NATO may be too successful for its own good. It is assailed by critics, from President Trump down to humble internet pundits. But their critiques rest on false assumptions about the role of NATO, assumptions that, ironically, are enabled by NATO’s success at achieving its actual objectives from an American perspective.
There are two main complaints about NATO. The first is that NATO is full of deadbeats and freeloaders who rely on the United States for defense while spending their own money on domestic programs. Why should Americans spend our tax dollars to defend them while they spend on social programs?
The second is that NATO extends our treaty commitments to nations that are marginal to our actual security. Why should Americans commit to defending, and possibly dying for, Montenegro?
These critiques assume the truth of the propaganda justification for NATO—that it is an alliance of equals for mutual defense. But even during the Cold War this was only partially true, and it is nonsense today. However, this does not mean that NATO is obsolete and that preserving European peace under American hegemony is no longer in our national interest. This becomes clear if we set aside the diplomatic happy-talk about mutual defense and shared partnership, and instead look at NATO through the lenses of power and American national interests.
It is in our interest to have a peaceful, prosperous Europe. The alternative is likely to cost us far more in blood and treasure, as it has in the past. Achieving peace in Europe requires keeping Russia at bay and keeping Germany (the natural continental hegemon) militarily weak. NATO is crucial to these ends, as it is an integral part of securing American military hegemony over the continent. Europe being dependent upon the United States for military protection is another way of saying that the U.S. has power over Europe. This is in our national interest, and recognizing it disarms the current critiques of NATO.
Joe Sylvester, one of my Federalist fellow-contributors asks, “Why can’t economic powerhouses such as Germany provide for their own defense?” They could, of course—but why on earth would we want them to? Keeping a unified Germany disarmed is one of the greatest triumphs of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. It is a feature, not a bug.
Continuing the theme, Sylvester complains that “Keeping U.S. military in Europe continues the vicious cycle of helping NATO nations become totally reliant on American military might.” What he calls a vicious cycle is in fact the peaceful occupation of a pacified Europe, Germany in particular. A unified Germany that is reliant on our military for defense is more in our interests than a Germany with military power concomitant with its wealth, technology and population would be.
He also writes that, “There are no super-power bogeymen lurking in the shadows waiting for the right opportunity to destroy Europe.” And if we want to keep it that way, we will not encourage Germany to rearm. Under the current Chancellor, Germany has sought to dictate economic and immigration policy to the rest of Europe—why would we want Merkel to have military force to back up Germany’s economic and cultural power?
A placid Europe is worth the cost of maintaining our military presence there. And maintaining is all that is necessary. There is no fighting. There is no nation-building. The casualty count is a measure of training accidents. Dominating Europe has kept the peace. Withdrawal will likely lead to conflict as Russia seizes opportunities in the East, and old rivalries and fears flare throughout the continent. This is not just about pity for Poland if it is once again caught between Russian and a rearmed Germany. European nations having to provide for their own defense would lead to a rush of nuclear proliferation. Do we really want a nuclear Netherlands?
The second main criticism of NATO, that expansion has committed the United States to guaranteeing the security of marginal nations, has more merit than the prior complaint. There is reasonable debate to be had over how far NATO should be extended (Turkey, strategically important though it is, may prove a bridge too far in the long run), but this debate should be cognizant of the real purposes of the alliance from the American perspective.
The United States commit to NATO, including the smaller nations, not because preserving them is in itself an essential interest of ours, or because their potential military contributions are essential to our national defense. Rather, we pledge to defend them because doing so precludes the rise of a European superpower (presumably Germany), stabilizes Europe and stymies Russians advances. These are essential interests of the United States as regards Europe. The question is not how many divisions Montenegro has, but whether including it in NATO advances these interests enough to be worth the commitment.
Contrary to what President Trump and other critics believe, our military commitments to NATO and the defense of Europe do not make us suckers. Rather, they have made us the continental hegemon, and this has advanced our essential interests in Europe. The end of the Cold War did not erase our interest in a peaceful Europe with Germany militarily neutered and Russian at bay. This is not about sentimental PR pabulum, it is about power. The current settlement gives the United States tremendous influence over Europe, which we would abandon if we walked away from our defense commitments to that continent.
There are other critiques of NATO that could be made. Paleo-conservatives are inclined to complain about any military commitment abroad, even though their vision of the United States as a non-interventionist commercial republic was obviously illusory by the time Jefferson found it necessary to send forces against Barbary. Alternatively, it could be argued that the American military shield has contributed to the infantilizing of Europe, which may be harmful to us in the long run. And so on.
Foreign policy is complex and often unpredictable. Experts are frequently wrong. But this should not lead us to ignore the fundamental power relations that are in play. The American military preeminence in Europe that NATO enables is not weakness, but strength. Abandoning a position of power to save a few bucks would likely cost us far more in the long run.