NATO is an Institutional Dinosaur

August 25, 2016

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to the fifth installment in our new series, “Course Correction,” which features adapted articles from the Cato Institute’s recently released book, Our Foreign Policy Choices: Rethinking America’s Global Role. The articles in this series challenge the existing bipartisan foreign policy consensus and offer a different path.


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has managed to gain unprecedented attention for stating in his usual flamboyant fashion something that many respected foreign policy analysts have maintained for years: that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an obsolete security arrangement created in a vastly different era to meet an entirely different security situation. Yet NATO partisans typically act as though the date on the calendar reads 1950 instead of 2016. They see Russia as nearly identical to the Soviet Union at the zenith of its military power and global ideological influence and regard democratic Europe as a helpless protectorate. Today, however, Russia is little more than a regional actor with limited ability to project power. And far from helpless, Europe’s democratic nations have robust economies. As long as they continue to rely on America’s military and its security guarantees, they will not divert financial resources from their preferred domestic welfare priorities to national defense.

A striking feature of analysts who echo former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s contention that the United States is the “indispensable nation” is the bland assumption that America must take primary (and often exclusive) responsibility for the defense of other regions. One popular proposal is to reverse the post–Cold War drawdown of U.S. forces stationed in Europe. Advocates also typically want to pre-position large quantities of sophisticated weaponry in the Baltic republics and along other points on Russia’s western frontier so that the American military can ride to the rescue if Moscow engages in threatening behavior.

The notion of the United States as the indispensable nation is a manifestation of national narcissism that is especially pernicious with respect to Europe. The European Union now has both a population and an economy larger than the United States. Equally pertinent, the European Union has three times the population and a gross domestic product (GDP) some ten times that of Russia — the principal security concern of those countries. Even post-Brexit, that impressive strength will be diminished just modestly. Clearly, the European Union is capable of building whatever defenses might be necessary to deter Russian aggression — even granting the questionable assumption that Moscow harbors large-scale expansionist ambitions instead of just seeking to preserve a limited security zone along its borders. The European nations have not done more to counter Russia because it has been easier for them to free-ride on America’s security efforts.

The degree of allied free riding is breathtaking. At the NATO summit in 2006, the members committed to spending a minimum of two percent of GDP on the military and 20 percent of that spending on major equipment, including related research and development. But only the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia met that commitment prior to 2015 (and Greece did so only because of a perceived threat from fellow NATO member Turkey and a collapsing GDP).  Moreover, only the United States, Britain, and Poland met both spending mandates in 2015. Several major NATO powers, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, have spending levels far below the 2 percent threshold. By comparison, the U.S. military’s budget exceeds four percent of its GDP.

U.S. concern about a lack of NATO burden sharing is nothing new. In late 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned that the United States might have to conduct an “agonizing reappraisal” of Washington’s European security commitment if the allies didn’t make a more serious effort. But Washington’s frustration has become more noticeable in the years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. U.S. military spending nearly doubled during the following decade, whereas the already anemic outlays of NATO’s European members continued the downward trajectory that began with the end of the Cold War.

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in February 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned his European counterparts that they must step up their commitment to the alliance or watch it become irrelevant. Declining European defense budgets, he emphasized, are “not sustainable. Our alliance can endure only as long as we are willing to fight for it, and invest in it.” Rebalancing NATO’s “burden-sharing and capabilities,” Hagel stressed, “is mandatory — not elective.” His tone was firm: “America’s contributions in NATO remain starkly disproportionate, so adjustments in the U.S. defense budget cannot become an excuse for further cuts in European defense spending.”

Hagel’s warning did little more than inspire yawns. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of secessionist forces in eastern Ukraine, however, have generated greater agitation among NATO’s European members. The decision at the July 2016 NATO summit to station four battalions in the Baltic republics and Poland may have had more symbolic than actual military importance, but it did at least hint at greater seriousness.

Yet even in Eastern Europe, military exertions remain quite modest. Warsaw’s defense budget just now reached the two percent level that it promised following the 2006 summit — some ten years ago. A great deal of self-congratulatory fanfare accompanied Lithuania’s announcement that it was increasing its military spending by nearly one-third for 2016. However, that change would barely bring the country’s military expenditures up to 1.4 percent of GDP — still far below the two percent pledge. The reality is that for all the professed concern about possible Russian aggression, political leaders in Europe show few signs they are willing to back up their rhetoric with meaningful action.

