Reporter's Notebook

Why Do We Still Need NATO?
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Readers and contributors debate the question. If you have something to say, especially if you have foreign policy expertise, please send us a note at and we’ll post in this ongoing discussion.

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Is America Getting a Bargain With NATO?

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Tayler wrote in an article and a a follow-up note that Trump’s position contains more than a kernel of wisdom: NATO is outdated, outmoded, and counterproductive, and many of the worst foreign policy outcomes of the past several years could have been avoided if it hadn’t been for the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:

This month, Jeffrey Tayler wrote a piece responding to Donald Trump’s unprecedented shrug over whether the United States would uphold its treaty obligations if a NATO ally were invaded during his hypothetical presidency. Tayler argued, in effect, that Trump had stumbled on a good idea in thinking about radically reassessing America’s commitment to NATO, an alliance that raises no end of trouble with Russia and is, anyway, an anachronism. Tayler advocated what he called a “Détente 2.0,” pushing for American foreign policy to do whatever it takes to return to the halcyon days of the Brezhnev era when, Tayler said, things were trending friendly with Russia.

I agree that détente likely did produce better results than its alternatives in the Brezhnev era, and that NATO’s post-Soviet expansion in central and eastern Europe may have been a strategic blunder. As I noted in a recent interview with the NATO scholar Michael Mandelbaum, Russia under Putin has made numerous military incursions into Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—all non-NATO countries. Tayler is also right in his analysis that Russia’s geopolitical ethos is based on grievance—grievance as a great historical society laid unfairly low, subject to perceived disrespect and mistreatment by the West—and so Putin is likely to respond more favorably to flattery and bribery than to threats. But something’s off here.

Tayler asks us to “see matters from Russia’s perspective.” While this may be a necessary exercise for policymakers trying to make predictions about Moscow’s policies, it often entails assuming untruths and accepting false moral equivalence between Western action and Russian “reactions” on the world stage. The West inviting an independent country to a defensive alliance should not be equated with Russia sending tank columns into Georgia to seize territory. This is not a matter of perspective. Yet Tayler frequently argues as though Russia’s self-pitying viewpoint is the salient one.

NATO, too, is perturbed by Tayler’s claims. Tayler published a response to his piece by alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu as a note, along with his own rebuttal. Lungescu complained, rightly, that while Tayler has tremendous sympathy for Russia’s viewpoint, he carefully avoids assigning any blame to Moscow. For example: