NATO

On the Purpose of NATO & the Cost of European Defense

The anxiety leading up to this week’s NATO summit is unusually intense, thanks in large part to President Trump’s fractious relationship with European allies. Trump’s political values are often in tension with that of his transatlantic counterparts, and the White House is inching ever closer to an all-out trade war with Europe and Canada, but the real drama of the NATO summit will center on Trump’s brash accusations of allied free-riding. He recently sent letters to many European capitals berating them for not meeting their pledge to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.

In a post at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Lucie Béraud-Sudreau and Nick Childs try to push back on the notion that providing for European defense is all that costly for the United States. While it is true that the $602.8 billion the United States spent on its military in 2017 “was the equivalent of 70.1% of aggregate spending by all NATO member states,” this exaggerates the true cost, they argue.

Direct U.S. spending on European defense, by their estimate, is only about $30.7 billion in 2017 and $36 billion in 2018, or between 5.1% and 5.5% of the total U.S. defense budget.

How do they calculate this number? They tally up the cost of three things: (1) direct funding for NATO, including common procurements; (2) the costs of the U.S. military presence in Europe; and (3) U.S. foreign military assistance.

Now, $30-$40 billion every year is nothing to sniff at. That is an enormous chunk of change for an America that is $21 trillion in debt to be spending on the defense of a region that is remarkably rich, powerful, and safe.

The problem, however, is that this understates the true cost of America’s NATO commitments. It is misleading to count the U.S. contribution to NATO solely as a sum of direct annual costs. The tally should also account for the indirect cost of maintaining a military big enough to fulfill our security commitments in Europe. It must account for some share of the permanent force structure that would shift to the reserves, or disappear entirely, if the United States wasn’t pledged to treating an attack on Paris, France or Podgorica, Montenegro as synonymous with attacks on Paris, Texas, or Portland, Maine. This more inclusive count is very difficult if not impossible to calculate with precision, but it is more honest.

NATO Expansion Is Unwise. Saying So Isn’t Treasonous.

Ad hominem has always been a feature of politics, but Senator John McCain (R-AZ) elevated it to a new level earlier this week. The incident occurred when McCain came to the Senate floor to ask for unanimous consent to move forward on a vote formally bringing Montenegro, a small country in the Balkans, into the NATO alliance. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) objected. McCain responded by suggesting Paul was a traitor to his country and accusing him of “working for Vladimir Putin.”

McCain seemed particularly incensed that Paul objected without explaining his reasons. As reported at the Daily Beast:

“I note the senator from Kentucky leaving the floor without justification or any rationale for the action he has just taken. That is really remarkable, that a senator blocking a treaty that is supported by the overwhelming number—perhaps 98, at least, of his colleagues—would come to the floor and object and walk away.”

He then directly connected Paul to the Russian government: “The only conclusion you can draw when he walks away is he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians.

“So I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

Paul later issued a statement in response:

“Currently, the United States has troops in dozens of countries and is actively fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen (with the occasional drone strike in Pakistan)…In addition, the United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO. It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our $20 trillion debt.”

That seems like a reasonable position to hold, and certainly not one that requires Paul to be a Russian stooge.

Indeed, many of America’s most reputable officials and academics have opposed post-Cold War NATO expansion for substantive reasons. George Kennan, perhaps our most famous Cold War diplomat and widely considered to be the father of the United States’ containment strategy, famously opposed NATO expansion in the 1990s, writing in the New York Times that expanding NATO would be a “fateful error” that would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.” Like Senator Paul, Kennan also worried about the problems of credibility and overextension. Would McCain accuse Kennan of treason?

Trump and NATO—Redefining the U.S. Role

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s attitude toward NATO has engendered significant consternation throughout both Europe and the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Although the president-elect has not explicitly advocated pulling out of the NATO, he has suggested that the United States should rethink its involvement since the United States continues to bear a disproportionate share of the defense burden within the alliance. The incoming administration could thus be poised to conduct the sort of “agonizing reappraisal” that John Foster Dulles threatened 63 years ago. Although a complete withdrawal from NATO would be unwise, the time to redefine the United States’ role in the alliance may have arrived.

Critics have attempted to undermine Trump’s intimation that he might refrain from defending NATO allies such as Estonia by suggesting that the United States is treaty-bound to do so. The day after Trump’s election, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, insisted that “NATO’s security guarantee is a treaty commitment…All allies have made a solemn commitment to defend each other. This is something absolutely unconditioned.” But that is only true to a certain extent. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that in the event of an attack against a NATO member state, each ally “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The key phrase “as it deems necessary” gives the United States a great deal of latitude.

Were the North Atlantic Council to invoke Article V in response to a Russian incursion into Estonia, for instance, the United States could fulfill its treaty obligations in any number of ways. The Pentagon could certainly deploy the U.S. military to combat Russian forces directly. On the other hand, the United States could restrict its role to the provision of military equipment and logistical support to its European allies. To borrow a phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States could serve as the great arsenal of NATO.

America’s Allies Deserve to Be Disturbed

America collects allies like Americans collect Facebook friends. As a result, Washington defends more than a score of prosperous European states, several leading Asian nations, and a gaggle of Middle Eastern regimes.