It is time for the United States finally to conduct Dulles’s agonizing reappraisal. The only way to change the long-standing, frustrating dynamic is for the United States to make clear by actions — not just words — that it will no longer tolerate free riding on America’s military posture. That means, at the very least, gradually withdrawing all U.S. ground forces from Europe and drastically downsizing the presence of air and naval forces. It also means ending Washington’s insistence on U.S. domination of collective defense efforts through its NATO leadership. Indeed, the United States needs to abandon its myopic opposition to the European Union developing an independent security capability.

Policymakers need to take a hard look at NATO for two other reasons. First, allies are supposed to enhance America’s security, but recent additions to NATO have done the opposite. Most of the newer members fall into two categories — the irrelevant and the dangerous. In the former category are countries like Montenegro, with a tiny population and economy and a minuscule military. How Montenegro is supposed to help the United States in the event of a military crisis is truly a mystery.

But at least Montenegro has few enemies and no great power enemies. The same cannot be said of the three Baltic republics, which are on bad terms with Russia. The only thing worse than committing the United States to defend a small, weak, largely useless ally is doing so when that ally is highly vulnerable to another major power. Yet that is what Washington has foolishly done with the Baltic republics. RAND analysts conclude that a concerted Russian attack would overrun the Baltic states in about 60 hours. That would leave the United States (as NATO’s leader) with an ugly choice between a humiliating capitulation or a perilous escalation.

Worse, hawks in the United States advocate making defense commitments to Georgia and Ukraine, which are even more sensitive geographic locales to Russia. Alliances with such client states are perfect transmission belts to transform a local, limited conflict into a global showdown between nuclear-armed powers.

Second, although the United States likes to portray NATO as an alliance of liberal democracies, the reality is now murkier. There are disturbingly authoritarian trends in several NATO countries. Those trends are most pronounced in Turkey, which in the aftermath of July’s abortive military coup has become a barely disguised dictatorship under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  But authoritarian developments have also taken place in Hungary and to a lesser, but still worrisome, extent in Poland, where elected leaders are now cracking down on political opponents and undermining democratic institutions. Does America really want to risk its security to protect such allies, especially when it purports to lead an alliance of enlightened democracies?

The world has changed a great deal since the stark days of the early Cold War when Washington felt compelled to defend a weak, demoralized democratic Europe from a powerful, menacing totalitarian adversary. It is long past time for European countries to take responsibility for their own defense — and for the overall security of their region. U.S. leaders should move beyond the usual futile rhetorical quest for burden sharing and take substantive steps toward burden shifting. Those steps must include reducing America’s military presence in the region, especially ground forces, and preventing any further ill-considered expansion of the alliance.

But those are only the necessary first steps. At a more basic level, the United States needs to consider whether the Article 5 provision that an attack on one NATO member constitutes an attack on all really serves America’s best interests any longer. Incurring risks, even grave risks, to protect a democratic and economic power center from a rapacious totalitarian adversary was one thing. To incur similar risks to protect marginal client states along the border of a second-tier regional power (which is today’s Russia) is quite another.  The justification for the latter is far less compelling.

Not only should policymakers revisit the wisdom of the Article 5 obligation, they need to consider whether American interests are best served by the United States remaining in the alliance at all. No foreign policy institution is sacred or permanent. NATO has had a very long run — nearly seven decades.  It emerged victorious in the Cold War, and there is a compelling argument that it should have been given a dignified retirement on that occasion. It is time to rectify that error and promptly begin the multi-year process of transferring security responsibilities for the European region to a Europeans-only organization. That would prepare the way for a U.S. withdrawal from NATO if future American leaders decide such a step is appropriate.


Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.  He is the author of ten books and the contributing editor of ten books on international affairs, including four on NATO.  

Image: NATO

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9 thoughts on “NATO is an Institutional Dinosaur

  1. Excellent article on an important topic. Only suggestion would be to address th actual histoty of NATO since the end ofthe Cold War. In th 1990’s there was a notion that NATO would be part of a security system from Vancouver to Vladivostok and would include Russia as a partner, if not a member, NATO undertook peace enforcement operations, in one case with Russia as a partner. Then it took on overt military intervention and national building in Kosovo followed by Afghanistan. In this case it ceased to be a defensive alliance and became an instrument managing regional stability outside of the traditional area of NATO interests. Many Partnership for Peace states made commitments to NATO operations and US-led coalitions on th eassumption that such actions woulkd bring NATO mmembership and enhanced national security. The current NATO narrative which goes from Fulda Gap to Crimea and ignores the quarter decade in between make it impossible to understand th NATO dilemma. How about a history of NATO expansion, comparing first, second, and third waves of admissions and what the exact assumptions were about the overall context of Euro-Atlantic security in each case.

