Why NATO Matters

A simple search of “NATO” in JSTOR reveals overwhelming fatalism amongst academics concerning the future of the Alliance — a sample of article titles on the first page of results include “NATO in Trouble,” “NATO — Where To?” and “Saving NATO from Europe.” Based on this sentiment, one conjures up an image of NATO as yet another anachronism of the Cold War: burdened by too many weak, free-riding nations, geriatric weapons systems, and interminable European bureaucracy.

Coverage of NATO in the American media continually suggests that our European allies are not pulling their weight within the Alliance, and function as little better than a barbell tied to the ankle of American foreign policy. President George W. Bush’s condemnation of the world’s largest military alliance as “not willing to fight” in Afghanistan has become a widespread popular perception.

Prominent members of the U.S. national security establishment, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have stated publicly that NATO faces a “dim, if not dismal future.” The difficult question is finally being asked — does the United States still need a defensive alliance with Europe to ensure our national security? If the answer is “no” and the U.S. is indeed capable of doing everything itself, many policymakers would argue that the Alliance isn’t worth the time and resources spent maintaining it. But the answer remains a resounding “yes” — the United States needs Europe more than ever.

In the 63 years since NATO was formed, its raison d’etre has evolved dramatically. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949 between 12 founding nations — Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Ismay, famously asserted that the purpose of the Alliance was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” NATO is still trying to keep the Americans in, but its posture toward Russia and Germany has changed profoundly. Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, and cooperation has deepened with the development of the Russia-NATO Council in 2002. Despite friction between the two powers on various issues including military strategy in Afghanistan and missile defense, Russia and NATO now collaborate extensively on fighting terrorism, joint military exercises and personnel training, anti-narcotics policy in Afghanistan, and nuclear non-proliferation. Meanwhile, Germany has emerged as a leader within the Alliance in recent years after its re unification in 1990.

The integration of Germany and Russia’s increased cooperation left NATO casting about for new issues on which to focus its energies, culminating in the New Strategic Concept published in 2010. The document characterizes the current threats to NATO’s security environment as the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, terrorism, instability beyond NATO borders, cyber attacks, and environmental and resource constraints. The United States has no hope of addressing any of these threats entirely outside the rubric of NATO.

One main tenet of the New Strategic Concept explicitly states “the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons,” a vision articulated by the international organization Global Zero and endorsed by President Obama, former Prime Minister Medvedev, and other prominent statesmen around the world. The Global Zero action plan — in which the United States and Russia negotiate bilaterally to reduce their stockpiles to 1,000 warheads each, followed by multilateral negotiations among all nuclear weapons states to reach zero — requires the rigorous support of NATO.

NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen arrives in Afghanistan

The nuclear status of the United Kingdom and France, the continued presence of American tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, and NATO’s geostrategic location with respect to Russia and Iran (in comparison to the isolated position of the United States) ensure that the Alliance will remain a powerful force in ongoing negotiations. Furthermore, if the United States must eventually achieve compelling deterrent capability with conventional weapons alone and support a comprehensive anti-nuclear verification and enforcement regime, maintaining a military coalition of peaceful, highly developed, like-minded nations will be more important than ever.

The United States also cannot achieve the legitimacy necessary to aggressively combat terrorist networks and manage instability in nations beyond NATO borders without the political endorsement and tactical support of the Alliance. Aside from the backlash unilateral U.S. military action tends to inspire around the world, the United States would be ill-advised to pursue military intervention in countries like Afghanistan without the intelligence and logistical support of Europe, particularly when pursuing long-term counterinsurgency strategy.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs hailed NATO’s operation in Libya as a “model intervention” by providing the conditions necessary for the rebels to overthrow Moammar Qaddafi’s regime while effectively involving regional partners and sharing the burden among the Alliance’s members.

According to the authors, NATO saved tens of thousands of lives, conducted a precise air campaign that greatly minimized collateral damage, enabled the rebel opposition to overthrow one of the world’s worst and longest serving dictators, and accomplished it all without a single Allied casualty and at a fraction of the cost of the interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of course, what do those three less successful and more expensive interventions have in common? The United States tried to go it alone.

Finally, the nations of NATO together have unmatched intellectual and technological resources to creatively address transnational threats like cyber attacks and climate change. Constant grousing within the Alliance about burden sharing needs wholesale reconceptualization — the member states should instead be considering how to leverage their comparative advantages and economies of scale for the benefit of the whole. This kind of cooperation is particularly indispensable in meeting threats that are indifferent to national borders, a prominent feature of the modern security environment and cyber attacks in particular.

The philosophical argument for the United States’ continued dedication to NATO is powerful as well. Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” traces the development of a “pacific federation of republics” from inherent features of the human condition, drawing on the natural comparative advantages of different societies, the impossibility of forming an all-inclusive world government, and the superiority of republics as a way of achieving justice through transparency.

NATO is the real-life embodiment of this pacific federation of republics as a way of achieving “perpetual peace,” and so far Kant’s theory of international politics has held up for more than 200 years. The historical trajectory he outlines has largely played out, and the absence of war between republics remains a striking empirical fact. The United States is the logical choice to lead the expansion of NATO’s influence if it can bring the world even a little closer to “perpetual peace.”

Dean Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State during the Truman administration and American signatory of the North Atlantic Treaty, reminds us that “the best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” Dire predictions of NATO’s long-term decline may be inevitable, but in the meantime the Alliance will quietly continue to assure an enduring European peace, build security in Afghanistan, fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden, develop missile defense technology to protect Europe from rogue nuclear threats or accidental launches, and liberate the people of Libya from Qaddafi’s monstrous regime.

The United States would do well to provide a little affirmation to its staunchest and most valuable allies once in a while.


Donna Horning is a junior in Davenport College.


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