Uncomfortable Questions: Is NATO more trouble than it’s worth?
NATO once served a clear-cut, clear-eyed purpose. It no longer does.
While procrastinating on Twitter, I ran across this tweet, from Marquette University’s Law School, specifically their polling division:
Now, these numbers are specific to Wisconsin, but generally support for using military force to defend NATO allies garners similar numbers across the entire United States.
Until recently- aka until around the time then-candidate Donald Trump started questioning the use of NATO- the famed Article V of the NATO Charter was held as gospel. Article V, of course, is the article that constructs an attack on one member state as an attack on all member states.
When NATO was first established in the 1950s, this rule made sense. In fact, it was critical. There’s no reason for the organization to exist if this rule is not consistently upheld by every member state- and more importantly, by the head of it’s most powerful member, the President of the United States. Which is why the media had a collective freak-out recently when President Trump neglected to offer support for Article V in his speech to NATO heads of state (he later confirmed his support at a press conference with the Prime Minister of Romania).
In the 1950s- and throughout the Cold War- this thinking was necessary. NATO, the thinking went, served as a deterrent to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Mess with one, you mess with the others (including, of course, the United States and its nuclear stockpile). The Soviet Union used the same thinking when establishing the Warsaw Pact.
But this thinking was not necessary because the West was afraid of Russia. It was necessary because the West was afraid of the spread of communism, and wished to contain it.
And contain it the West did. By the 1990s communism was, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, on “the ash heap of history”. The Warsaw Pact dissolved, Russia began to try experimenting with democracy (the lab results on that are so far inconclusive at best), and Western liberalism ran supreme with the United States at it’s head.
(it then ran smack into the 2000s, but that’s for another post)
However, NATO- with it’s troops, tanks and missiles pointed at Moscow- remained. And not only did it remain, but it spread- even after Russia had been promised by the West that NATO would not spread eastward- and by 2004 included former Soviet-bloc (and Warsaw Pact nations) like Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
In the years since the fall of the Cold War, many have thrown around rationales for the continued existence of NATO. Some of these include fighting terrorism and keeping alliances strong. Due to NATO’s Cold War heritage, many Americans- understandably unwilling to follow the incredibly complex and constantly changing world of foreign relations- simply register support for the organization and go about their day, without considering the costs for what their support brings.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we need to turn the lights off at NATO HQ as soon as possible. Indeed, I’m wary of questioning it at all, as the only high-profile person to question NATO’s usefulness recently has been President Trump, who is admittedly not the best messenger when it comes to nuanced policy prescriptions.
But the continued existence of NATO, I argue, is a net-negative. It makes it impossible to make real progress with Russia on almost any issue. Its reasons for existing are murky at best. And when it comes to military spending, the numbers are lopsided at best.
Let’s start with the last one first. Not to echo President Trump, but even a cursory look at NATO’s own website reveals some laughably one-sided spending numbers:
Excluding Montenegro from this list, seeing as they were not members in 2016, the last year financial data is available, there are 28 NATO members. NATO asks that members devote 2% of their GDP to the organization. Pretty low request, pretty understandable.
Except a glance at the chart above reveals that out of the 28 member states, only 5 paid at least 2% in fiscal year 2016.
How many made it at least to 1.5%?
7. Including the 5 who paid at least 2%.
Those who know me know that I’m not exactly opposed to American intervention, and am certainly not opposed to the United States paying more than other countries, either in real dollar amounts or percentages. However, this lopsidedness borders on absurdism. 5/28 meeting the minumum requirement? In any other medium 5/28- about a 17% rate- would be abject failure. And here it’s acceptable?
(I don’t want to focus too much on American politics in this post, but this is reason #5468403 why Trump won; the DC foreign policy establishment, for decades, looked at these numbers and told swing voters to deal with it; sooner or later people were going to get frusturated)
Now, you don’t have to be able to make great deals (sorry) to know when you’re getting ripped off. In any other union, if you don’t pay your dues, there is a punishment. In NATO, there is no punishment. Zero.
Some European countries picked another path. Austria, for example, not only refused to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but has made it a matter of national law- and national pride- to be officially neutral in all things military. No foreign military bases, no foreign military entanglements. Sure, they lose the backing of the US military, but they’re counting on the fact that there probably won’t be a major war in central Europe anytime soon (they’re probably right).
But if countries want to be in NATO, they should pay the price of admission. This is not a radical ask, and it is rather shocking that it took this long for the issue to come out into the open.
