Whither NATO?

WSJ.com – NATO’s Decisive Hour
It’s hard to take the “threat” of an EU military organization seriously when they won’t spend on their own military and contribute little to NATO. It seems pretty clear, though, that any new European defense force will come at the expense of NATO given that most European countries — Britain excepted, if you call them European — spend less than 2% of GDP on defense while the U.S., post-9/11, is over 3.5% and approaching 4%; and we have a much larger economy that grows considerably faster than Europe.

The WSJ article seems to be concerned that NATO might fall apart, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. To remedy Europe’s dependence on the U.S. for defense a minimum level for defense spending could be set to maintain NATO membership. Three percent would be a nice number. It wouldn’t stretch Britain very much — they’re already at 2.9% as I recall — and would push other European countries to take care of their own defense.

Absent a requirement of that sort, I don’t see the sense in maintaining NATO. It increasingly serves its own institutional interests rather than our foreign policy. It’s ill-equipped to fight terrorism and with Germany and Belgium — both of whom readily yield to pressure from France — in the military wing, its interests aren’t likely to converge with those of the United States in the near future. Well, maybe if terrorists take down the Eiffel Tower. Maybe.

NATO is the ultimate coalition of the willing. As an alliance of democracies, it can only exist if its members agree to remain united. If enough European governments persist in setting up a rival, EU-based military organization, there’s little the U.S. can do to salvage the only official linkage structurally binding the West.

This is something that some in Europe realize already, not least the current French president and his foreign minister, and their northern echo chamber, the Belgian government. A rivalry is what they seek. Nobody should have any doubts that their plan to set up an independent European defense organization, with a separate headquarters, aims to effect a trans-Atlantic break up.

But it is worth repeating that this is what is at stake to those who are still hedging their bets as the European Union’s struggles with the plan. Ambassadors from NATO’s 19 members meet in the headquarters in Brussels today to hash this one out, and it would be best if they checked the diplomatic euphemisms at the door. U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who called today’s meeting, started the ball rolling well last week by raising diplomatic eye-brows when he termed the plans for the separate structure, the “most serious threat to the future of NATO.”


Germany is more of a case apart. Its Clintonian Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, continues to be in thrall to his new best friend, Jacques Chirac. But wiser heads in his government who’ve thought long and hard about the meaning of the trans-Atlantic relationship (hint: we mean his foreign minister Joschka Fischer) remain wary of cutting off Europe from the U.S. Now is the time for them to speak.

To be sure, enough governments remain steadfast in their determination to avoid a Western break-up. Italy, Britain and Spain, three of the five largest EU members, as well as many smaller ones, including the vast majority of the East Europeans now joining both NATO and the EU, assure their U.S. counterparts that fears of a break-up will not be realized. Said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at an EU summit late last week, “European defense must complement NATO and by no means be an alternative to NATO.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose recent conciliatory comments toward the EU plan had led to some concern by U.S. officials that he may be about to throw in the towel, also made a strong, reassuring statement: “Nothing whatsoever must put at risk our essential defense guarantees at NATO.”

But let no one in Europe be confused about where we are. Many Americans in the right and left would relish pulling up stakes and “bringing the boys home” from bases in Germany, Italy, Spain, et al. Their satisfaction would not necessarily owe to any ill feeling toward Europe, but more to a national trait that harkens back to the very beginning of the American republic. “‘Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world,” President George Washington warned in his farewell address in 1796. The admonition became one of the prime shapers of the national psyche.

Much as Washington may have been right in his time — as Europe capped a century of dynastic struggles with the carnage of the French Revolution — it is our view that the 21st century would benefit from a U.S. that remained engaged with the world. But Americans will not stay where they are not wanted. As a later American President, Lyndon Johnson, said at another key moment in NATO history, “when a man asks you to leave his house, you don’t argue with him. You take your hat and go.” He was responding to Charles de Gaulle’s demand that NATO leave France.

So Europeans tempted to go it alone militarily should consider long and hard whether they want to inhabit a world where the U.S. has turned truly isolationist after being deserted by its allies. Those who define as “unilateralist” an America that in fact trips over itself to attain U.N. recognition of facts on the ground in Iraq should ask themselves if they would be happier with a recluse giant freed from the counsel of friends.

Washington did set the tone for this country with his warning about permanent alliances and was followed by Jefferson with his admonition that we avoid any “entangling alliances”. Europeans, I think, sometimes forget how reluctant the U.S. was to get involved in World War 2. An expansive U.S. foreign policy is a relatively new phenomenon — since 1945 — and probably wouldn’t have happened at all were it not for communism. Yes, the UN was in existence shortly afterwards, but without a unifying cause such as communism I think it unlikely we would have supported the UN as we did; those entangling alliances, again.

In another vein, Cato suggests that U.S. membership in NATO is not only a waste of resources for the U.S., but harmful to Europe by allowing them to perpetuate their low military spending:

From a military perspective, the case for American withdrawal from NATO seems to have already been made. A number of commentators, including the British historian Paul Johnson, have argued that NATO is an anachronism rendered helpless by distrust and infighting. But there are also compelling economic grounds for American withdrawal. Simply, the American security guarantee perpetuates the continuation of the European welfare states and thus encourages economic sclerosis across the European continent. NATO is not only useless, it’s harmful.

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw western military budgets shrink. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, between 1990 and 1999 the defense expenditure of all European NATO members decreased from 3 percent to 2.3 percent of GNP. American military spending fell from 5.3 percent to 3.1 percent of GNP over the same period.

But spending as a proportion of GNP does not give an accurate picture of the underlying spending disparities. During the 1990s, the U.S. economy grew at a much quicker rate than the major economies of the European Union. Between 1992 and 2001, for example, the German economy grew by 1.45 percent per annum, on average, and the French economy by 1.88 percent. At the same time, the United States experienced an average growth of 3.46 percent per annum. As a result, despite the “decline” in military spending, U.S. military spending actually went up from $277 billion in 1995 to $283 billion in 1999. By contrast, the defense spending of all European members of NATO put together declined from $183 to $174 billion during that same period.

NATO was created specifically to deal with communism and has been flailing about trying to find a mission ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Terrorism, at least as the U.S. wants to approach it, seems to be off the table. Given that terrorism is the single biggest security issue the developed world faces today, it’s fair to ask why we are still in NATO, especially when it doesn’t seem to be serving Europe’s interests either.

Perhaps we need a new standing alliance to fight terrorism with military spending requirements as a condition of membership.

See also here, here, here, here and here.

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