Alliances are supposed to deliver peace and protection for their members through the logic of deterrence. The theory is simple: an alliance of nations is stronger than any one of them would be alone. NATO seemed to accomplish this during the Cold War, not least because of the additional deterrent power of America’s nuclear arsenal.
A proposed NATO expansion to new members—Ukraine, Finland, and Sweden—would also seem to promise peace and security. More members means more people, as well as more military and economic resources. This will combine with the contributions of existing members and save the three countries outside the alliance from their present vulnerability. An expanded NATO will make it prohibitively costly for Russia to “pick off” its neighbors when they have friction. The primary evidence in support of this plan is Russia’s recent invasion of non-NATO Ukraine.
But Ukraine has also been made vulnerable because of its bid to join NATO. In other words, during periods of transition, there is instability and risk to merely potential members. Expanding NATO to formerly neutral countries in the face of Russia’s demonstrated willingness to go to war to prevent such expansion seems to undermine the claimed contribution of such expansion to European peace.
In light of these realities, expanding NATO to Finland and Sweden would be a mistake.
A Chain Is as Strong as Its Weakest Link
First, we have some experience in these matters. Earlier NATO expansions added weak countries and also provoked Russia. Between the three of them, the Baltics (added to NATO in 2004) have only a population of 5.5 million. Collectively, their militaries can only field six or so brigades. These tiny nations have no natural defenses vis a vis their Russian neighbor.
Owing to their vulnerability, it is obvious why the Baltic states wanted to be in NATO. It is not so obvious how their membership has enhanced the national security interests of more established members like the U.K., France, Germany, or the United States.
Second, new countries weaken NATO by undermining its unity of purpose. During the Cold War, NATO’s purpose was obvious, and the parties were largely aligned. Since 1991, NATO’s members have taken different approaches on many issues, including relations with the former Soviet Union.
France has sold military equipment to Russia and continues to do so. Germany has become more dependent on Russian energy supplies to the consternation of the United States and other NATO members. Recently, Turkey and Croatia have signaled opposition to the proposed membership applications of Finland and Sweden.
Unlike the Baltics, Finland and Sweden are fairly capable militarily, and each has a defense industry of some repute—but their militaries are small. If their membership leads to Hungary or highly militarized Turkey leaving NATO, this would undermine NATO’s stated goals of collective security and result in a net loss to the alliance’s military power. Like any club, it is not good to have potential new members alienate the existing ones.
America’s Disproportionate Burden
Three, NATO imposes a disproportionate burden on the United States. One purpose of NATO was to employ America’s substantial military power to defend Europe from the threat of the Soviet Union. France and the UK have since joined the nuclear club and can ensure nuclear deterrence to any Russian (or other nation’s) designs against NATO.
NATO’s other purpose was to keep Germany from remilitarizing. As its first secretary Lord Ismay famously observed, NATO’s purpose was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Germany was divided for the entirety of the Cold War; West Germany’s Bundeswehr, while much larger than its forces today, served alongside (and under the watchful eye of) resident British and American forces.
Since the end of the Cold War, the goal of demilitarizing Germany has been achieved in spades. Today, it has a remarkably weak military, in part because it has enjoyed a free ride on American defense guarantees. Given its currently pacifistic and liberal political culture, it’s not so clear a Germany assuming its natural role as one of the leading countries of Europe is something the United States should oppose.
There is a reason, however. One (usually unstated) reason for America’s involvement in NATO, including its continued presence after the Cold War, has been to keep Europe dependent on America for its security. Military dependence on the United States encourages Europeans to be more compliant with other American foreign policy goals. This is the reason why the United States has for many decades only responded with pro forma protests when NATO members have not met their spending obligations. Such weakness serves the goal of U.S. dominance. Of course, this policy is completely at odds with the extravagant rhetoric about NATO’s contributions to American security.
In spite of these claims, such contributions to the United States since the end of the Cold War have been very modest. NATO countries sent only small contingents to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and, in many cases, sent no troops at all or hamstrung them with idiosyncratic rules of engagement.
In spite of their mutual membership in NATO, the United States and much of Europe continue to have significant disputes over trade and environmental policies. The U.S. security umbrella means that Europeans can invest more in social programs and economic development, enhancing their ability to compete with American companies. America’s NATO commitments also mean that we must spend significant borrowed money maintaining a bloated defense complex.
Just as companies can face economies and diseconomies of scale, alliances may be made stronger or weaker if allowed to grow beyond a particular size. The most obvious example is the United Nations, originally sold as a worldwide collective security apparatus, which has, in practice, failed to obtain the kind of moral and practical power of more limited alliances.
Newer and smaller NATO members like the Baltics or Bulgaria can contribute relatively little to Europe’s collective defense, but if they find themselves in trouble with Russia or anyone else outside NATO, they will impose burdens upon the entire alliance. If that happens, as Joe Biden put it, NATO’s mutual defense obligations become a “sacred obligation.”
Under this protocol, the normal political process of deciding to intervene in a particular conflict goes out the window. The automatic quality of these defense obligations does not fully square with the American constitutional requirement of a congressional declaration of war and deprives our country of flexibility.
Europe Can Defend Itself and Will Do So Without American Involvement in NATO
Even if one accepts our deep cultural ties to Europe and the need to prevent the rise of a “continental hegemon,” the claimed necessity of America’s involvement in NATO to defend Europe is a fallacy. It should be clear, whether one thinks Russia is winning or having an extremely tough time in Ukraine, that Russia’s ability to conduct a similar operation against Western Europe is negligible. In other words, Europe can meet its own security needs without American help, whether against Russia or any of the lesser powers in the world.
Much of America’s post-Cold War policy can be explained by the combined force of inertia and a lack of imagination among America’s national security establishment. For them, world history began in 1939, and American history in 1945. In this telling, the world was vindicated by the new era of American dominance, which began in World War II and was then deployed against its former ally, the Soviet Union.
For the managerial class stewards of American foreign policy, previous European history—the centuries of European religious and dynastic wars, our pointless intervention in World War I, our massive industrial expansion permitted by our distance from European wars, and our founders’ warnings about entangling and permanent alliances—have been completely set aside, never to be discussed. The reason is obvious: This longer historical record, both European and American, is an indictment of our continuing interventionist foreign policy beyond the unique conditions of the Cold War.
NATO may be a benefit for small NATO nations, Europeans too cheap to fund their own defense, defense contractors, and fanatical anti-Russians. But it is not so clear what it does for the United States. As I wrote in an earlier piece, “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.”
Our ability to defend ourselves is fully secured by two oceans, a capable military, and an enormous nuclear arsenal. Rather than contributing to our defense, our membership in an expanding NATO will mean more conflict for the United States, and for Europe.