President Donald Trump returned early from the London NATO summit. Staged to satisfy British Prime Minister Boris Johnson—the official 70th‐anniversary meeting was held in April—the latest gathering featured only one, mercifully short, session, to reduce the likelihood of a Trump eruption. Even so, before arriving he improbably chided French President Emmanuel Macron for being “nasty,” “insulting,” and “disrespectful” in suggesting that the alliance suffered from “brain death.” Then the session’s minimal substance was overshadowed by the president’s personal spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Of course, the assembled leaders filled their limited time together with happy talk. The greatest alliance ever is more necessary than ever as Europe faces the greatest security challenges ever. The Europeans are spending more and cutting Washington’s burden. NATO is preparing plans both to defend its members from conventional attacks and confront new threats. The Europeans even are ready to tackle the huge new challenge posed by increasingly aggressive China. All in all, the alliance is prospering greatly.
This is fantasy. A very pleasant one. But fantasy nonetheless.
NATO was formed in 1949 to shield European states from Soviet aggression as they recovered from World War II. The U.S. was only supposed to assist European governments in their defense efforts. For instance, Secretary of State Dean Acheson promised Congress that it would not need “to send substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, past wartime allied leader, first NATO commander, and future Cold War president opposed providing a permanent U.S. garrison which, he predicted, would “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide themselves.”
Alas, these sentiments were ignored as the U.S.S.R. tightened its control over Central and Eastern Europe. The Europeans recovered economically but failed to increase their defense outlays accordingly. Washington maintained its dominant military presence while constantly urging its allies to do more. They routinely said yes but did little.
After the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union dissolved NATO’s survival seemed uncertain. So officials suggested that the transatlantic organization shift to, in former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s words, “new missions that will fit the new era.” For instance, Robert Hormats, another lengthy public official, proposed that NATO shift to promoting “student exchanges, to fighting the drug trade, to resisting terrorism, to countering threats to the environment.” David Abshire, onetime U.S. ambassador to NATO, suggested coordinating “the transfer of environmental‐control technology to the East.”
Ultimately the alliance decided to expand its membership, even though the enemy had disappeared. Doing so violated multiple assurances given to Moscow. NATO also initiated “out‐of‐area” activities, which meant defending other than member states. This ironically turned the pact into an offensive instrument, first used to dismember Serbia in 1999. In essence, NATO had gone from a means to an end, with war the new means. Said Sen. Richard Lugar, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the organization would “go out of area or out of business.” And, as public choice economists would predict, no one involved in the alliance wanted the latter.
The Soviet Union’s collapse triggered European disarmament, which in turn intensified American demands for greater burden‐sharing, which the Europeans continued to ignore. The process continued for years, demonstrating, perversely, that the less Europe did the more America would. Hence the bizarrely named “European Reassurance Initiative” after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine: the Europeans were essentially promised that even if they did nothing Washington would remain at their side—though whining all the way. U.S. policymakers appeared to accept the need to subsidize the Europeans in order to keep them dependent. Washington opposed any proposals for independent spending and action, preferring that Europe do more, but only under America’s direction.
The alliance continued to add members. Most recently it accepted Montenegro, with North Macedonia awaiting treaty approval by the 29 current members. Next up, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, featured in the novel The Mouse that Roared!
The latest out‐of‐area wars have been distant, unconventional conflicts: Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, of which the latter triggered French President Emmanuel Macron’s complaint about a lack of allied coordination. Some NATO fans call the organization a “global alliance,” presumably ready to act as global cop. In every case, of course, the heavy lifting inevitably falls on Washington.
Every recent president criticized Europeans for failing to make sufficient contributions for the common defense. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the alliance itself was at risk, since “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … in their own defense.” President Trump expressed similar sentiments, though more crudely.
Alas, the burden‐sharing debate is unproductive. The issue should be burden‐shedding. Even when President Trump does the right thing, he does so badly. So it is with NATO. But the alliance’s “brain death” reflects its inherent problems, not his dreadful management.
