NATO is Troubled; Europe is Safe
NATO’s 70th anniversary party last week in Washington featured an address to a joint session of Congress by its Secretary General, a meeting of ministers, and widespread hand-wringing about its future. To NATO’s many cheerleaders in the capital’s foreign policy commentariat, Trump’s hostility, Putin’s threats, and Europe’s limited defense spending have thrust NATO into crisis, posing a severe threat to European security, and by extension, U.S. security.
That prevailing view, we are happy to say, is hysterical. It confuses NATO’s health with Europe’s security and pretends that U.S. and European interest are identical. NATO is unwell, but not in crisis. And Europe remains historically safe—safe enough that it does not really need an American-led alliance to defend it. If the United States did less in NATO, perhaps Europe, through the European Union, might do more to develop into another powerful, liberal actor in international affairs, lessening U.S. burdens.
The panic among self-proclaimed Atlanticists is hard to exaggerate. For example, in a new report published by Harvard’s Kennedy School, Ambassadors Douglas Lute and Nicholas Burns warn that NATO’s challenges, the greatest of which is Donald Trump, “represent the most severe crisis in the security environment in Europe since the end of the Cold War and perhaps ever.” Considering European history, that’s as alarmist as you can get (perhaps). But those concerns reflect a bipartisan consensus that considers NATO health essential to European security.
It is true that without the U.S. military, NATO would have serious problems fighting even a medium-sized war today. Most of those problems are unavoidable; no alliance that relies on consensus among 29 states to act can act on much. Others are a choice. Europe has been slowly demilitarizing since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Force levels have shrunk for years. Few members, beyond France, the United Kingdom and Germany, offer useful military capability, and even those leading states cannot deploy quickly without U.S. help. Germany admits of a “dramatic” problem in military readiness.
Expansion is compounding these problems. You may not have noticed, but the U.S. Senate in 2017 supported the accession of Montenegro, a state with about 2,000 people under arms, by a margin of 97-2, after what was, at best, a modicum of debate. Recently, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, reminded us that “NATO Allies have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of the Alliance.” Georgia is about the worst imaginable ally to add: it has little capability to offer, Russian troops on its territory, and relatedly a recent history of losing a war to Russia.
Given these issues, NATO’s political health is surprisingly good. Recent dips in approval notwithstanding, majorities in the major states, including this one, support the alliance, though many Europeans are shaky on actually using their own forces to defend it. Political leaders are more enthusiastic. Even Trump has lately switched from knocking the alliance to taking credit for members’ pledges to spend more—never mind that they are largely reactions to Russian actions and probably won’t be realized. And for all his huffing and puffing, he has done nothing to remove any number of 60,000 U.S. troops in Europe, or end the Obama administration’s “European Deterrence Initiative.” European deterrence was already NATO’s job.
NATO retains support without taking its military commitments seriously because Europe is historically secure. Interstate war is unthinkable and civil war confined to fringes. Immigration is an issue, but not a traditional security threat that NATO can fix. NATO allies like Poland and Hungary have turned away from liberalism, and Turkey is effectively a dictatorship that has helped destabilize Syria, but none that directly threatens the rest of Europe.
The only real threat to Europe is Russia, essentially a gas station with nuclear weapons and some talented hackers, which poses little threat beyond its very near abroad. Russia has about 900,000 active duty soldiers, far less than non-U.S. NATO forces in Europe. It spends about $63 billion on defense, which is substantially less than what the Pentagon spends just on research and developing new capabilities, and about 45 percent what the major European powers— France, Germany and the United Kingdom—spend. Europe, with a gross domestic product of almost $20 trillion, has the ability to generate far more spending quickly if Russia provokes it. Russia would be foolhardy to do so. Its GDP is smaller than Italy’s, and its shrinking population will struggle to sustain even that.
Russia cannot reclaim its Soviet Empire, whatever its dreams and cybertrouble-making. Nor is there much evidence that it is eager to expand. Its aggression in Ukraine and its 2008 war in Georgia show that it is opportunistic but eager to avoid provoking rivals with real capability and nuclear weapons.
To put it starkly, Europe isn’t safe in spite of NATO’s troubles; Europe’s safety invites NATO’s troubles. European powers absorb U.S. lectures about spending, but recognize that their security does not require doing more. Their safety prevents alliance leaders from taking expansion seriously; the logistical demands of actually defending the new dependents can be ignored.
If Europe’s security doesn’t depend on NATO, U.S. security is almost totally unrelated. NATO was a good idea. It worked to allow Europe to rebuild after World War II, keep the Soviet Union at bay, and integrate German power into Europe. But with those goals achieved, NATO’s purpose in Washington gradually shifted. Today, the United States isn’t in NATO to help important but threatened states balance menacing rivals’ power. It is there to prevent allies from cooperating outside U.S. control and thereby ensure U.S. dominance of European security affairs. For all Washington’s complaints about burden sharing—every U.S. administration since Eisenhower’s has complained about it—U.S. leaders reliably work to suppress any glimmer of non-NATO European security cooperation.
What the United States would really like from Europe are monetary contributions to U.S. defense spending. They pay; we run things. Europe, understandably, sees things differently. They are happy to shirk on expenses Americas will cover, but expect what they do spend to translate into commensurate security influence. There is no resolution to this dilemma, because it reflects divergent interests immune to solemn pledges of solidarity.
The status quo isn’t a disaster, but it isn’t good for Americans. We are taking on low-probability but high-consequence risks for no obvious benefit, costing ourselves diplomatically in relations with Russia and maintaining a somewhat larger military than we need at considerable expense. In the long term, we are potentially inhibiting the development of a powerful ally in world affairs in the form of the European Union.
That’s not a crisis, but it is foolish enough that we should stop. Washington should try doing less in NATO. We would save some money, boss Europeans around less, encourage European cooperation as Europe, and then maybe shed more of our self-assigned hegemonic burdens.