The Case Against the Case Against NATO


 Daniel Larison‘s "The Case Against NATO"  makes compelling reading.  Here’s why it’s wrong.

Larison charges:

In the end, the main argument for perpetuating the NATO relic is that it provides the support structure for projecting power into remote parts of the globe where American interests are even less clearly defined. In other words, what once was a purely defensive alliance dedicated to European security now has little to do with either defense or Europe. The Alliance is not only outdated for America’s European allies, who increasingly see no reason to participate in "out-of-area" missions, but also functions as a potential enabler of American involvement in parts of Asia and Africa where no vital American interests are at stake. By keeping NATO in existence, Washington leaves itself open to the temptation to meddle in far-flung parts of the globe, even as it provides the superficial "multilateral" cover to make U.S. military intervention overseas more politically palatable.

I share Larison’s skepticism of the value of many of the post-Cold War military adventures in which the United States has engaged.  But, with the possible exception of the intervention in Kosovo, where Tony Blair shamed Bill Clinton into acting, NATO can’t be blamed for them.   The Alliance had nothing to do with the debacle in Somalia or the invasion and occupation of Iraq.   And, without NATO, we’d still have American troops in Bosnia and would be carrying an even bigger burden in Afghanistan.

Indeed, while the United States has absolute veto power over being dragged into NATO missions it opposes, the opposite isn’t true at all.   When we decide to undertake military action, we’re going to do it with or without the allies on board.   See:  Iraq, 2003.

For that matter, even during the Cold War, it’s too simplistic to say that NATO was "a purely defensive alliance dedicated to European security."  Yes, Article 5 and, especially, the basing of American soldiers in Germany and elsewhere served as a "trip wire" to ensure our action in the case of a Soviet attack.   But our primary motivation was our own security, not selfless sacrifice for the love of our European cousins.  Yes, we were there to protect Western Europe.  But we were drawing the line on the limits of Soviet influence.

NATO’s premise from the very beginning was that we were all in this thing together.  And that remains the idea behind the Alliance.   "Out of area" and various mission sets are force planning concepts, not rationales for existence.

Larison continues:

Nine years after September 11, it no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to be asking Canadian and British soldiers, among others, to risk their lives for what has always been an American war in Afghanistan. As much as we can appreciate and honor the support our NATO allies have provided, we shouldn’t drag them into conflicts that have never really been their concern. "Out-of-area" missions will just keep happening again and again as the alliance looks for new conflicts to enter to provide a rationale for its existence. European nations are clearly tired of it, and at present they can’t afford it, either. The need for fiscal retrenchment has been forcing European governments, even the new coalition government in Britain, to make deep cuts in their military budgets.

Afghanistan wasn’t always an American war.  Our European Allies invoked Article 5 for the first time in NATO’s history because they saw the 9/11 attacks as a serious security threat.  Indeed, Islamist terrorism is a much more real threat for Europe than the United States for a variety of historical and geographic reasons.    The problem in sustaining European enthusiasm is twofold.  First, the United States essentially rejected their help at the outset, fearing that international coordination would unnecessarily delay the response.   Second, the mission long ago morphed into something much more vague.    As such, I tend to agree with Larison:  It’s unreasonable to expect the Europeans to stay.

But, no, "out-of-area" was not and is not about finding new conflicts to justify NATO’s existence.   It was simply a recognition that, given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the absorption of a goodly portion of the Warsaw Pact into NATO, the likeliest security threats were outside Europe.   The justification for the continued existence of a decades-old alliance was that it simply made sense for the West to continue working together to achieve our shared interests.

As to whether Europe can "afford it," however, I must strongly disagree.   As Julian Lindley-French continually reminds us, the European members of NATO have 127 percent America’s GDP and only 27 percent of our military budget.   Let’s concede that perhaps our spending is excessive.   Still, it’s difficult to argue that the Europeans can’t "afford" to spend a measly 2 percent of GDP on their own security.   But, again, Larison’s right that justifying devoting substantial resources to fixing Afghanistan is politically unfeasible at this juncture.

Making NATO into a political club of democracies in good standing is also no solution to the Alliance’s obsolescence. As we saw in the war in Georgia two years ago, proposed expansion of NATO has been more of a threat to European peace and security than dissolving it. Once again, this is something that most European governments understood at the time, and which Washington refused to see.

The counter-argument to this is that the problem in Georgia was not the proposed expansion of NATO but rather the lack of it.   Would Russia have invaded the sovereign territory of a NATO Ally, risking military retaliation from the West, over its rather meager interests in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?  It’s unknowable but I rather doubt it.

My objection to NATO expansion isn’t so much that doing so annoys Russia but rather that the prospective new members would make it even harder for NATO to do its business.  Ukraine and Georgia are not Alliance-ready militaries.  More importantly, it’s not at all clear that they share some fundamental Western values.   But they might be ready at some point.   So might Macedonia, if we can get over the impasse regarding their name.   And there’s always our non-Atlantic partners in Australia and New Zealand.

But, again, the rationale for NATO expansion wasn’t the avoidance of obsolescence but rather the fulfillment of  a purpose as old as the Alliance:  A Europe whole and free.  President George H.W. Bush explained this at his historic speech at the Rheingoldhalle in May 1989:

We must recall that the generation coming into its own in America and Western Europe is heir to gifts greater than those bestowed to any generation in history: peace, freedom, and prosperity. This inheritance is possible because 40 years ago the nations of the West joined in that noble, common cause called NATO. And first, there was the vision, the concept of free peoples in North America and Europe working to protect their values. And second, there was the practical sharing of risks and burdens, and a realistic recognition of Soviet expansionism. And finally, there was the determination to look beyond old animosities. The NATO alliance did nothing less than provide a way for Western Europe to heal centuries-old rivalries, to begin an era of reconciliation and restoration. It has been, in fact, a second Renaissance of Europe.


For 40 years, the seeds of democracy in Eastern Europe lay dormant, buried under the frozen tundra of the Cold War. And for 40 years, the world has waited for the Cold War to end. And decade after decade, time after time, the flowering human spirit withered from the chill of conflict and oppression; and again, the world waited. But the passion for freedom cannot be denied forever. The world has waited long enough. The time is right. Let Europe be whole and free.

To the founders of the alliance, this aspiration was a distant dream, and now it’s the new mission of NATO. If ancient rivals like Britain and France, or France and Germany, can reconcile, then why not the nations of the East and West? In the East, brave men and women are showing us the way. Look at Poland, where Solidarity, Solidarnosc, and the Catholic Church have won legal status. The forces of freedom are putting the Soviet status quo on the defensive. And in the West, we have succeeded because we’ve been faithful to our values and our vision. And on the other side of the rusting Iron Curtain, their vision failed.

The Cold War began with the division of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole.

We had a group of countries cut off from the West through no fault of their own — indeed, some would say our fault — for decades that we were trying to get back into the fold.  The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were admitted to the Alliance ten years after Bush’s speech.  Another nine have joined since.   Their addition didn’t serve to justify NATO’s existence but rather to allow them to flourish without fear of Russian domination.   It’s ability to provide that assurance is what justifies NATO’s existence.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

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