Yet most of the countries on the Pentagon dole appear to be perpetually unhappy, constantly demanding reassurance of Washington’s love. Their sense of entitlement exceeds that of the typical trust fund baby.

As a result, the U.S. is expected to protect virtually every prosperous, populous, industrialized nation. But that’s just a start. Washington also must coddle and otherwise placate the same countries.

Once great powers, they now believe it to be America’s duty to handle their defense. Alas, U.S. officials are only too willing to enable this counterproductive behavior.

Except for Donald Trump.

There is much to say about his candidacy, most of it bad. Nevertheless, he’s right not to be interested in reassuring allies.

Which has horrified the gaggle of well-to-do nations on America’s defense dole. For instance, the New York Times reported “an undercurrent of quiet desperation” among European officials. They went to Hillary Clinton’s campaign begging for, yes, reassurance!

As for Washington’s major Asian defense dependents, Bloomberg explained that they found Trump’s views “baffling.” The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily proclaimed itself to be “dumbfounded.”

Alas, both Republicans and Democrats rushed to promise well-heeled allies that they shouldn’t lose any sleep over Trump’s message, that nothing will change. Indeed, the Times reported European leaders visiting the Democratic convention, where they found the message “soothing.”

Washington officials have lost sight of why America should participate in an alliance. Alliances should be a means to an end.

Their purpose is to increase American security. They aren’t particularly useful where there’s no significant threat to the U.S., Washington can easily deter any adversary on its own, and/or America’s friends are capable of protecting their own interests. Which is the case for most U.S. allies today.

Why Should America Defend Europeans Who Won’t Defend Themselves?

Once again Donald Trump has shocked the foreign policy establishment. He suggested that maybe the U.S. should no longer defend its prosperous, populous allies in Europe.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization made sense when created in 1949. War-ravaged Western Europe faced an aggressive Soviet Union. The American defense shield allowed Washington’s allies to recover and rebuild.

Nearly seven decades later the alliance has become a means rather than an end. The world has changed, yet Washington continues to guarantee the security of its 27 (soon to be 28) NATO allies (as well as Japan, South Korea, and others). Yet only four European nations bother to devote even two percent of GDP to the military, barely half America’s level.

Trump sees this as just a free-riding problem. He said he’d like to keep the alliance, but doesn’t know if it’s possible. “Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make,” he complained.” He “would prefer not to walk,” but if the Europeans don’t “fulfill their obligations to us,” perhaps Washington shouldn’t defend them.

Toss Turkey Out Of NATO

Turkey’s brief democratic moment is ending. The rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Development and Justice Party (AKP) in 2002 signaled the collapse of the militarized secular republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The recent failed coup effectively killed the semi-liberal democracy that briefly replaced Kemalism.

NATO is an anachronism and Ankara’s membership even more so. Today Turkey undermines U.S. and European security. As Ankara moves toward an authoritarian one-party state, a civil divorce would be best for all parties.

Stop Treating NATO as a Social Club

Members of NATO are meeting in Warsaw. They are dragging the U.S. back into its traditional role of guaranteeing the security of Europe, even though the continent is well able to defend itself.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a necessary part of Containment, preventing the Soviet Union from dominating or conquering Western Europe. But after recovering from World War II the Europeans remained dependent on America.

NATO lost its raison d’etre once the Warsaw Pact disbanded and Soviet Union collapsed. Alliance officials eventually added “out of area” activities, that is, wars of choice irrelevant to Europe’s defense (Balkans, Libya, Mideast, Afghanistan). Such conflicts have wasted lives and resources with no benefit to Europe and America.

NATO’s Warsaw Summit

At the end of this week, leaders from the United States and Europe will convene in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit. The meeting – only the second summit since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – will include high level strategic discussions, and will likely see the announcement of an increased NATO troop presence in the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression there.

The biggest question leaders intend to address in Warsaw is how to deter Russian aggression towards NATO members in Eastern Europe following its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In effect, leaders will try to find a compromise solution which reassures NATO’s eastern members, provides additional deterrence, but does not provoke further military buildup and distrust from Russia. They will almost certainly fail in this endeavor.

In fact, the expected announcement of the deployment of 4 battalions of additional troops to the Baltics has already produced heated rhetoric from Russia. These deployments will likely lead to a Russian response, ratcheting up tensions and increasing the risk for inadvertent conflict in the region. In other words, they will contribute to a classic security spiral of mistrust and overreaction. The irony is that such deployments are largely symbolic, not strategic. Even four battalions will not change the fact that Russia could likely conquer the Baltics quickly if it so chose. And even though some would argue that their deterrent value is largely as a ‘tripwire,’ it isn’t clear why the existing Article V guarantee is insufficient for that purpose.

To be frank, in the focus on how to defend the Baltics, leaders have largely overlooked the low likelihood of a conflict in that region. For one thing, there is a qualitative difference between attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO treaty member; Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. For another, Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.

Who Should Defend Europe? Why Not Europe?

NATO’s foreign ministers met recently to assess current security threats. Alas, the gathering illustrated how NATO has become an expensive burden for America.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was birthed during the Cold War. America’s defense shield allowed the war-ravaged states of Western Europe to recover.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact NATO’s raison d’etre disappeared. For a time alliance supporters worried about the organization’s future.

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