The old aristocracy was born of battle, a warrior aristocracy. Then the reins were handed off to the bourgeois, the wealthy capitalist class. Today we have an aristocracy of opinion made up of the managerial elite. Their chief credential is their credentials, as well as their having professed the right opinions. Among this class, much of what passes for deep thinking—whether on economics, foreign policy, or anything else—is in fact a repetition of stale conventional wisdom. The managerial elite’s thoughtlessness is never more apparent than in the case of foreign policy.
This week Donald Trump, yet again, has angered and frightened the ruling class, this time by questioning one of its sacred cows: the U.S. commitment to NATO. He questioned why members don’t meet their obligations, and he did so in an abrasive way. He also noted the absurdity of their very publicly expressed fears of Russia, in light of the great amount of hard currency they send Russia’s way in order to buy natural gas. Most important, he asked the ultimate question, “What good is NATO?”
How NATO Began
How did NATO become a sacred cow to the elite? Indeed, it seems to have accrued a greater reputation after the Soviet threat disappeared.
Its origins were sensible. In the wake of World War II, our erstwhile Soviet allies were now as much a threat to European peace as was the enemy we just defeated. Not only did they dominate Eastern Europe in brutal fashion, but they promoted worldwide communist revolution, employing cells and spy networks across the United States, Western Europe, and the rest of the world. Recent history had shown that the weak, fractured nations of Western Europe likely could not resist the Soviet military without an alliance that included an American security guarantee, and the recent war frequently manifested the difficulties of coordinating multinational military action in the absence of standardization and practice. Finally, the U.S. participation in NATO assuaged broader European concerns about German rearmament.
NATO’s existence thus reflected a broad U.S. and Western consensus on “containment.” In 1945, the Soviet Union could not easily be defeated—and the cost to attempt it would have been monumental—but we did have the ability to make sure it would meet a unified front in Western Europe and be parried as a competitor in the Third World.
From 1949-1991, NATO did its job. It accomplished the deterrence mission. Western Europe was at peace and free of Soviet domination, and the enormous cost of the arms race under the constraints of communist economics led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
NATO’s Post-Soviet Evolution and Expansion
NATO was an alliance in search of a mission after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. substantially downsized its military in the aftermath—the so-called peace dividend. Freed of the specter of a Soviet invasion, as well as the pretext of U.S. dominance, former NATO nations proclaimed that a new era had arrived, where NATO’s European members would chart a uniquely European trajectory.
NATO soon found its raison d’etre during the crisis in Yugoslavia. “This is the hour of Europe—not the hour of the Americans. . . . If one problem can be solved by the Europeans, it is the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country and it is not up to the Americans. It is not up to anyone else.” So spoke Jacques Poos, the chair of the EU Foreign Affairs Council. A brutal war nonetheless raged on until 1996. Years of reliance on America’s outsized commitment, as well as national differences in their sympathies regarding the belligerents, led to NATO mostly standing by until America pushed through the Dayton Accords and enforced the peace agreement in 1996.
NATO again set its sights on the former Yugoslav nation of Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999. Having not obtained UN support, and with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright embracing the fashionable concept of “humanitarian wars,” NATO unilaterally attacked Serbia to stop its alleged genocide in Kosovo. Postwar reports mostly determined this was an exaggeration, but NATO had shown its purpose: a military alliance that would do . . . whatever.
Under Yeltsin, Russia was very weak, and it did little more than protest U.S. actions against its ally Serbia. At the same time, nervous former Warsaw Pact states eagerly embraced their identities as liberal democracies and “central European” states and pushed for NATO membership, which was soon granted. Later NATO expanded into the former Soviet space and included the Baltic states.
If the nominal mission of NATO was European security, the only realistic military threat was the Russian Federation. In Russian eyes, however, NATO had gone from being a defensive alliance, which welcomed Russia’s return to normalcy and its embrace of democracy, to a provocative encirclement of the former Soviet space. In spite of their expressions of unease, there was even talk, prior to the 2008 Ossetian War, of extending NATO membership to Ukraine and non-European Georgia.
The problem with this strategy of expansion is two-fold. First, it is logical that Russia would perceive this as a threat. The U.S. has pushed NATO expansion, dropped out of arms treaties, and proposed sending anti-ballistic-missile weapons to Eastern Europe. All of these measures upset the balance.
Second, NATO expansion also creates a particular long term risk to U.S. credibility. With any alliance, there is a chance that an ally might opt out when the costs are too high. When this happens, a nation’s credibility—an important asset—declines in dramatic fashion. The U.S. security guarantee to Vietnam—under the analogous SEATO structure—turned out to be too much to bear. Ignoring this lesson, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the foreign policy establishment concluded, in spite of a smaller military and a larger national debt, that we must honor all of our old commitments, take on new ones, and never revisit them once assumed.
This risky and expensive strategy is called “unipolarity.” It means that only the U.S. should be a superpower, and we must use all our resources to stop anyone from taking our place. While this hubristic strategy satisfies the elite, its true costs (and thus its wisdom, or lack of it) have been masked by the inability, until recently, of anyone to challenge U.S. dominance.
Is it likely that Americans, even after the last two years’ overwrought anti-Russian rhetoric, would be willing to lose thousands (or millions) of soldiers and risk a nuclear war over Estonia or Moldova. Would Americans spare even one life for Taiwan’s territorial integrity? Our countrymen repeatedly have shown their reluctance to be an imperial power—Max Boot’s rhetoric notwithstanding—and instead, after brief intervals, have demanded that our leaders end the brutal and seemingly endless wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Americans rightly demand that any expenditure in blood and treasure be directly tied to our own national security. An alliance system, where none of the allies can do much to relieve our burden, but much to increase our risk, is a dubious one. Accordingly, America’s commitment to an expanding NATO is risky, both in terms of cultivating conflict and by creating commitments that may prove illusory.