Quite simply, it makes no sense for U.S. taxpayers to subsidize the defense of nations capable of defending themselves. Shared interests will continue to justify military cooperation. However, the alliance as today constituted no longer serves American interests.
NATO’s problems are many and fundamental.
First, America and Europe no longer face an existential threat, let alone a common one. Which makes united action by such a diverse membership so difficult. Russia is no Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin is no Joseph Stalin. The Russian Federation is an unpleasant actor but has reverted to a pre‐1914 great power, insisting on border security and international respect. There is no prospect of a Russian attack on the U.S. and little more chance of one on Europe, Old or New. Although plausible, even a successful grab of the Baltic States would yield little benefit for much cost.
Russia’s, Europe’s, and America’s interests often clash—they understandably have different perspectives on economic predominance in Ukraine and political predominance in Syria, for instance—but most such issues are of only limited importance. Even the disputes over Georgia and Ukraine are peripheral matters for Europe and America. However, the latter is existential (in the case of the latter) security concerns for Russia.
NATO expansion moved the transatlantic alliance a thousand miles eastward; Western‐backed “color revolutions” placed unfriendly governments in neighboring states; Ukraine was heartland territory for the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union; and Crimea, transferred in 1954 to Ukraine as part of an internal Soviet political deal, contains the important Black Sea military base at Sebastopol. Moscow views its “near abroad” rather like Washington views Latin America. The U.S. officially does not believe in spheres of interest, but the Trump administration reacted badly to Russian involvement in Venezuela. The president said: “Russia has to get out.” Then‐National Security adviser John Bolton announced: “We strongly caution actors external to the western hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations.”
Thus, Moscow’s behavior, though unjustified, is essentially defensive toward the West. That conclusion is backed by Russian military deployments. Mike Kofman of Harvard University’s Belfer Center argued: “Despite provocative air and naval activity concentrated in the [Baltic] area Russian forces base there are principally defensive, and aging to boot.” Despite increasing indications that the Putin government might be interested in reducing tensions over Ukraine, the allies have yet to offer the one concession that might cause Russia to moderate its behavior: the end of NATO expansion.
Second, most Europeans don’t appear to fear for their security. Despite the public hysteria surrounding Moscow’s often unsavory behavior, few Europeans worry about Russia. The Baltics and Poland express a different perspective, yet their military spending, around two percent of GDP, remains paltry if they truly believe their independence to be at stake.
The continent faces other modest security issues, primarily emanating from the Middle East and North Africa, but few are susceptible to a military response and none require a larger European military. France and the United Kingdom have greater international interests related to their colonial past, but even their willingness to intervene is declining.
Earlier this year former U.S. ambassadors Douglas Lute and Nicholas Burns made the astonishing claim that NATO’s problems “represent the most severe crisis in the security environment in Europe since the end of the Cold War and perhaps ever.” More than in September 1939? August 1914? During the Napoleonic Wars and French Revolution? German Chancellor Angela Merkel was only slightly less hysterical in declaring: “Maintaining NATO today is even more in our own interest than it was in the Cold War—or at least as important as it was in the Cold War.” In fact, Europe may be more secure than ever before.
Third, significant military spending increases—as opposed to incremental movement by some states toward NATO’s two percent objective—are unlikely. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted that when he asks Europeans to do more, “they say ‘It’s tough. Our voters just really don’t like to spend money on defense’.” This is an eminently sensible response, given the absence of a serious threat and Washington’s oft‐demonstrated determination to defend the continent, no matter what. As a share of GDP European military expenditures, last year ran 1.51 percent, the same in 2012.
