No Forever-Guarantee to Europe: Refuting NATO’s Latest Dumb Ideas
When it became evident that Joe Biden had won the U.S. presidency, European officials, NATO bureaucrats, Eurocratic elites, and most other Europeans collectively exhaled in relief. Washington think tanks produced a swarm of papers and webinars featuring the same advocates celebrating the return of the consensus that Americans must forever pay for the continent’s defense.
The Atlantic Council issued a report with 20 grand new ideas which were supposed to help the transatlantic alliance “again capture the public’s imagination.” The injunction to be bold resulted in some truly loopy proposals. Unfortunately, no one addressed the most fundamental problem. Washington remains stuck doing what the Europeans should be doing: organizing the continent’s defense.
One bizarre new thought was to create a bank—we all know who would be expected to provide most of the financing!—to subsidize military spending by those allies which currently lag well behind the two percent of GDP alliance standard. If only Washington provides cheap credit, maybe then they will do a little more.
The authors contend: “an alliance built on collective defense must do more than just come to the defense of its members. It must also, as Article 2 of the Washington Treaty holds, ‘encourage economic collaboration.’ As such, NATO should create its own bank.”
Should the U.S. help the Europeans underwrite high welfare outlays, transportation infrastructure, space exploration, and anything else they set their minds to? European governments should treat defense as an essential duty and military outlays as a necessity. NATO members then should meet their responsibilities by setting priorities, perhaps cutting non-essential outlays, and arranging financing.
Another flawed idea is to transform NATO essentially into NAMPTO, the North Atlantic Mid-Pacific Treaty Organization. That is, turn NATO into as much an anti-China as an anti-Russia organization. As the authors explain: “In the coming decade, NATO should establish itself as the central node of a global network dedicated to countering China’s hostile and malign activities by formalizing an Atlantic-Pacific Partnership (APP).”
However, NATO is at its core a military alliance intended to ensure its members’ security by deterring and winning wars. Beijing threatens no European state militarily. Heck, the People’s Republic of China doesn’t even threaten America—no one imagines a Chinese naval task force heading east to conquer the Hawaiian Islands or California. India along with a handful of states with competing territorial claims in Asian-Pacific waters are militarily vulnerable to the PRC, but none of them fear Russia. Without common enemies or threats, alliance activity makes little sense.
Moreover, Europeans are not going to war with China. Under any circumstances. After all, they don’t even want to arm themselves against Russia, preferring to leave that job to America. And what European population is going to support a military build-up to attack the nation from which they are seeking business investment and purchasing consumer goods?
China’s challenge is primarily economic and political. The U.S. and Europe should cooperate, but their views and interests remain very different, as was highlighted during the Trump years. This is a problem NATO cannot solve.
A really dumb idea is to bring Mexico into the alliance. The reason: to convince Americans they should love paying to protect the feckless Germans, irrelevant Montenegrins, and cheapskate Spanish by motivating “the US Latinx community to become champions of the Alliance.” Seriously.
What enemy does Mexico fear? Certainly not an invasion by Russia! And who imagines Mexican legions showing up in Europe to battle the Moscow’s hordes as they pour forth seeking to overrun Berlin, Paris, and Rome? Finally, what part of Mexico touches the North Atlantic?
Worse is a slightly redone perennial proposal to bring Georgia into NATO. This newest variant would slightly limit America’s defense liability by inviting “Georgia—including the Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region—to join NATO, but only covering the areas outside of the two occupied regions under NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee.”
However, NATO is supposed to be about security for America, not welfare for the rest of the world. How does bringing into the alliance a nation that has never mattered for American security make the U.S. safer? Anyway, exempting occupied areas from the defense guarantee would be mostly cosmetic. Washington would still be adding a country with an ongoing military dispute with nuclear-armed Russia. And in a war with Russia over Georgia, the U.S., not Portugal, Italy, Hungary, or Germany, would do the fighting.
Also bad is the proposal that NATO effectively increase the size of America’s nuclear umbrella. Not only should the U.S. protect nations able to defend themselves, but, explain the authors, “NATO can reduce the dangers inherent in growing Russian reliance on nuclear weapons by warning unequivocally of symmetrical nuclear retaliation for Russian first use. We call this ‘Decisive Response’.”
This discussion demonstrates the desperate need for an effective European nuclear deterrent. Britain and France possess nuclear weapons, but would they do what the U.S. is expected to do—use them even at the risk of their destruction? Extended deterrence is wonderful until it fails. And if it fails Americans will die by the millions.
