A common purpose once united members of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. But no longer. Individual members now increasingly capture NATO for their own purposes. As a result, the alliance will find it ever harder to bring nations together even when they share interests.
NATO made sense when it was created more than six decades ago. Allies across the Atlantic were united in their commitment to protect war-ravaged Western Europe from Soviet aggression. When the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO had fulfilled its role.
Unfortunately, alliance partisans acted as Public Choice economics would predict: They scrambled to save their jobs and careers. Instead of closing NATO, they looked for new reasons to keep it going.
NATO would expand to the east, adding security burdens that made existing members less safe. And the organization would go "out of area," intervening where members were not threatened. Observed Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.): "Either NATO goes out of area or goes out of business." And no self-respecting politician or bureaucrat ever wants to do the second.
Today the alliance has virtually nothing to do with American security. Russia is but a pale military imitation of the former Soviet Union. The likelihood of a revived Red Army marching on Berlin or Paris is below nonexistent. In fact, Germany and France now are selling military technologies and even weapons to Russia.
Conflict is still possible farther to the east, where Russia and other former Soviet republics bicker over borders, the rights of ethnic Russians, and other leftover disputes. However, Moscow remains able to do little more than beat up on hapless Georgia, which started their 2008 war. A Russian attempt to swallow the Baltic States or Ukraine would be a prescription for disaster. And, truth be told, the U.S. has nothing at stake in such squabbles to warrant confrontation with a nuclear-armed power in a region viewed as vital by the latter.
Georgia is a good example. To bring that nation into NATO would be to admit a massive liability with no corresponding benefit. To be sure, Tbilisi provided troops for Afghanistan and Iraq, but those contributions were marginal, far less than the cost of aid provided by the U.S., let alone the risk of going to war with Russia over issues of no interest to America — most notably, the status of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli apparently launched his attack believing that Washington would back him against Moscow.
Thankfully, NATO stayed out of the Georgian war. But the alliance increasingly has drawn reluctant members into other wars started or promoted by their partners. The idea that going to war should advance the members' collective interest has disappeared.
In 1999 the U.S. found itself at war in the Balkans, a region of no interest to America and almost as irrelevant to leading European powers. Serbia had threatened no NATO country and several alliance members, such as Greece, opposed the conflict. The Clinton administration appeared to view the lack of relevance to U.S. security as a plus, allowing officials to feel good about intervening. But Washington's meddling turned out badly: The new U.S. client state required a long-term American garrison, engaged in ethnic cleansing against Serbs and other minorities, elected a gangster-led government, and remained anathema to a majority of the world's nations.
Washington then squeezed its partners to contribute men and materiel to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both wars turned out to be stupid, especially for Europe, which was a bystander as the Bush administration unleashed the dogs of war.
Iraq never was popular, since many European nations had far more realistic assessments of the disaster-to-come than did the Bush administration. At least Afghanistan initially could be justified in response to September 11. However, a decade later continuing the conflict makes no sense. Today Canada and even stalwart Great Britain are heading for the exit.
Now there is Libya. The war there is not just nonsense, but nonsense on stilts, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham once attacked an opposing philosophy. Libya menaced no NATO member. The humanitarian justification was a dubious claim rather than an established fact, an analogue to George W. Bush's nonexistent WMDs in Iraq. And no one has the least idea when the conflict will end, who will prevail, what Libya ultimately will look like, or how the allies can avoid another endless nation-building commitment. Libya defines unnecessary conflict.
Indeed, four months into a war that was supposed to last "days, not weeks," according to President Barack Obama, NATO members are going at each other with knives and hammers.
Germany abstained on the UN Security Council vote. Poland and Turkey said no thanks from the start. More than half of NATO's 28 members simply did nothing. Only eight contributed militarily, but most of them did little.
For instance, the Dutch government, which now only patrols against the nonexistent Libyan air force, recently rejected a request for ground support operations from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen: "we have to take into consideration our assessment of the situation and our political support for the decision. We are not against air-to-ground bombings, but the Netherlands at the moment is not participating," explained Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen explicitly attacked "mission creep" as the alliance sought to oust Moammar Qaddafi.
Italy refused to contribute forces, then joined in, but now is calling for "an immediate humanitarian suspension of hostilities." Norway will end its small military commitment (of six planes) at the end of July. France, one of the two chief instigators of the conflict, recently opened talks with Qaddafi's government about ending the fighting.
Only the British appear to remain diehards. Defense Minister Liam Fox said that London is prepared for the war to drag on into next year. "We do not lack political resolve, we do not lack military capabilities and we will see our mission through," he told the Royal United Services Institute in London.
