In Defense of NATO

Has the Atlantic alliance outlived its usefulness? The British journalist and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft raised that question in an opinion article on June 16, commenting on a speech by Robert Gates in which the outgoing U.S. defense secretary accused other members of the Atlantic alliance of not pulling their weight. Stanley R. Sloan joins the discussion. See also.

Several weeks ago I warned parti-cipants in a NATO-sponsored conference on future deterrence strategy that NATO would come under renewed fire from the western side of the Atlantic. I suggested that the international experts and officials present ask themselves: “Can the American people be convinced that NATO deterrence strategy is intended to serve American interests, not just to protect those ‘damned Europeans’?”

The speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates opened the floodgates to a torrent of predictions about the demise of the alliance. Gates was widely reported as having predicted such an outcome. In fact he did not. Rather, he warned that if Europeans did not improve their contributions, the alliance’s future could be in doubt. The warning was appropriate, but much of the post-speech speculation has been shortsighted.

NATO’s critics complain that because Europe as a whole has more people and a comparable G.D.P. to that of the United States, it should be able to produce much more than the currently modest military effort. But statistics alone do not tell the whole story.

First, “Europe” does not exist; it is not a sovereign state able to call on the resources of the entire entity to support a role as a global power. In spite of claims by some in Europe and wishful thinking by some in the United States — reflected, for example, in Sarwar A. Kashmeri’s comments in “NATO’s surreal world” (Counterpoint, June 23) — “Europe” is not likely to develop a unified defense and foreign policy until E.U. members decide to form a full political union, something unlikely to happen anytime soon.

If we add to this reality the fact that we Americans spent decades after World War II convincing the Germans that they should never again use their power aggressively, it becomes easier to understand Germany’s self-imposed limits. It is fortunate that Germany now spends more time and money on force projection rather than border defense (as well as helping rescue the Greeks and other debt-stricken E.U. members).

Moreover, how could Washington expect the Europeans to have been enthusiastic contributors in Afghanistan after first saying that America didn’t need their help and then giving second-class status to our effort there while we focused on Iraq. Now, the Europeans are showing the same impatience with the continued U.S. commitment in Afghanistan that we see in the United States.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to press European governments to do more. But it is unrealistic to simply add up European resources and say that they should produce defense efforts like a global power.

The American response to the Gates speech has been impressive, across the political spectrum. Everyone knows that the alliance is by no means a perfect arrangement. And free-riding is an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of cooperation between large and smaller powers.

Yet in spite of all the criticism there has been a notable shortage of credible proposals for U.S. strategic options other than remaining in close cooperation with our European allies. The United States and its allies certainly need to strengthen the alliance. One way to do so would be to put more emphasis on cooperation in nonmilitary responses to security challenges while encouraging the Europeans to take their military commitments more seriously.

But if the United States tries shock therapy, as some advocates suggest, it might not get the hoped-for results. Individual NATO members might opt to make their own deals — some with other E.U. members, some with the United States, some with Russia, etc.

Indeed, a united Europe might emerge, designed to compete against rather than cooperate with the United States. There are enough uncertainties to suggest that America would be better off trying to improve and strengthen the alliance than dump or devalue it.

When searching for alternatives to NATO, it is advisable to take a look around the world and ask what other countries would be as willing and able as the European members of NATO to contribute to international security in alliance with the United States. We face security challenges in Asia, but there is virtually no potential for an organized alliance there to help us deal with them.

Before consigning NATO to the scrap heap of history, we Americans should ask what we would put in its place and whether it would serve U.S. interests as well. Meanwhile, our European allies need to ask themselves if they want to encourage continued U.S. support for the alliance, and, if so, what they are prepared to do to earn it.

Stanley R. Sloan, author most recently of Permanent Alliance?: NATO and the Transatlantic Bargain from Truman to Obama.

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