Today’s NATO Mission Is to Preserve Itself

This article appeared on American Conservative on January 24, 2019.
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Washington is filled with outrage these days, and most of it surrounds President Donald Trump. But sometimes it arises for the wrong reasons. Years ago, Trump chastised our feckless allies for expecting the United States to protect them as part of NATO. As president, he continued to criticize the alliance and apparently privately suggested that America withdraw from it. Which, some of his critics tell us, proves that he is an agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Actually, the president's sentiments illustrate his good sense on this issue. He frequently irritates even his friends. But that doesn't mean he's incorrect.

Forget foreign policy for a moment. Uncle Sam is broke. The Republicans opened the Treasury's doors by simultaneously upping spending and cutting taxes. The deficit soared past $700 billion, the highest since 2012, as America dealt with the financial crisis. This year, the annual deficit will hit $1 trillion. Within a decade, it will run $1.5 trillion.

The Congressional Budget Office's latest report reads like a horror movie script, forecasting more debt, rising interest rates, and skyrocketing interest payments. On top of that are rapidly rising entitlement outlays. At some point, Washington will have to stem the red tide.

That will mean hiking taxes, a Republican Party no-no, or cutting spending. Today, roughly 85 percent of the budget is accounted for by interest payments (repudiate the debt?), Medicaid (health care for the poor is already pretty awful), Social Security, and Medicare (good luck convincing those in assisted living facilities to accept lower benefits). And military outlays, which today mostly go to protecting prosperous and populous allies and remaking failed societies, neither of which does much to advance America's security.

So how should a president responsible to the American people address the tsunami of red ink? He could hike exactions on or cut benefits to Americans. Or he could reduce subsidies for rich foreign friends. This really isn't a tough choice.

There's also the fairness issue. Americans and Europeans have a long and important shared history. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. sensibly bore the burden of protecting war-torn Western European nations from Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. It was in America's interest to prevent any country, especially the Soviet dystopia, from dominating Eurasia. No one else could perform that service at the time.

However, World War II ended 74 years ago. Joseph Stalin died 66 years ago. The Berlin Wall fell three decades ago. The Soviet Union dissolved shortly thereafter. Over that period of time, the Europeans recovered economically—they now possess 10 times Russia's GDP—created the European Union, and incorporated the former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet republics. Yet even during the Cold War, the European members of NATO consistently resisted Washington's pressure to hike military outlays. Today, only two countries, France and Great Britain, have serious militaries. Over the last couple years, a few governments have increased defense outlays, but mostly marginally and unenthusiastically.

Germany is the continent’s wealthiest country but refuses to take responsibility for its or Europe’s security. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently took to The New York Times to celebrate the fact that her government’s defense budget had “increased by 36 percent” since 2013. However, that amount represents barely 1.2 percent of Germany’s GDP, a share expected to drop in coming years. Moreover, the Bundeswehr’s readiness remains wretched. As long as Washington is kind enough to take care of their security, why should they do more?

The president apparently understands the importance of both changed circumstances and perverse incentives. It is an opinion he has held for years. Long ago, he ran ads criticizing NATO. During the campaign, he called NATO “obsolete.” No one should be surprised that he’s been critical since becoming president.

Alas, he may be the only member of his administration who understands these issues. His top officials have uniformly undercut him, actually increasing U.S. financial, materiel, and manpower commitments to Europe’s defense. They have aided the Europeans in playing the president, convincing him that small increases in military expenditures by European governments have answered his complaints.

Other policymakers have also put European interests before those of the United States. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, the new House Intelligence Committee chairman, complained about the congressional visit to Afghanistan that was canceled amid the budget fight: “We were looking forward to the opportunity to reassure NATO allies undoubtedly shaken by reports that the president has questioned his staff or opined about leaving NATO.” Apparently, it isn’t enough to subsidize and coddle prosperous allies. They must be “reassured.” Indeed, on Tuesday, the House voted for a resolution to bar the use of federal funds to exit NATO.

James Stavridis, retired admiral and former supreme allied commander, contended, “Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO—let alone actually doing so—would be the gift of the century for Putin.” Incredible: simply talking about a proposal is verboten. Some day, the lion will lie down with the lamb. Then Stavridis and the rest of “the Blob” will likely insist that NATO is still needed more than ever.

This uncritical devotion explains the hysterical reaction to the report that Trump suggested the U.S. leave NATO. True, even when he does the right thing, he goes about it in the wrong way. Diplomacy by tweet leaves much to be desired. But the president still grasps the essentials. Yet to listen to commentary from the interventionist Left and the neoconservative Right, one might think Trump was channeling Putin. Who else would concoct such a radical idea?

Actually, when the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the Soviet Union collapsed, even fans of the transatlantic alliance feared that NATO’s time was over. So scared were NATO advocates that supposedly serious policymakers proposed unserious new duties. Robert Zoellick spoke of the need to “transform established institutions, such as NATO, to serve new missions that will fit the new era.” Robert Hormats urged Western leaders to “expand the range of issues on which NATO engages the common efforts of the European and North American democracies—from student exchanges, to fighting the drug trade, to resisting terrorism, to countering threats to the environment.” David Abshire observed that the long-time military alliance “could coordinate the transfer of environmental-control technology to the East.”

This was practical confirmation of public choice economics, which teaches that institutions have interests. Indeed, the instinct for institutional preservation seems to be as strong as that for personal preservation. The campaign by NATO acolytes was a more subtle and sophisticated variant of the response in the formerly communist states. After the East German government opened the Berlin Wall, a border guard complained, “It’s not good. We will lose our jobs.” Indeed.

Despite these efforts, the alliance didn’t become an uber-Greenpeace or supranational student advocate. But it did shift its attention overseas to conflicts with little to no relevance to American or European security. It intervened in Yugoslavia’s complicated, convulsive civil war—thereby inadvertently promoting ethnic cleansing of Serbs (by ethnic Albanians and Croats). It backed 17-plus years of nation-building in Afghanistan with no hope of victory. It supported insurgents in Libya, thereby replacing a loathsome dictator with multi-sided conflict and violent chaos. Heckuva job, NATO!

Alas, alliance members didn’t stop there. Contrary to assurances made to Russian officials, NATO expanded to the boundaries of the new Russia’s diminished borders. Robert Merry points out at TAC that St. Petersburg “resides within a hundred miles of NATO military forces, while Moscow is merely 200 miles from Western troops.” Washington and Brussels also supported a street putsch against the democratically elected (albeit highly corrupt) pro-Russian president of Ukraine and encouraged Kiev to join the alliance, steps that were even more provocative from Moscow’s perspective.

None of this justifies Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But allied behavior provides a powerful practical explanation. Imagine if Russia had promoted a coup d’état in Mexico City and sought to bring the new government into the Warsaw Pact. NATO’s fans in Washington would have been most displeased. With the alliance unwilling to exercise restraint, Moscow may believe that the best means to prevent Kiev from being inducted to the transatlantic hall of fame is to keep the conflict in the Donbass burning.

But what Vladimir Putin may or may not desire is ultimately irrelevant. Reducing, even ending, America’s role in subsidizing Europe’s defense is in the interest of the United States. It is time for Washington’s well-off friends to act like the serious nations they claim to be.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire.