Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Of Course NATO is Obsolete

Trump was smarter when he was ignorant. The alliance desperately needs a rethink.

This editorial was published in the March/April issue of The American Conservative. 

Should the United States go to war with Russia to protect Montenegro, a nation of 5,332 square miles and some 620,000 people? Where is Montenegro, anyway?

You can answer the second question by consulting any map of the Balkans, where tiny Montenegro is wedged between Serbia, Bosnia, and Albania. You can answer the first question through a cursory consultation with the logic of national interest. The answer is no.

Yet the United States is bound by treaty to protect Montenegro militarily should Russia or any other nation violate its sovereignty. The fate of Montenegro has absolutely nothing to do with U.S. strategic interests. But the diminutive country resides in a region that has been of crucial cultural and geopolitical interest to Russia for centuries.

It’s the NATO treaty, of course, that requires U.S. protection of Montenegro. Donald Trump kicked up a storm as a presidential campaigner by declaring NATO “obsolete.” After Hillary Clinton retorted that it was “the strongest military alliance in the history of the world,” Trump explained he merely wanted the other nations to pay their fair share in alliance costs and also wanted NATO to do more to fight terrorism.

Later Trump allowed as how he didn’t really think the alliance was obsolete after all. He only said that, he explained, because he didn’t know much about it. But now, he said, he knew a lot more—enough to support the admission of Montenegro into NATO last year.

Trump was smarter when he was ignorant. Of course NATO is obsolete. It was founded as a Cold War defensive alliance to thwart any Western invasion by the Soviet Union, which had positioned some 1.3 million Warsaw Pact troops for such an incursion. NATO was indeed one of the greatest military alliances in world history. With America as its leader, it won the Cold War.

But that was 30 years ago. The Soviet Union is long gone, along with those menacing troops and the strategic threat they posed. The rationale for NATO has evaporated.

And yet it remains. Not only that, but it long since has abandoned its defensive posture and embraced an offensive temperament, moving inexorably eastward in a manifest effort to encircle Russia and remove its influence from territories that had been within its sphere of interest for centuries. Instead of an alliance to prevent war, NATO has become an institution generating tensions and hostilities where none need exist.

William S. Smith of the Catholic University of America noted recent meetings pulled together by NATO’s military committee chairman, a Czech army general named Petr Pavel. His sessions with his counterparts from Ukraine and Georgia, crowed Pavel, were “dedicated to Projecting Stability.” Given that those two nations are crucial to Russia’s sense of national security (and have been for centuries), wrote Smith, stability seems the least likely outcome of those meetings.

Now we have tensions rising in the Mideast between the United States and Turkey, which have competing interests in Syria. Turkey is a NATO member, which made sense in the Cold War as it was well positioned geographically to thwart Soviet expansionism. But now Turkey is developing friendly ties with Russia while snarling at the United States—and abandoning its previous interest in masquerading as a Western nation so it can join the EU. What happens when two NATO nations, from different civilizations, square off against each other?

Trump was right the first time. Those clinging to NATO simply can’t see that the world has changed and now requires new thinking, new geopolitical sensibilities, new alliances. To avoid obsolescence NATO must adjust to these new realities. If it can’t it should be killed off.