Is America Getting a Bargain With NATO?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader of ours, Ira Straus, has been pushing an unpopular idea about NATO for decades now, but his idea may have never been more unpopular than right now. After all, as an American pro-NATO advocate and the founder of the Committee for Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO (CEERN) who was a Fulbright Scholar and taught in Russia, Straus is so convinced of the benefits of NATO that he thinks the alliance or something in its image should expand infinitely, to include all of Eastern Europe, Russia, and eventually the whole world. Yet the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States, who could take office in six short months, recently caused what passes for an uproar in the navel-gazing community of foreign policy commentators by mentioning that he might not honor the alliance’s obligations.

When Trump’s comment blew up, we at The Atlantic examined the issue from several sides: Jeffrey Goldberg looked at how identical to Putin’s outlook the Trump foreign policy platform had become; Uri Friedman spoke to a former general about what would happen if Russia invaded and a Commander-in-Chief Trump followed through on his suggestion of doing nothing; I interviewed Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy luminary and NATO expert, about the history of the alliance and its function; and Jeffrey Tayler wrote in an article and a a follow-up note that Trump’s position contains more than a kernel of wisdom: NATO is outdated, outmoded, and counterproductive, and many of the worst foreign policy outcomes of the past several years could have been avoided if it hadn’t been for the aggressive posture of the American-led alliance and its policy of expansion.

Now Straus has written in via to challenge what he says are a set of misconceptions about the costs and benefits of NATO, arguing, in effect, that the Trump take has things precisely backwards—the alliance is, on Straus’s view, a strategic and financial bargain. While taking a best-case view about what Trump’s intentions may have been in making anti-NATO comments, Straus bears that out below, in his “Four points on why NATO is the Greater America and saves us money”:

1. It is pure myth that NATO is costing America money.

a. The U.S. actually pays a meager 22% of NATO’s (very small) budget—far less than America’s proportionate share. The allies are paying disproportionately much for NATO. So NATO gets us a net gain in the form of their spending; but again, it is a small budget.

b. The European allies provide and pay for more than 90% of the allied troops that are in Europe and defending Europe, while the U.S., less than 10%. In earlier years we had put up a slightly more respectable fraction of the troops defending Europe, but Europe always put up more than 80% of them. None of these troops are NATO-hired forces; they are all national forces, so NATO isn’t costing either America or Europe any money for these forces. They are our own expenditures, by our own choice. What NATO does, however, is to make sure these forces are never directed against us, and to give us some actual use of all these European forces. It does this by putting them under our joint training and coordination and planning. Thanks to this, they lack plans or practical capabilities for acting against us, and they are instead fairly well prepared to be commanded by our U.S. Commander—who is also the NATO SACEUR—whenever we’re attacked or whenever it’s agreed to take a joint action. In this respect, NATO gets us some big things for free.

Some people might prefer to have a real empire instead of NATO (even while they incongruously attack NATO as an “empire”), and to be able to call up European troops at will and tax Europeans as much as we want. I won’t argue with the goal that someday in the future we should have an Atlantic union where we have a joint army and joint taxation to pay for it with complete burden sharing. I insist on only one thing:

It will have to be a genuine union where Europeans are willing partners, not an empire where we try to do what the British tried in the 1760s and ‘70s, when they drove us into Revolution.

They tried to impose burden sharing on us, to pay our back taxes for the defense they gave us in the French and Indian War, but we refused to do the burden sharing. Their empire got destroyed out of their effort to get us to pay for it. No taxation without representation, which means no full-scale burden sharing without full-scale representation. But a genuine union, with effective joint decision through equitable representation, is a long way off in today’s Atlantic world. We’re the country least willing to agree to it. Which means we need to keep the halfway, gerrymandered union that we have and that works, and the huge money savings it gives us.

c. The main, but unstated, reason the U.S. has troops in Europe nowadays is not for the defense of Europe but because it is a cheaper, more convenient location for getting to the Mideast than the continental U.S. It costs us more, not less, when we keep all our troops at home.

