By Matthew Mai
For over seven decades the United States has had a stake in European geopolitics through its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As a mutual defense alliance, Article Five of the treaty stipulates that if one of the member states is attacked it is considered to be an attack on all of the member states who must then aid the besieged in their defense.
Yet, this form of buck-passing has led the Europeans to grow overly reliant on American power. When Iran seized a British oil tanker last year, half of the United Kingdom’s frigates and destroyers were under repair leading a former minister to conclude that “our Royal Navy is too small to manage our interests around the globe”. This is indicative of a larger issue that has become increasingly publicized in recent years. Out of the 30 member states, 23 do not spend the required two percent of their national GDP on defense.
Unfortunately for them, with the rise of an imperialist power in Beijing and a still weak but more ambitious Russia, the “unipolar moment” of unquestionable American hegemony is over. Accordingly, this alliance deserves to be critically reevaluated.
What Was NATO for?
In 1947, President Truman laid down a fundamental tenet of American Cold War policy by pledging to financially support “free peoples resisting armed subjugation… by outside pressures”. This axiom undergirded the later developed policy of containment which, as described by its author George Kennan, meant a “vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy” in order to reinforce Free Europe along the border of the Iron Curtain through economic and military support.
Containment required both a psychological and a physical deterrent against Soviet attempts to push back the American sphere of influence, particularly in Europe, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean. In 1949 NATO was establishedby 12 countries hailing from both sides of the Atlantic. The architects of the alliance saw the collective defense mechanism in Article Five as providing both forms of deterrence by placing nearly all of Western Europe (along with Greece and Turkey in 1952) under the American nuclear umbrella. Thus, the Soviet Union, while ideologically inclined towards expansion as it perceived hegemonic democratic-capitalism to be an existential threat to its survival, could not risk miscalculating the willingness of the United States to use force in defense of smaller states considered to be within its sphere of influence.
Since the international system of this period was bipolar, it was viewed by both hegemons as a zero-sum game where the amount of power and influence determined who could better protect their interests. A mutual defense alliance acting as a bulwark would allow one hegemon to secure its interests by checking the expansion of the other. This was the world for which NATO was built and for almost fifty years it held the line against the Soviets in Europe.
Becoming an Anachronism
The end of the Cold War left the victor facing a world devoid of any competitors, strategic or otherwise, that presented a significant threat. During the 1990s and early 2000s, NATO was generous in accepting new members, most of whom were former members of the Soviet bloc. Smaller countries like the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Slovakia understandably saw it in their interest to be apart of a mutual defense alliance underwritten by a nuclear superpower. In their view, it was more likely that the other states would have to defend them rather than the other way around.
However, while the United States still remains a power with no equal, the pendulum is swinging towards a multipolar system rather than away from it with the aforementioned rise of China and a more emboldened Russia. In the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO’s assumptions about international politics have been exposed as obsolete while it has also failed to show resolve against Moscow’s aggression.
Psychologically, it has been discredited as a deterrent. When Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 to support a separatist movement, the alliance did nothing to aid a country that it had significant military and diplomatic relations with since 1992 and was under active consideration to become a member state. Similarly, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, none of NATO’s members would intervene to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine which has been an official partner since 1991 and taken progressive steps since then to become a member. Having tested the waters, Russia now has no reason to believe that NATO maintains the same commitment to deterrence in eastern Europe that it did during the Cold War.
Furthermore, checking Russian influence in eastern Europe isn’t directly comparable to countering the Soviet Union. Many perceived Putin’s maneuvers in Georgia or Ukraine to be indicative of a desire to establish a new Russian empire. Yet, from a power politics perspective, Russia’s willingness to assert dominance over countries in its own backyard is not especially nefarious. After World War II, the Soviet Union’s communist bloc served as a buffer zone against the West. Today nearly all of those countries fall under the NATO security umbrella. Just as the United States announced through the Monroe Doctrine that foreign meddling in the Americas would not be tolerated, Russia views NATO expansion into its backyard as an existential threat. Most Americans would likely feel the same if Russian tanks suddenly appeared in Mexico City.
To be sure, Putin frequently exhibits thuggish behavior and harbors animosity towards the West. This, however, does not mean that there are not basic concerns that any Russian leader would want to leave unaddressed. With the decline of material American interests in Europe, most Russians now want to reclaim influence over a region that has historically deferred to its authority.
The bottom line for NATO is that it is not dealing with the same threat that it was at the end of World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union both viewed each other as an existential threat in which survival meant rejecting the idea of indefinite coexistence. This is not the case today as Russia is attempting to defend its backyard in Europe while simultaneously propping up regimes in countries with little strategic value. Facing declining population growth, a dangerously stagnant economy, and having a deceptively weak military, the prospect of Russia becoming a successful expansionist power that would be able to remove America from its perch is unlikely.
NATO Was Built for Another Era
The inaction after Putin’s incursions into George and Crimea were indicative of how the key European members of NATO, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, perceived Russia as a threat. It was okay to allow for violations of sovereignty on the periphery so long as they themselves were not threatened.
Subsequently, since the alliance has proven its unwillingness to defend its partners in Russia’s backyard, it is not inconceivable that Putin decides to annex another neighbor even if it is a NATO country. If Russian tanks rolled into Estonia tomorrow, would the other 29 countries act with the urgency and resolve necessary to defend this tiny eastern European country? Can the United States rely on Germany and France to help restore Estonia’s sovereignty and uphold Article Five? Given that neither country did anything to halt Russian incursions into Georgia or Crimea, the answer is that they would likely look across the Atlantic for help before taking a course of action that does not directly align with their national interests.
But absent a threat like the Soviet Union and the prospect of global communism, a president would be hard-pressed to justify, both morally and politically, sending thousands of Americans to fight and die for Estonia. Empowering the strategic posture of the Continent is no longer a vital interest for the United States. Furthermore, continued Western antagonism will only push Russia and China closer together. Rather than isolating itself as a great power, the United States should be trying to remove incentives for a relationship that Moscow needs more than Beijing in order to better compete with the latter.
Therefore, being a member of NATO is more of a liability than an asset to the United States. It assumes things that are no longer true about the Russian threat and the importance of Europe more broadly. Having not paid the required two percent of GDP for years, 23 out of the 30 member states clearly feel the same way. The alliance took on more obligations after the Cold War and when challenged, lacked the will to back it up. In short, NATO is a relic of the past unsuited for this new era in international politics.
Matthew Mai is a student at Rutgers University studying public policy.