About those who do not share his commitment, he complained: "Far too many of our European partners are still trying to get a free ride and they should regard Libya as a wake-up call." Their military contributions, he added, were "sometimes pathetic." Moreover, Tripoli "will take nothing but comfort from those who say we may not have the will, may not have the money, may not have the capabilities."
The Obama administration appeared to go into Libya reluctantly, and pulled U.S. forces back after a couple weeks of heavy bombardment of Libyan air defenses. However, as of June Washington still had been responsible for a quarter of NATO sorties and was using drones and missiles — obviously engaged in "hostilities," even if the administration ludicrously claimed otherwise. Although Washington has made the war its own, most recently recognizing the rebels as Libya's legitimate government, America has nothing at stake that remotely justifies the third (or fifth, if one counts heavy drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen) war in a Muslim nation in a decade.
Indeed, with France's defection from the pro-war camp, it appears that 27 allies essentially are fighting (or at least nominally supporting) what is now Britain's war.
To coin a phrase, it's time for a change. Liam Fox correctly noted that the U.S. "cannot continue to shoulder the burden of everyone else's defense" and "the European elements of NATO cannot expect the U.S. to come to our aid on every occasion."
His solution is for the Europeans to do more in Libya. But pouring more resources into an unnecessary war is no solution. Anyway, the problem is much broader.
Before leaving office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates shot a verbal predator drone at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Most European states have made only anemic military contributions to NATO for years. Over the last decade America's share of NATO military outlays has gone from 50 percent to 75 percent.
Thus, warned Gates, the alliance faces "collective military irrelevance." As a result, Americans "may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost." The proof was the fact that "The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference."
Gates' solution is higher European military spending. Rasmussen's too: he argues that NATO's European members should "step up to the plate." But that is a nonstarter. As Gates acknowledged, European defense budgets "have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time."
Today only three European states, Britain, France, and Greece, spend at least two percent of GDP on defense (compared to America's five percent). But Greece is worried about fellow NATO member Turkey, not an outside threat. And even Britain and France are paring back; last year the hawkish Liam Fox pledged to cut "ruthlessly and without sentiment." Germany, with Europe's largest economy, spends barely more than one percent of GDP and is sharply reducing manpower.
The Europeans no longer face an existential military threat and are not willing to trim their welfare states to maintain militaries of little practical use. Until now NATO has provided the ultimate free ride: join and receive an insurance policy from the globe's sole superpower, without having to do much in return. The Europeans aren't going to change that deal voluntarily.
Even if London and Paris (at least initially) thought the Libyan war was worth fighting, no one else did. Most countries refused to do anything of significance and now even Paris is backing away. The Europeans might be embarrassed by the Libyan debacle, but their response is more likely to be "no more stupid wars" than "let's build up our militaries."
Truly NATO faces a "dim, if not dismal future," in Gates' words. What is the solution?
First, the U.S. should end its participation in the Libyan war. It makes no sense, serves no serious American interest, and has done humanitarian harm, prolonging a war and thus killing more civilians. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer criticized a proposed congressional fund cut-off lest it "undermine the confidence of NATO in the ability of the president of the United States to participate in support of an effort that NATO had agreed to." But that is no reason to waste money and risk prestige on a conflict that Washington should never have entered.
In fact, contra Rep. Hoyer, America should undermine the alliance. Looking ahead, Robert Gates said that "Choices are going to be made more on what is in the best interest of the United States." That should mean ending America's defense dole for the Europeans. (As well as the Japanese and South Koreans, who also are capable of taking over responsibility for their own security.)
He spoke with apparent regret of the "dwindling appetite and patience" of Americans "to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense." But such indigestion and impatience are long overdue.
Washington should leave NATO to the Europeans (and Canada, if it desires). They have an obvious incentive to work together on shared continental security concerns. These interests reach across the Mediterranean. It should be up to the Europeans to judge the geopolitical dangers and build the necessary military forces in response.
The U.S. should maintain close economic and political ties with Europe; Americans, certainly, would lose none of their affinity for what for many remain their ancestral homes. And the shared values and histories would encourage close cooperation on many issues. But on military issues Washington should work when necessary with countries which wish to act as security partners, dealing with shared international concerns. Washington should stop collecting defense wards in the name of creating and expanding a military alliance.
Alliances should be a means rather than an end. During the Cold War NATO helped maintain the peace. Today NATO involves the U.S. in unnecessary wars. Libya demonstrates how the trans-Atlantic military alliance has outlived its usefulness. Washington should put it out of its misery.