We have an irrationally small number of troops in Europe today (64,000). It would be cheaper for us if we put three times as many of our troops in Europe. Corrupt congressmen prevent this; they prefer to have bases and troops in their own districts, since it gives them local spending and helps them win elections. The Pentagon has to go through repeated rounds of base closures at home, It’s always a huge fight, the Pentagon always wants to close more bases at home and make our defense more efficient, and it can never get more than a fraction of the way to where we need to be on this.

d. Trump in reality proposes to spend considerably more, not less, on U.S. defense. He obviously doesn’t think that his plans on NATO are going to do anything to reduce our defense costs. And in fact, abolishing NATO would not save us a penny. It would do the opposite. It would add to the costs of our defense.

e. How much money has NATO saved us? Our defense costs in the 10 years of the two world wars alone were greater than all our defense costs added together in all 67 years since NATO was formed. That’s true counted either way—in raw constant dollars, or as a proportion of GDP. It’s been a saving of trillions of dollars.

2. If all this complaining about NATO costs is just plain false, then why is there so much of it?

The secret to the false complaining is that a lot of people hate NATO for totally different reasons, but they usually don’t want to say the real reasons. They hate NATO because of what NATO is: the alliance that keeps Western civilization united. And, in the process, stops us from fighting against ourselves, and keeps us the leading power in the world.

Left-wingers hate NATO because their ideology blames the West for the world’s problems, so they’d rather have us divided and weak. And because, while they strongly supported the Atlantic Alliance when it was fighting the Nazis in World War II, they turned around and hated the Atlantic Alliance just as soon as it was organized as NATO so it could head off any repetition of the world wars and the chaos of the years from 1914-1945. Why? Because the main enemy after 1945 was no longer the Western far Right, which is the only thing the Left likes to fight against.

The isolationist-inclined brand of right-wingers also hate NATO. NATO is an internationalist thing that unites the West, not pure American nationalism. They’ve gotten used to telling themselves a fantasy version of our history in which we were doing things just fine before we had NATO. You see—so tell us the pseudo-realists and pseudo-libertarians, the Mearsheimers and Bacevics and Walts—we did the wonderful strategy of “offshore balancing” back before there was NATO, never mind that it netted us two world wars and the worst defense costs in our entire history, brought on Communism, put actual liberty (not “libertarianism”) in greater trouble than ever since the end of the medieval era, bankrupted our allies who had kept things relatively calm for us before 1914, and left the world in chaos. In the real history, NATO is what got us out of this hell that “offshore balancing” brought us.

3. The people support NATO as a plus for American power, and they’re right.

The American people are overwhelmingly pro-NATO, not anti-NATO. Polls have shown this consistently over the decades, even while journalists and academics went on proclaiming NATO “obsolete” every year for the last half-century (yes, half a century—ever since the mid-1960s, not just since 1991). Anti-NATO attitudes have been limited mostly to small sectors of society: primarily on the ideological left, and among the intelligentsia in academia and the media; to a lesser extent on the right. Thank god the ordinary people have nothing to do with this ideological nonsense. The people have known better.

Most people have the common sense to support their own society and their own power. NATO is the greatest extension that America has in the world. It is a kind of Greater America (and so is its informal additional wing in the Pacific). Trump likes American greatness and building big. This is the place for it.

The Alliance is what has preserved America’s greatness no matter how weak or incompetent its leaders. It is what has made it impossible that “China will rule the world,” as the conventional wisdom was predicting throughout the media when W. Bush was in power and in Obama’s first years. In those years, many of our intellectuals were advocating a global power shift from America to China, not just predicting it. It is NATO that prevented it.  Trump rightly says that American economic power suffered losses from letting China into the WTO; NATO saved us from this leading to a major shift in global power. China will never be a strong as America, Europe, and Japan combined. The only thing that could ever make China stronger than us would be, if we were to stop combining ourselves.

4. What to do, and where in fact does Trump stand on the NATO question?

The only good news in all the mass of falsehoods and confusions about NATO is that Trump says he is pro-NATO. He says that what he really wants is to negotiate better bargains and get NATO to refocus on current and future security issues instead of past ones.

