Politics & Policy

Trans-Atlantic Illusions

NATO should have gone out of business a decade ago.

A silver lining in the trans-Atlantic storm clouds over Iraq is the damage done to NATO. This costly foreign entanglement was long overdue for a body blow.

NATO was not intended, by Americans at least, to be a permanent commitment, but an interim measure while Western Europe recovered from the War. When the first Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, obtained congressional consent to station U.S. divisions in Europe, he promised and believed they would be there only a few years. But, like Marx’s “withering away of the state,” Europe proved resilient in allowing America to shoulder Europe’s burden long after its prosperity dwarfed the laggard socialist economies and even after the Soviet collapse. The European Union today integrates everything except defense, lest it make too obvious that Europe is more than able to look after itself.

Behind NATO slogans of “shared values,” European governments share the value of American manpower and money, while their own defense efforts approach the vanishing point. In Germany, conscription supplies more men to the welfare system than to the military. Applicants for NATO membership make impressive defense efforts until they get in, at which point they see no need. At bottom, NATO is a one-way alliance. Only Turkey and Britain really keep up their end of the bargain.

Americans need recognize that, for most Europeans, America is not a nation but a continental extension of Europe. When French Foreign Minister de Villepin lectures us in the name of an “old country,” what he means is his is a true nation and ours is not. Europeans define a nation in terms of longevity or bloodlines, but not the American vision of shared aspirations in a “nation of nations.” This condescension unites Adolf Hitler, who disparaged America as a “mongrel nation,” and Vaclav Havel, when he proposed that then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright succeed him as Czech president. To Havel, Albright’s U.S. citizenship was a mere formality because her national identity must be Czech. Americans encounter this mentality almost anywhere in Europe.

The French have long been clear that America’s proper vocation is as strategic reserve and servant of Europe. When American soldiers arrived in 1917, the French expected to use them in their own depleted force structure, as they and the British did with colonial troops. Informed the Americans proposed to fight as an army under their own flag, the French were genuinely baffled. The Americans were to serve France, not some upstart entity called the United States. This European attitude still endures and is reinforced in Washington by émigré lobbying groups and, worse, by many members of the foreign affairs elite who share the European view of this country and feel uncomfortable with their own American identity.

Many in Washington perceive NATO as a force multiplier for American power in the world. In reality, freed from a Soviet threat, Europe today is self-satisfied, inward looking, and busy insulating itself against the unpleasantries of the outside world (including ours). Pro-American sentiments in the former Soviet satellite states will not survive integration into the European Union and the passing of the first generation of independent leaders. Gratitude depreciates quickly.

Are there not still dangers from Russia to justify NATO? Dangers, yes, in the form of drug-resistant disease strains, organized crime, demographic and environmental collapse, and the potential of a failed state. Here, NATO is worse than useless, encouraging East European governments to buy fighter aircraft rather than learn how to protect their frontiers against non-traditional enemies, including terrorism.

NATO should have gone out of business a decade ago. But, big bureaucracies have powerful survival instincts, especially those living in Brussels on public funds. NATO sucked America into the Balkans where no vital U.S. interests were at stake and the North Atlantic Treaty did not apply. Despite this ingenuity, the day had to come when America’s global responsibilities and its sense of self-worth as a nation would place it fundamentally at odds with Europe and with NATO.

The current “crisis” in trans-Atlantic relations is an opportunity to make a virtue of necessity, to declare “mission accomplished” in Europe and move to a mature relationship between an Old World with its own future and America with ours.

— Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official, is senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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