The future is not likely to be much better. Military spending by the continent’s small states has little impact on overall spending while the five most economically significant European countries range from awful to unimpressive. Most notably, Germany was at a dismal 1.23 percent of GDP last year. Moreover, the Bundeswehr’s readiness is terrible. Two years ago the Rand Corporation estimated it would take a month for Berlin to mobilize a heavy armored brigade. In January Bundestag Military Commissioner Hans‐Peter Bartels reported that few of the Bundeswehr’s shortcomings had been fixed, despite increased expenditures: “There is neither enough personnel nor materiel, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage.” Having previously agreed to hit two percent in 2024, Chancellor Merkel now says Berlin will do so in the early 2030s. Even if her latest assurance was credible, her current coalition faces potential collapse and she might be out of office as early as next year. If the Left forms an upcoming government military outlays are likely to go into reverse.
Fourth, the Europeans know that they can rely on the U.S. to act irrespective of how little they contribute to their militaries. For years Washington has whined, complained, demanded, begged, and insisted that its allies do more, without noticeable effect. Only Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine triggered the beginning of a modest increase in European military outlays, which predates Trump’s demands. Even when he and past presidents insisted that America’s allies do more, their administrations have conducted business as usual and emissaries have visited Europe dedicated to “reassuring” even Europe’s laggards of Washington’s eternal commitment to defend the continent no matter what. Virtually every Trump appointee at State and Defense has undercut the president’s dramatic rhetoric by insisting on America’s unshakeable commitment to maintaining the Pentagon’s defense dole, actually increasing the money spent on and troops deployed to Europe.
Fifth, Europeans are well able to defend themselves. Although maybe not easily with their current force structure. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas insisted that “Without the United States, we are currently unable to protect ourselves.” Yes, currently, because Europe does not spend more and does so more effectively. Europe has an equivalent economy and a larger population than America. The continent possesses eleven times the economic strength and nearly four times the population of Russia. Already Europeans devote four times as much as Moscow to the armed forces. And Europe could do much more. Collective action obviously can be difficult, but that could be eased by a sense of urgency. The continent doesn’t do more because it doesn’t want to do more, not because it can’t do more.
NATO Secretary‐General Jens Stoltenberg went further, contending that “we need to avoid any perception that Europe can manage without NATO, because two World Wars and the Cold War taught us that we need a strong transatlantic bond to preserve peace and stability in Europe.” He apparently hasn’t noticed that fascism, Nazism, and communism have disappeared from the continent. The greatest barrier to the Europeans managing without America’s aid is their lengthy dependence on the U.S. That makes the transition more complicated and perhaps traumatic, but not impossible.
Sixth, many Europeans don’t want to defend each other, or America. In a YouGov survey earlier this year, only 42 percent of French, 53 percent of Germans, and 59 percent of Britons believed the alliance had an important role to play in the continent’s defense. Almost uniformly, Europeans were more concerned about terrorism, which the alliance is ill‐equipped to handle, than invasion. The willingness of people in NATO members to aid allied states varied dramatically, with support in some cases falling into the teens. There was inconsistent backing for military action even in the most important alliance members. For instance, the majority of French and British were mostly unwilling to defend other states, except each other.
When asked whether they should favor Russia or the U.S. in a conflict, a 2019 European Council on Foreign Relations survey found an overwhelming majority in 14 European countries answered neither. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that only four of ten Germans were willing to defend NATO allies, including America, from attack. The numbers were just 45 percent for Britons and 53 percent for French. Notably, while often disdaining the responsibility of their own nations to defend Europe, the majority of Europeans believed that the U.S. should do so. Even Macron was skeptical that countries would fulfill their treaty responsibility: “What will Article 5 mean tomorrow,” he recently asked?
Seventh, as long as NATO exists, talk of a European military, most obviously under the European Union, is nonsense. Existing governments are not willing to spend substantially more on their own forces. They won’t make significant increases to an existing alliance despite persistent browbeating by Washington and NATO officials. Substituting acronyms won’t convince Europeans to do more. Even France is unlikely to hike military outlays for both NATO and the EU. Only as an alternative to the transatlantic alliance does an EU‐provided military make sense. Or NATO could be transferred to European control, with the U.S. becoming an associate member, to promote cooperation when in both the continent’s and America’s interests. However, given European attitudes today, the continent cannot easily support one military alliance, let alone two.