    1. Your so-called “traditional NATO interest” simply expanded to include the eastern European states that were viciously invaded and occupied and violently suppressed by the Soviets both during and after World War Two (many seem ignorant of the fact that World War Two began with the joint invasion and occupation of Poland by both Hitler and Stalin in September 1939).

      That the Poles and the three small Baltic states were not interested in remaining within the not-so-tender mercies of their centuries-long invaders the Russians is simply a logical expansion. They have a lot of skin in the game being on the Russian border. And, two of that group of four nations are currently spending greater than the 2% of GDP NATO spending guideline.

      The Russian apologists like to say that the Russians are fearful of an invasion by NATO, and so demand a 19th century “sphere of influence” to serve as a demilitarized safe border. Of course, the Russians were never invaded by the three Baltic states or Poland, and the two European states that DID invade Russia were Germany and France. NATO actually restrains both Germany and France, and there is nothing in the NATO treaty or in the actual administration of NATO that is in any way related to offensive operations against Russia. Like everything else that is part of the long-standing Russian disinformation campaign, it is simply a lie that is told often enough that some people are duped into believing that the Russians are somehow an aggrieved party and that the other European states not under their thumb are hopelessly corrupt, venal, and bent on building an empire towards the east.

      1. And in June 1940 the USSR invaded Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

        However, are these states acting as if they thought a Russian invasion was imminent?

        With a population of 321,500,000 the US has an active/reserve military of 2,500,000 or .008% of our population.

        With a population of 1,300,000 Estonia has an active/reserve military of 63,500 or .005% of their population.

        With a population of 2,000,000 Latvia has and active/reserve military of 24,000 or .012% of their population.

        With a population of 2,900,000 Lithuania has an active/reserve military of 19,000 or .007% of their population.

        If they feel so threatened they should be preparing by training a higher percentage of their populations for military service in defense of what are their homelands, not our.

        To paraphrase Bismark, the Baltic states are not worth the bones of bones of one paratrooper from Iowa.

  2. “It is time for the United States finally to conduct Dulles’s agonizing reappraisal. The only way to change the long-standing, frustrating dynamic is for the United States to make clear by actions — not just words — that it will no longer tolerate free riding on America’s military posture.”….as a German, I can wholeheartedly endorse that statement. Our politicians and military leadership drove our military capabilities against the wall IOT save money. It was very convenient to focus on StabOps and declare Russia our best friend. Now you had all the reasons you needed to reshape/neuter the Armed Forces. And, since its a long standing European tradition the blame the US for everything, the USA mentioned the widening gap, but did nothing to convince the reluctant Europeans that now is the time to act. They actually did the opposite and invested more money in troops and exercises then before, while German politicians griped about the “unnecessary saber-rattling” during Exercise ANAKONDA!! I think it is time for the US to discuss this matter seriously and asked the tough questions…no-holds-barred!!! And then act decisively!

    1. A recent poll in Germany found that 60% of those responding opposed using German military resources to defend Poland or the Baltic States from invasion by Russia.

      1. Exactly!!! Our politician worked hard to de-militarize our nation and neuter the Armed Forces. There is a real danger that NATO turn into a toothless tiger….or at least one with very ill-fitting dentures!!

  3. Couldn’t agree more. Not only are the Europeans free-riding, but they’ve made a national pastime of mocking and deriding America and Americans. To hell with those people. Let them enjoy the warm embrace of Putin.

  4. Leave Europe to the Europeans?

    What might be the outcome 20 years hence?
    The Commonwealth of Europe?
    The Union of Democratic People’s Republics of Europe? (UDPRE lol)

    I believe these next five years; with Brexit and the immigrating hordes; that Europe is going to go full retard. But will it go well or will it go poorly?

    I also believe the UK has already made their move, by proactively surging to removing themselves from the constraints of the continental agreements and requirements and avoiding the issues that will come to a head in these next five years.

    So that begs the question, do we want a hand in molding that future (whether or not through NATO) or will we simply sit back and watch?

    I would rather that we play a hand.

  5. With all of this disparagement of Article 5, let us not forget that the only time it has been invoked was in reaction to the attacks on the United States in 2001. It is true, many NATO members have not fulfilled their pledged spending commitments, but should we be so quick to not keep our own promises to the Baltic states simply because it will be difficult? For better or for worse, NATO is part of the glue that has maintained peace in Europe for more than 60 years. While the author correctly notes that nothing lasts forever, major alterations to the agreement should be undertaken deliberately, not hastily.