With his attacks on NATO — he calls it “obsolete” and accuses it of wasting U.S. money — Donald Trump has, if nothing else, reopened a debate about the value of the Atlantic Alliance. There hasn’t been such a discussion since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. Many predicted back then that NATO would expire along with the Warsaw Pact, but that hasn’t happened. In fact, a quarter of a century later, NATO is bigger than ever before and has taken on more missions than ever.
The NATO intervention in Afghanistan, which cost American allies 1,134 dead (compared to 2,381 U.S. fatalities), was NATO’s first out-of-area military operation and the most extensive war the alliance has ever waged.
It was hardly all smooth sailing. I have in the past criticized the cumbersome mechanisms by which NATO fought the conflict. All of the countries involved had “caveats” on what their troops could and could not do, largely designed to shield them from the risks of combat. (The most caveat-free countries were the Anglophone democracies, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.) And all demanded some say in how the war was being fought, even if they contributed little to the overall effort. This meant that a succession of U.S. commanders in Kabul had to devote a substantial part of their time to holding the hands of reluctant allies rather than devoting 100 percent of their energy toward defeating the Taliban. They also had to open up lots of staff posts to member nations, which made the command structure much less functional than it should have been. Moreover, many of the NATO (and non-NATO) countries came so ill-equipped that the U.S. had to devote substantial logistical resources of its own simply to keep them in the field.
Anyone who witnessed NATO operations first-hand came away frustrated with how cumbersome it was to fight a war by committee. And yet few would advocate dissolving NATO. Most concluded, as I did, that the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies was fighting a war without them. Even beyond the out-of-area war-fighting function, there are multiple reasons why NATO still matters.
In the first place, NATO provides a forum outside the UN that can legitimate American-led military interventions. Even when the UN isn’t willing to go along, as in Kosovo, NATO can step forward and provide the kind of multinational support that is increasingly required for effective military action in the modern age. Put another way, the existence of NATO signals to the U.S. public and to the broader world community that the U.S. is not simply a rogue power; it is still the leader of the Free World, and it typically fights either with the concurrence of the Atlantic Alliance or, when that isn’t possible, with the support of at least a substantial number of its members (as was the case in the Iraq War).
Second, the kind of conventional military conflict that NATO was designed to deter — a Red Army invasion of Western Europe — is more of a danger now that at any time since the fall of the Berlin War. Russia under Vladimir Putin has rebuilt its military and has undertaken a series of invasion of its neighbors, notably Georgia and Ukraine. It even annexed Crimea, the first change of European borders by force in the post-World War II era. With the threat of the Russian army looming large once again, NATO provides invaluable bases and resources that make it possible for the U.S. to deter Russia while at the same time deterring China, Iran, North Korea, and fighting ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other dangers.
As retired Admiral Jim Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently noted, even though most European nations don’t spend enough of their budgets on defense, in the aggregate their spending is substantial — amounting to $300 billion a year. “Taken collectively,” Stavridis noted, “it is the second-largest defense budget in the world, second only to America’s nearly $600 billion and more than Russia and China combined.” Thus, the Europeans are hardly free riders — they make a vital contribution to the overall security of the West.
The third reason why NATO matters is that it serves as a powerful bridge between the U.S. and its European allies, and is thus a potent mechanism for keeping the peace in a region that is increasingly turbulent. The risk of conflict in Europe would rise immeasurably if NATO’s Article V — mandating collective self-defense — did not exist because then Putin would conclude that he could invade his neighbors without fear of drawing the U.S. into conflict. Some isolationists might be perfectly fine with a Europe dominated by Moscow, but U.S. security has long dictated that no hostile power can be allowed to dominate any of the vital regions of the world — Europe, the Middle East or East Asia. If any one power could consolidate authority in any of these regions, with so much economic power at its disposal, the security and prosperity of the United States would be directly threatened.
The fourth vital service that NATO provides is to help young democracies mature. Whatever NATO’s military capabilities, its political impact is large and important. Ever since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been incorporating the nations of Eastern Europe; first Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, then Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Rumania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and, most recently, Albania and Croatia. Now Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, and Montenegro aspire to membership — down the road, Ukraine and even Belarus could ask for acceptance as well.
It is no coincidence that the new NATO members are more stable, peaceful, free, and prosperous than they have ever been in their entire history. The European Union, to be sure, played a big role, but getting into the EU is harder than getting into NATO because there are more economic criteria to meet. NATO led the way in incorporating these turbulent lands on the frontier between East and West into the Western orbit and, thus, prevented the kind of turmoil and instability that has gripped the Middle East in recent years.
Some might argue — in fact, Putin does argue — that incorporating Eastern European countries into NATO was unduly provocative toward Russia and sparked Russia’s belligerence toward the West. I beg to differ. There is no real connection between the enlargement of NATO and Russia’s transition from nascent democracy in the 1990s to full-fledged autocracy today. The rise of Putin’s dictatorship was all about internal conditions in Russia. Many Russians welcomed a new strongman after the apparent lawlessness and anarchy of the Yeltsin years, when oligarchs and mafia dons (often categories that overlapped) plundered the state and exploited its resources. Putin promised to restore order and prosperity and, to some extent, delivered, largely thanks to rising oil prices.
NATO has offered him a convenient punching bag — a bogeyman he can conjure up to justify his militarism and autocracy. Like all dictators, he claims to be defending his people from external threats — in his case, largely imaginary threats, since NATO has no plans to invade Russia or overthrow its government.
Does anyone imagine, absent a larger NATO, that Putin would be more respectful of civil liberties or more inclined to allow an effective opposition and free press? Or that he would be more likely to respect his neighbors if fewer of them had joined NATO? Note that the countries that Putin has invaded — Georgia and Ukraine — are not NATO members. Imagine if the Baltic Republics, Poland, Hungary, and others were not NATO members either. Do you suppose that this would make Putin more respectful of their borders or less? The question answers itself to anyone who is not a blind Russophile.
Despite its struggles in Afghanistan, NATO remains more vital than ever — indeed more vital than at any point since 1989. A sign of its vibrancy is how few voices are joining in Trump’s denunciations of the alliance. There was much more anti-NATO sentiment in the 1990s, but, having weathered the post-Cold War crisis, the alliance has proven its worth. We would dismantle it at our very great peril.