NATO’s adversaries have a say in all this. Russia has employed its own diminishing resources adroitly, and its strategy seems chiefly to be a message to those on the fence. Russia’s actions in Georgia, Syria, and Crimea attempt to communicate that the U.S. and NATO will not be there for peripheral allies when the cost is high, and that a studied neutrality might better serve Russia’s neighbors’ (and would-be American allies’) security. This factual reality seems obvious. America’s and NATO’s willingness to fight for nations adjacent to Russia is limited, because the old logic of containing global communism is absent. Russia kicked the hell out of America’s ally Georgia in 2008 when Georgia started a war over its breakaway province of Ossetia, and the United States and everyone else, while muttering protests, did nothing. The same basic sequence of events took place in Crimea in 2014, where Russia’s commitment was fueled by the perennial casus belli of protecting Russian ethnic minorities from a nationalist Ukrainian regime. Finally, in spite of U.S. calls for regime change in Syria, Russia has reinforced its long-term ally.
NATO’s weakness stems not only from dubious grand strategy, but also from its limited practical value. Consider the Libyan Campaign. No longer Europe’s hour, NATO’s member states aligned with one another to persuade the U.S. to join a dubious campaigns, where highfalutin rhetoric of human rights masked realpolitik concerns for things like oil. The NATO tail ended up wagging the American dog, and the U.S. military had to make up for key NATO deficiencies in logistics, electronic warfare, surveillance, and airpower. In the end, the NATO allies worked together and toppled Qaddafi, but the place fell apart, jihadis exploited the ungoverned space, a U.S. ambassador was killed, and the campaign did little to contribute to U.S. or European security interests. A paragon of the managerial class, Hillary Clinton summed it up with her callous retort: “What difference at this point does it make?”
Libya is not the exception. In Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO’s European members repeatedly have shown very meager power projection capabilities. In Afghanistan, where many of our NATO allies assisted our campaign after the 9/11 attacks under NATO’s Article 5, individual NATO participants often operated under wildly different rules of engagement, limiting the effectiveness of various nations’ contingents. While there are common standards across NATO, ties of history and friendship, as well as a common Western culture, it’s not so clear that these factors have ever overcome the divergent abilities of NATO members when called to action.
In short, as it has expanded its membership and its mission, NATO has become less effective. And, to the extent it is effective at all, the United States has always had to do most of the work.
What are the Real Security Interests and Threats the U.S. Faces in the Years Ahead?
Trump is asking the right questions and making the right criticisms. As a successful businessman, and not a credential amateur, he rightly asks, “What’s in it for us?” The answer is not satisfactory. U.S. investment in NATO has provided diminishing returns to the United States after the end of the Cold War, and increasingly functions as an economic subsidy to Western European nations unserious about their own defense.
The main future threats to America’s security come from two sources. One is Islamic terrorism emanating from the Middle East. While there is much to discuss and debate about how that threat is best addressed, NATO will likely have a limited role in any such campaigns, and it has proven almost completely useless at stopping the infiltrations of the mass migration of “military aged males” from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. The other potential threat, chiefly because of its size, strength, sophistication, and increasing nationalism, is China.
NATO presupposes, as if 1945 were frozen in amber, that Russia is the dominant security threat to the world. This is mere habit. Russia is indeed a powerful, nuclear-armed nation, but, like the old Ottoman Empire, it is the sick man of Europe. It has a shrinking population, endemic corruption, and an economy dominated by the export of raw materials. It is feared by many on the left—including left-leaning Western Europe—because it has rejected the liberal democratic model for an authoritarian one. But China is also an authoritarian and nationalist nation, and unlike Russia, it is on the ascent.
In other words, European security is secondary to the high volume threats coming from the Middle East (which the United States can avoid mostly through sound immigration policy) and the high magnitude threats of China in East Asia (which we might be able to manage, but this will require diverting resources we now devote to NATO, as well as greater contributions from China’s neighbors, to balance its power). Shifting our attention to these places requires prioritization, that is, a strategy. This concept—well known to families and businesses, and largely unknown to our managerial elite—is completely absent from the Euro-centric obsession with Russia, the continuation of America’s dominant role in NATO, and the quixotic goal of “unipolarity” more generally.
Instead of evaluating threats appropriately, and deploying resources accordingly, we artificially have kept alive conflict with Russia by expanding NATO and maintaining a dominant role within it. Ordinary common sense shows why this is provocative. Imagine if China entered a military alliance with Mexico or if Russia staged a coup in Canada? The implications are obvious. Just as in the détente era of U.S.-Soviet relations, more moderate rhetoric and gestures of good faith would yield substantially more dividends than our current, hardline approach.
Any alliance should serve the interests of its members. United, two weaker nations may defeat a stronger nation. On the other hand, smaller nations can also drag their more powerful sponsors into conflicts from which the stronger nation has much to lose and little to gain. Conditions change, and our alliances, formal and informal, should change with them, along with how we prioritize one type of alliance over another.
In this respect, we should view the NATO chapter of our nation’s history critically. After all, the rise of National Socialism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union were aberrations in many ways. Europe previously had numerous unideological wars arising from dynastic ambition and the balance of powers. These implicated borders, trade routes, and other matters of little concern to the United States. While the Cold War was a great moral struggle, matters of more remote interest have characterized NATO’s employment since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Our relationship with NATO should be revamped to serve America’s national interests, not the least of which would be diminishing our financial burdens and freeing up our military forces for more significant threats. More broadly, NATO itself, and U.S. membership in it, should be reconsidered. As George Washington recognized in his Farewell Address that while we may have “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies,” that it “is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
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