It isn’t Washington’s place to prescribe the right policy for Europe, but U.S. officials should tell Europe to should begin planning to take responsibility for its own defense, including nuclear. A good start might be Germany developing its own deterrent, or at least contributing toward a European arsenal.
Another bad proposal is to downplay burden-sharing—which, the authors contend, shouldn’t even be discussed in public, lest doing so result in criticism of members over disparities—and drop the two percent of GDP standard for military outlays. Indeed, it turns out, America has little to complain about since its outlays are inflated by spending so much more on so many other military contingencies! As the authors explained: “Unlike most other NATO nations, the United States is a global actor with commitments extending to the Middle East and Indo-Pacific as well as Europe.”
That is, America shouldn’t mind spending a lot to protect Europe. After all, the former also spends money to defend the Middle East, from which Europe gets oil, Asia, with which Europe trades, and Africa, with historic connections to Europe. So Americans should stop complaining about also paying for Europe, whose countries don’t see any need to spend much on their own defense.
How does this make the slightest sense?
Perhaps the worst “new” idea is to launch a new anti-Russia campaign, hyping Moscow as a threat and ignoring the West’s share of blame for deteriorating relations. In a rather hilarious example of self-delusion, the proposal to “ramp up on Russia” predicts: “by pushing back against Russia more forcefully in the near and medium term, allies are more likely to eventually convince Moscow to return to compliance with the rules of the liberal international order and to mutually beneficial cooperation as envisaged under the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act .”
Alas, Moscow did not perceive the previous relationship as mutually beneficial. Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian, nevertheless was not originally hostile toward the West. But the grievances piled up, including NATO’s expansion to a hundred miles from St. Petersburg contra assurances (“lies”) given to Soviet and Russian officials. Moscow’s behavior still was wrong, of course, but no one should have any illusions how Washington policymakers would have reacted if the situation was reversed—with hysteria and little concern for such quaint ideas as “democracy.”
Moreover, allied hypocrisy and sanctimony are unmatched. Russia is said to have engaged in “unchecked adventurism in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan.” What would one call America’s invasion of Iraq, NATO’s attack on Libya, allied support for Saudi and Emirati aggression against Yemen, and the allies’ nearly 20-year campaign in Afghanistan, which collectively have created humanitarian catastrophes many magnitudes greater than Ukraine? And if the Europeans really feared a revived Red Army ready to march to the Atlantic, they would spend a bit more than one or two cents of every Euro on defense.
Finally, new sticks are unlikely to force Moscow’s submission any more than did the last six years’ worth of sticks. A better alternative would be to consider what motivates Russia’s behavior and look for possible compromises, starting with threatened inclusion of Georgia and Russia into NATO.
Some alliance acolytes suggested adding new tasks for the transatlantic alliance: “Bolster NATO as an alliance of free, democratic states; ensure NATO can compete in an era of geoeconomics by protecting allies’ economic security in the midst of rapid technological change and great power competition; rebalance the transatlantic bargain and bolster NATO’s role as the forum for political consultation to ensure common strategies; and put NATO at the center of a global network of democratic alliances and strategic partnerships.”
Uh, what about defending Europe from foreign threats? If that’s still a concern, then NATO should concentrate on it and allow other institutions old and new to handle other issues. If Europe’s security no longer is a concern, then disband the military alliance and decide how best to deal with the other matters.
Finally, better propaganda naturally is on the “new idea” list. Of course! Too many people just don’t know what is good for them: “NATO is vitally important; but unless you work there, or at the Atlantic Council, you wouldn’t necessarily know that.” Thus, one proposal would expand alliance self-promotion. The authors explain: “NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) should reach out beyond its current network to the next generation of voters and leaders who often don’t see themselves as direct beneficiaries of the Alliance in the same way people did at the time of NATO’s founding more than seventy years ago and throughout the Cold War.” Actually, it would be better to reshape the alliance to meet members’ needs, which most importantly means reducing America’s role.
U.S. and European cooperation on a range of military, economic, digital, environmental and social issues benefits all participants. But the world has changed since NATO’s creation. Just as America is expected to handle its own security in its own region, the Europeans, with commensurate economic strength and a larger population than America, should do the same for their continent. Having secured their respective home bases, Americans and Europeans should work together against common security threats. Some of that cooperation should be military, led by a European-led NATO or some other continental defense organization.
Thinking creatively about future security needs obviously is a good idea. However, that should include considering what arrangement would best promote the security of friends on both sides of the Atlantic. The only certain thing is that is not today’s NATO. What it is remains to be discovered.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.