And speaking of getting things out into the open, let’s be straight here: NATO’s modern-day reason for existing is not, has never been, and never will be, fighting terrorism. Ever. A group of Western European nations clustered together- most without a substantial military- is the best tool for fighting terrorism located thousands of miles away in the Middle East?
The idea is silly on its face.
The rebuttal to this, of course, is the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. And this is not inherently a bad rebuttal. After 9/11, Article V was invoked by the United States (the only time it has ever been invoked). And the organization, in response, did a good job fighting the Taliban regime (it is easy to forget, thanks to all the fighting afterwards, but the actual regime fell quite quickly).
But to this rebuttal I say: if you take a broom and, with the solid end of it, whack a nail repeatedly, you’ll eventually, probably, get it all the way into the wood. It won’t really work as well as, I don’t know, a hammer, but ultimately the nail will go in.
But a hammer would have been a lot more effective in the first place. And, like the broom, NATO was effective at fighting terror. How could it not be? It’s a group of the richest, most powerful nations on the planet, led by the United States of America. It better be at least somewhat good at killing.
The fact is, though NATO continuously denies it, it exists for one true reason and one reason only: to serve as a deterrent to Russia. The missiles are still pointed there, the troops are in strategic postitions to deter a Russian invasion. Everyone knows this. That’s why the question I linked to above was asked. They didn’t ask “if conflict with Iran occurs”. They asked about Russia.
Which presents a bit of a problem for the West’s way of thinking, and strains credulity. The argument for NATO’s existence was to block the spread of world communism. Which was understandable, because communism existed, and the USSR’s official policy was world communism.
The idea of world communism is no longer a threat. So when did NATO’s focus switch from communism to Russia? Was it the 1990s, when Russia could barely manage its own internal affairs, much less present a threat to the victorious West?
Or was it never really about the ideology, and always just about Russia? Because if so, not only does it make the West out to be immensely hypocritical, but it completely undermines NATO’s cause for existing. After all, NATO’s budget is approaching $1 trillion per year. To fight communist world domination, this amount of money could be justified. To fight…Russia? Just Russia? A weakened Russia, far from its superpower height? A weakened Russia no longer trying to spread communist ideology- or really any ideology?
For this, we spend nearly one trillion dollars?
I’m not coming at this from a pro-Russian point of view (those who know me- or those who have had the misfortune of even talking to me- know that I’m an American patriot through-and-through-and-through-and-through). In fact, I’m coming at this from a very pro-American point of view, and from where I’m standing, NATO doesn’t look like a great deal (sorry again) for America.
Even aside from the lopsided financial spending, NATO’s existence continuously thumbs the eye of Russia, our historical opponent, and makes it impossible to do business with them. Allow me an extended, self-serving analogy:
There’s a kid on the playground you don’t get along with. You’ve had disagreements for a long time, so you both antagonize each other. You never fight, but you come close couple times. Eventually due to sheer exhaustion you stop playing. But the other kid doesn’t stop playing. He keeps playing the “I’m not touching you I’m not touching you” game, running around you pointing riiiiight at your head but never actually touching you. And he keeps going for over 20 years. So over time you get annoyed and become a bit aggressive, especially since he’s gotten some of your former friends to join in, all screaming in your ear “I’m not touching you I’m not touching you I’m touching that other kid over there who has nothing to do with you but I’m doing it right next to your head.” So you take a swing at one of them.
Then the kid gets outraged, the principle scolds you, and you get suspended from school.
As I said, self-serving, but it gets my point across. You’re Russia, and the kid is NATO. Only in real life NATO is pointing guns and soldiers and nuclear weapons at you.
This makes dialogue impossible. Has Russia done everything right? Hell no! Has Russia done a lot wrong? Hell yes! Is Russia a dictatorship in some form? Hell yes! Has being a dictatorship stopped the United States from working closely with countries and, I don’t know, selling them $100 billion in weapons? Hell no!
When President Obama tried his “Russian Reset” in 2011, he was flummoxed when it ultimately failed. Now, while Russia shares a large chunk of the blame, we must admit that we do as well. Sure, he said nice things about with them and took selfies with then-President Medvedev, but while he was doing so his country- and his alliance of 27 other countries- had nuclear weapons pointed at Medvedev’s house.
We absolutely should not let Russia off the hook for their misdeeds. But we need to start being honest about our own. And until folks in Washington, DC start being honest with folks in the rest of America- and until those instinctive “Yes I’d be fine with entering World War III due to a Russian incursion into a country I can’t name” poll answer percentages come down, nothing will get better.
In fact, it’ll just get a lot worse.