President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland has opened another round of debate on the purpose and future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Since assuming office, Trump has moved away from his earlier position that NATO is obsolete, preferring instead to highlight the disparity between U.S. defense expenditures (3.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product) and those of other signatories to the treaty, especially Germany (1.2 percent). Indeed, Trump rightly views the commitments of NATO powers to increase defense spending as one of the ways he has strengthened the alliance.
This is an alliance that furthers American interests in the service of American ideals. It’s worth preserving because the choice is not between NATO and peace. The choice is between NATO and war.
Some of his supporters, however, continue to wonder why America is part of NATO at all. They point to NATO’s newest and 29th member state, Montenegro, and ask why American soldiers should be committed to the defense of its capital Podgorica. This is the latest version of the “Why die for Danzig” argument that originated among the French left in the run up to the Second World War: What reason is there, these critics say, to agree to defend the borders of small and faraway countries engaged in quarrels between people of whom we know nothing?
But to ask the question this way is to misunderstand the nature of deterrence. We join alliances such as NATO and we welcome countries like Montenegro — and Poland — into those alliances so that we will not have to perish for Podgorica.
Deterrence relies on the perception of strength. The tougher one’s adversaries perceive you to be, the higher the probable cost of aggression, the less likely foes or competitors or whatever will move against you. The principle of collective security manifested in NATO is nothing more than bolstering this perception of strength through greater numbers: As membership and resources scale upward, so does the price of hostile activity.
Would NATO invoke Article Five for the second time (the first was after 9/11) if Russia moved into Estonia or Latvia or Melania Trump’s native Slovenia? The honest answer is we don’t know. But here’s the thing: Russia doesn’t know either. And that uncertainty is precisely the mechanism by which Russia is deterred. It’s risky, tenuous, and occasionally messy. And it has kept the peace.
The alternative did not. America’s lack of forward presence in Europe in the interwar years no doubt contributed to German rearmament and expansionism. So did the fact that the League of Nations — just like the U.N. and EU today — had no real military capability. It is worth remembering that many of the French who had no issue with the German annexation of Danzig ended up dying anyway, for among the lessons of history is that belligerent powers never stop with the small countries. They keep advancing until they run into a wall.
Nor is there any question that Putin’s Russia is a belligerent power. Ask yourself: Why do these central, eastern, and southeastern European nations want to belong to NATO? It’s not because they particularly enjoy the alliance’s swanky new headquarters. It’s because they have been under Russian domination before and, if they are not careful, will be again. They notice that Vladimir Putin has so far limited his invasions to non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine. He meddles with NATO powers, trolls them, harasses them, and threatens them. He walks up to the line, for sure. But he dares not cross it.
OK, comes the reply, but why should Americans care who dominates Romania? I am happy to cite the nobility of freedom, democracy, and national sovereignty, but I recognize that these concepts will be dismissed as idealistic abstractions. So I offer instead this cold-hearted and realistic principle: As the late professor Harold Rood was fond of saying, you either run the show or the show runs you.
American retreat from NATO or Europe would, like we have seen in the Middle East, create a vacuum for an alternative power to revise political, economic, and security arrangements according to its will and in its favor. It would be the very definition of idealism to suggest that those arrangements would be friendly to or consonant with American interests. If you think America is getting a bad deal now, wait until Russia is shaping European trade policy. Only the Ladas will be tariff free.
The counterargument is that other powers will rise to balance against Russia. But the voices most skeptical of NATO and happiest with American withdrawal from Europe are also the most critical of the only power with the capacity to face down the bear. That power is Germany. Is this an outcome we really wish for? I seem to be the sole conservative left who is more than happy with Germany not spending too much money on soldiers, tanks, and artillery. There’s not a really happy track record there.
Germany is already extending its reach and dominating Europe through the EU. Do we want to give Merkel, or whoever follows her, NATO as well? What would that look like? “Better take these migrants, Italy, or the Bundeswehr will have to make sure you do,” are words no one should want to hear.
I’ve heard the laments in recent days that debate over NATO has been closed. Where have these people been? We have been debating the future of NATO and its expansion since the foundation of the alliance in 1949 and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And that debate has been decided, again and again, by American voters, in NATO’s favor: first as a means to deter Soviet aggression, then as a way to expand and consolidate democratic gains, and for the last decade as a check against revanchist Russia. True, the two most recent presidents have been wary of NATO — Trump more loudly than his predecessor. But both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have come to assert, however grudgingly and haltingly, its value.
And for good reason. This is an alliance that furthers American interests in the service of American ideals. It’s worth preserving because the choice is not between NATO and peace. The choice is between NATO and war.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Free Beacon.