Eighth, proposals that NATO takes on additional duties appear to reflect a continuing search for relevance, like that launched after the Soviet Union’s collapse and threaten to detract from the alliance’s military mission. Such issues as cyber‐security are important and warrant cooperation, but perhaps separate from the transatlantic alliance.
Even more disconnected from reality is the suggestion, which U.S. officials have been pushing, that Europe confronts China. Beijing’s economic contacts with the continent are significant and military threats are minimal. The Europeans cannot agree on the much more proximate “Russian threat.” Germany is planning a natural gas pipeline with Moscow, France’s Macron declared that Russia is not an enemy, and countries as diverse as Greece and Italy criticized continued economic sanctions. The likelihood that Europeans can reach a consensus on Beijing is nil. Macron already has dismissed the claim that China, too, is an adversary. Who imagines the UK and France, let alone Germany, Spain, and Italy, sending an expeditionary force to fight China over Taiwan or the South China Sea territorial disputes?
Ninth, an ever‐growing alliance dependent on unanimity makes effective action increasingly difficult. The differences between Russia and the Middle East are large. The almost comical name dispute between Greece and the country now known as North Macedonia held up Skopje’s application to join NATO for years. Now Turkey is blocking action on, among other things, Baltic security plans, to force the other members to accept its demand to treat Syrian Kurds as terrorists. That comes after his government purchased Russian weapons, moved in an authoritarian and Islamist direction, and reoriented the military’s orientation from Western to nationalist.
Finally, America’s fiscal situation continues to deteriorate. Last year the federal budget deficit ran nearly a trillion dollars, the highest since 2012, after the U.S. fiscal crisis. The Congressional Budget Office expects the tsunami of red ink to continue, with rising national debt and annual interest payments. As the U.S. population continues to age and health care costs continue to rise, more resources will be diverted to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The only other areas to cut will be interest, which would require repudiating the debt, domestic discretionary outlays, which already have been reduced and account for barely 15 of total outlays, and the Pentagon. Elected officials are unlikely to place the interests of European nations before those of America’s elderly.
Although the Republican Party remains dominated by establishment interventionists, Democrats are divided on foreign policy. Politics is likely to increasingly shift against those advocating an expansive American global role. An increasing number of politicians are likely to follow Donald Trump in challenging a defense policy that has become an international dole for prosperous and populous allies. Especially when the latter demonstrates a well‐developed sense of entitlement.
Consider: Last year the U.S. devoted $1900 per person to the military. The other 28 members averaged $503. Fifteen members came in at less than $300 per capita. While the Europeans are reluctant to protect their own continent, Americans also guard Asia, the Mideast, and increasingly Africa.
America’s allies want to keep their sweet deal. U.S. policymakers seem willing to go along. The White House declared that the “trans‐Atlantic relationship is in a very, very healthy place.” In April Secretary Pompeo opined that the allies were meeting “to make sure that NATO is around for the next 70 years.”
However, the London summit offered no solutions to NATO’s fundamental infirmities. The attendees issued a declaration celebrating the alliance’s anniversary, pledged to spend more, confront multiple threats, “increase security for all,” and address new technologies. How will all of these be accomplished? By creating a new committee: “Taking into account the evolving strategic environment, we invite the Secretary‐General to present to Foreign Ministers a Council‐agreed proposal for a forward‐looking reflection process under his auspices, drawing on relevant expertise, to further strengthen NATO’s political dimension including consultation.”
Much more is going to be necessary to keep the alliance viable. Half‐way measures, such as halting NATO expansion, enforcing accountability, improving relations with Russia, and reducing Washington’s contribution would be better than nothing, but still inadequate palliatives.
Instead, the U.S. should gradually shed its responsibility for the continent’s defense, turning responsibility for Europe’s defense over to the Europeans. America and Europe should remain friends and even allies, though through a looser arrangement focused on issues of mutual concern. But the Pentagon should concentrate on its duty to protect Americans, rather than provide welfare to Europeans.