There’s a lot of exaggeration in the complaining portion of Trump’s position along the way to negotiations, but as long as the exaggeration is intended for the sake of the negotiation—and as long as the intention is to stick with the negotiation, as one should generally intend to do among friends and allies, not walk away from it as one sometimes has to do with enemies—then we can hope it’ll come out for the better.

And Trump does say that we should be harder on our enemies than on our allies. He contrasts this to Obama and Hillary, who he says have been hard on our friends and easy on our enemies. He seems pretty clear on what he means by friends and enemies: he counts Mubarak and Sisi as friends, Muslim Brotherhood and Iran as enemies; Europe as friend, the Mideastern immigrants and refugees in Europe as having lots of potential enemies among them.

If Trump carries through consistently on the pro-ally, pro-NATO, and pro-reform considered formulations he has given, not on the anti-ally, anti-NATO sentiments that can be sensed in his one-liner rhetoric, then his energy will prove good for NATO and for America. Most foreign policy experts however prefer Hillary as less risky, which is not surprising, given the contrast between Trump’s occasional clarifications and his frequent tone.

How to carry through? Some Trump people like the idea of getting Russia into NATO, and think that if that were done it would answer all their criticisms of current NATO policy. Easier said than done, as I know since I’ve been advocating it since 1991. It probably could have been done in the early ‘90s, possibly even as late as 2001 after 9-11, but only if both Russia and NATO agreed to do it on terms that would have been good for both Russia and NATO, and neither Russia nor NATO envisaged such terms or proceeded seriously toward them. Maybe the opportunity for it will come back if we try. Inevitably someday sooner or later it will come back, but it can’t be done if there’s no NATO, or nothing left of it that’s worth joining.

Could we get Europeans to share the real burdens of defending our interests worldwide—the political, diplomatic, and psychological burdens of taking military actions, not just the finances of it? It’s something the American negotiators for NATO in the 1940s refused to allow NATO to get involved in. Now we have to fix our mistake. Again, not easy. Back in the ‘40s, we didn’t want to share in the burdens of the defending the European empires—and those were real empires, not the metaphorical “American empire” that our enemies abroad and our isolationists at home like to complain about. Not surprisingly, Europeans learned to throw back the accusations about “imperialism” against us.

Today, when we want more burdens to be shared, we have to work around the limitations our diplomats engraved in writing it in the NATO treaty: that NATO obligations for defending our interests are limited to our home territories. There’s good news here—we’ve been making gradual progress on this for 25 years. It’s been a hard slog, but we did get NATO declarations that NATO’s purpose is to defend our joint interests and security needs globally, not just to defend Europe and North America at home. That’s not a treaty amendment, just a joint declaration. Implementation has made progress too—a lot compared to the past, but very uneven and limited compared to the joint needs. We need to build more on the progress. Here some Trumpian brashness can do some good, as long as it doesn’t shoot the moon.

Getting to a full-scale alliance on policy all around the world is necessarily a long-term project. It could have gone farther faster in the 1940s, if we had been willing. Back then, it would have been a genuine trade-off—supporting our allies’ empires in return for their supporting our global security interests. We refused, and instead on some crucial occasions joined the Soviets in undermining the empires of our allies. There can be no burden sharing without power sharing—no taxation without representation—but the European countries no longer have the power that might persuade us to go very far with power sharing. We can move this matter forward, but we have to be realistic about how far we can take it in this period.  

Whoever is president, the Donald or the Hillary, will need to be smart (to use Trump’s word), steer clear of the snake oil of many of their followers, figure out which aspects of NATO really do deserve review and overhaul, what aspects must be preserved and extended, and do a good job of the negotiations.

Straus has made an unmentioned assumption in all this by arguing as though without NATO, the U.S. would still need to do stuff to defend itself and protect its interests abroad, and that stuff would cost money. In any other year, it would be triviality, but in this election cycle ...

Leon Trotsky once said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Since the inception of NATO, there has, mercifully, been less war in the world, especially between major powers (though not enough less war, of course ). But there remains geopolitics, with all its tension, and its tricky questions and its dangers. And like war, geopolitics is interested in us, even if some of our major candidates for office are not interested in it.