose this bloated bureaucracy serves, nor how––despite being financed mainly by the U.S––it advances U.S. interests and security.

Of course we were treated to the usual claims that “NATO kept the peace” in Europe during the Cold War, along with the other institutions of the “rules-based international order.” This globalist marketing slogan is hard to credit. The postwar Europeans were in no condition to fight each other, because most had neither the matériel nor the morale to fight with. Nor did NATO keep the Soviets out of Europe: that was accomplished by 70,000 American nuclear warheads and 400,000 American troops. The contributions of European pygmy-militaries to American military capability were in the end comparatively minimal.

Then there were the usual petty squabbles, snarking at President Trump, and bombastic rhetoric about the “world’s oldest military alliance.” The issue of European members’ continuing failure to increase their puny military spending was brought up again. Trump-haters, of course, have used his aggressive lobbying of the Europeans on this score to buttress their claims that he is a dangerous geopolitical ignoramus unschooled in the technical and diplomatic knowledge of the foreign policy establishment and the “interagency consensus” mentioned in act one of the House impeachment hearings––finally, a confession that we do indeed have an unaccountable “managerial elite” that thinks it should run foreign policy rather than their boss, the Chief Executive elected by the people, and the Commander in Chief to whom the Constitution has given this authority.

That criticism of Trump for dunning our deadbeat “allies” does not chastise anything new. It didn’t take long for American politicians to start grousing over American taxpayers having to pay for the defense of some of the richest countries in the world. In 1970, Montana Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield wrote a column calling for the “Europeanization” of NATO in order to reduce the costs of American troops stationed in Europe. And European heart-throb Barack Obama in 2016 complained about NATO “free riders.”

The difference now is that Trump means it, and his hectoring has worked to some degree. His threat during the NATO summit in 2018 to withdraw from the treaty if spending didn’t increase concentrated some European minds. Extra defense spending has increased by $140 billion, and 9 of 29 member-states are now meeting the 2% of GDP requirement. But Germany and Italy, the 4th and 8th largest economies in the world, are still not even close to meeting the low-bar 2% requirement. So Trump didn’t let up in London: “It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” he warned.

Once again, we see that Trump’s common-sense foreign policy realism and America-first preferences have been more effective than the foreign-policy establishment’s received wisdom and decrepit globalist paradigms. Even Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, credited Trump for “showing leadership on defense spending.”

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A more interesting bit of drama at the summit came from France’s president Emmanuel Macron. He didn’t back down on some remarks he and Germany’s Angela Merkel made in November that called for a “real, true European army,” as Merkel put it. But Merkel disagreed with Macron when he said NATO was “strategically brain-dead” given Trump’s earlier remarks that the treaty was “obsolete,” and that Europe’s failure to pay its fair share might lead America to leave the treaty. NATO “only works,” Macron elaborated, “if the guarantor of last resort [i.e. the U.S.] functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what Nato is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” Macron also complained about NATO’s failure to do something about fellow member-state Turkey’s drift toward Islamist authoritarianism, adventurism in Syria, and purchase of advanced missiles from NATO enemy Russia. Trump, who has called NATO “obsolete,” surprisingly came to the treaty’s defense in his signature blunt fashion: Macron’s comments were “very insulting” and a “very, very nasty statement essentially to 28 countries.”

Macron no doubt was indulging the European and NeverTrump cliché that Trump is a danger to NATO and can’t be relied on to honor the treaty’s Article 5 provision that an attack on one member-state is an attack on all. But whatever his motives, Macron did put his finger on the central problem with NATO: what are its unifying principles and interests? The answer to that question during the Cold War was famously articulated by NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay: to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” But Soviet communism is “out,” Germany has done a good job of holding itself “down,” in terms of being a military threat. Indeed, it has made pacifism its state religion, which conveniently frees up money for its economy and its welfare state. But despite the absence of those two reasons for NATO, the Americans are still “in,” with about 65,000 servicemen deployed in Europe.

So what security and economic interests does NATO serve today, now that the Soviet Union has disappeared, and our biggest and most dangerous rival is not Russia, but China? Europe is no longer prostrate economically, as it was in 1949, when the Washington Treaty was signed and created NATO. But today eight European countries are among the world’s 20 richest nations. Why can’t they pay, individually or collectively, for their own defense? Why should American taxpayers subsidize countries that when asked which country their country should support in a conflict between the U.S. and Russia, majorities in all but one of 14 countries polled chose “neither”? Or a Europe in which majorities in countries like Germany, France, Spain, The Netherlands, Sweden, and Greece view the U.S. unfavorably?

Nor do European countries behave the way one would expect from allies whose defense we are subsidizing. For all their talk about the threat of Putin and his undermining of NATO, Germany has gone into business with the global villain Putin to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will pump Russian natural gas into Germany, and give Russia more revenues for financing its global adventurism. And six more countries have joined INSTEX, the financial mechanism France, Britain, and Germany created to circumvent American sanctions on Iran, thus weakening Trump’s “maximum pressure” on Iran to force it to the bargaining table over its nuclear weapons program. The next time Europeans chastise America’s alleged human rights sins, remind them that this subversion of our attempts to rein in the world’s worst state supporter of terrorism is taking place even as the mullahs are killing hundreds, more likely, thousands of protestors fighting for the same rights Europeans get to enjoy because the U.S. took the lead in destroying Nazi Germany and Italian fascism.

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The point is not that sovereign nations should not purse their national interests. Rather, the hypocritical rhetoric of multilateral agreements and supranational institutions is predicated on a bankrupt belief in a moralizing internationalism that claims notions like universal human rights unite nations, and so we should collaborate in advancing this shared interest. But the reality is that each nation, being sovereign, ultimately decides its policies based on its interests, particularly its economic interests, as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline does for Germany, and INSTEX hopes to do for the nine countries participating in the program.

Given that truth, we should not be surprised that NATO has degenerated into a way for Europeans to free-ride on our military power even as they pursue interests incompatible or even hostile to our own. That seems to be the only purpose NATO serves, other than giving a multilateral patina to our foreign interventions. But nobody’s fooled anymore about “NATO operations.” The world knows that such operations are predominantly American affairs, with Americans providing the lion’s share of materiél, intelligence, transports, and men, with token contributions from NATO members. For example, during the misbegotten and feckless NATO operation in Lybia in 2011, of the 246 cruise missiles launched, the U.S. fired 218.

Like the UN and other international institutions, NATO lives not because it serves our interests, but because it’s a way for other countries to serve their interests at our expense. Like all bureaucracies not subject to market accountability, it expands to increase its power, not to fulfill its alleged purpose. Now there are 29 member states, some bordering Russia and home to Russian minorities, whose security we supposedly have pledged American lives to defend, a promise most in the event is unlikely to be kept. Does anyone really believe that any NATO member is going to think that Estonia is worth the bones of a single French or German or American trooper? Meanwhile, China continues to expand its military reach and undermine our economy, while we get hysterical over Russia’s lame Facebook efforts to meddle in our election.

So Macron has a point. NATO needs to decide what purpose, beyond its own bureaucratic self-interests, it serves that justifies its existence. And our government needs to explain the same thing to the American voters and taxpayers.

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