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NATO Isn’t What It Says It Is

NATO leaders convening this week in Vilnius, Lithuania, have every reason to toast their success.

Only four years ago, on the eve of another summit, the organization looked to be in low water; in the words of President Emmanuel Macron of France, it was undergoing nothing short of “brain death.” Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the situation has been transformed. As NATO plans to welcome Sweden into its ranks —Finland became a full-fledged member in April—and dispatch troops to reinforce its eastern flank, European Union allies are finally making good on long-deferred promises to increase military spending. Public opinion has followed suit. If Russia sought to divide Europe, President Biden could plausibly declare last spring that it had instead fully “NATO-ized” the continent.

This turnabout has understandably energized the alliance’s supporters. The statement of purpose from Jens Stoltenberg, its secretary general, that “the strength of NATO is the best possible tool we have to maintain peace and security” has never had more loyal adherents. Even critics of the organization — such as China hawks who see it as a distraction from the real threat in East Asia and restrainers who would prefer that Washington refocus on diplomatic solutions and problems at home — concede that NATO’s purpose is primarily the defense of Europe.

But NATO, from its origins, was never primarily concerned with aggregating military power. Fielding 100 divisions at its Cold War height, a small fraction of Warsaw Pact manpower, the organization could not be counted on to repel a Soviet invasion and even the continent’s nuclear weapons were under Washington’s control. Rather, it set out to bind Western Europe to a far vaster project of a U.S.-led world order, in which American protection served as a lever to obtain concessions on other issues, like trade and monetary policy. In that mission, it has proved remarkably successful.

Many observers expected NATO to close shop after the collapse of its Cold War rival. But in the decade after 1989, the organization truly came into its own. NATO acted as a ratings agency for the European Union in Eastern Europe, declaring countries secure for development and investment. The organization pushed would-be partners to adhere to a liberal, pro-market creed, according to which — as President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser put it — “the pursuit of democratic institutions, the expansion of free markets” and “the promotion of collective security” marched in lock step. European military professionals and reform-minded elites formed a willing constituency, their campaigns boosted by NATO’s information apparatus.

When European populations proved too stubborn, or undesirably swayed by socialist or nationalist sentiments, Atlantic integration proceeded all the same. The Czech Republic was a telling case. Faced with a likely “no” vote in a referendum on joining the alliance in 1997, the secretary general and top NATO officials saw to it that the government in Prague simply dispense with the exercise; the country joined two years later. The new century brought more of the same, with an appropriate shift in emphasis. Coinciding with the global war on terrorism, the “big bang” expansion of 2004 — in which seven countries acceded — saw counterterrorism supersede democracy and human rights in alliance rhetoric. Stress on the need for liberalization and public sector reforms remained a constant.

In the realm of defense, the alliance was not as advertised. For decades, the United States has been the chief provider of weapons, logistics, air bases and battle plans. The war in Ukraine, for all the talk of Europe stepping up, has left that asymmetry essentially untouched. Tellingly, the scale of U.S. military aid — $47 billion over the first year of the conflict — is more than double that offered by European Union countries combined. European spending pledges may also turn out to be less impressive than they appear. More than a year after the German government publicized the creation of a special $110 billion fund for its armed forces, the bulk of the credits remain unused. In the meantime, German military commanders have said that they lack sufficient munitions for more than two days of high-intensity combat.

Whatever the levels of expenditure, it is remarkable how little military capability Europeans get for the outlays involved. Lack of coordination, as much as penny-pinching, hamstrings Europe’s ability to ensure its own security. By forbidding duplication of existing capabilities and prodding allies to accept niche roles, NATO has stymied the emergence of any semiautonomous European force capable of independent action. As for defense procurement, common standards for interoperability, coupled with the sheer size of the U.S. military-industrial sector and bureaucratic impediments in Brussels, favor American firms at the expense of their European competitors. The alliance, paradoxically, appears to have weakened allies’ ability to defend themselves.

Yet the paradox is only superficial. In fact, NATO is working exactly as it was designed by postwar U.S. planners, drawing Europe into a dependency on American power that reduces its room for maneuver. Far from a costly charity program, NATO secures American influence in Europe on the cheap. U.S. contributions to NATO and other security assistance programs in Europe account for a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget — less than 6 percent by a recent estimate. And the war has only strengthened America’s hand. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, roughly half of European military spending went to American manufacturers. Surging demand has exacerbated this tendency as buyers rush to acquire tanks, combat aircraft and other weapons systems, locking into costly, multiyear contracts. Europe may be remilitarizing, but America is reaping the rewards.

In Ukraine, the pattern is clear. Washington will provide the military security, and its corporations will benefit from a bonanza of European armament orders, while Europeans will shoulder the cost of postwar reconstruction — something Germany is better poised to accomplish than the buildup of its military. The war also serves as a dress rehearsal for U.S. confrontation with China, in which European support cannot be so easily counted on. Limiting Beijing’s access to strategic technologies and promoting American industry are hardly European priorities, and severing European and Chinese trade is still difficult to imagine. Yet already there are signs that NATO is making headway in getting Europe to follow its lead in the theater. On the eve of a visit to Washington at the end of June, Germany’s defense minister duly advertised his awareness of “European responsibility for the Indo-Pacific” and the importance of “the rules-based international order” in the South China Sea.

No matter their ascendance, Atlanticists fret over support for the organization being undermined by disinformation and cybermeddling. They needn’t worry. Contested throughout the Cold War, NATO remained a subject of controversy into the 1990s, when the disappearance of its adversary encouraged thoughts of a new European security architecture. Today, dissent is less audible than ever before.

Left parties in Europe, historically critical of militarism and American power, have overwhelmingly enlisted in the defense of the West: The trajectory of the German Greens, from fierce opponents of nuclear weapons to a party seemingly willing to risk atomic war, is a particularly vivid illustration. Stateside, criticism of NATO focuses on the risks of overextending U.S. treaty obligations, not their underlying justification. The most successful alliance in history, gathering in celebration of itself, need not wait for its 75th anniversary next year to uncork the champagne.

Grey Anderson is the editor of “Natopolitanism: The Atlantic Alliance Since the Cold War,” to which Thomas Meaney is a contributor.

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