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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 hello@theatlantic.com and we’ll post in this ongoing discussion.

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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:

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 hello@theatlantic.com 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:

Matryoshka dolls on display at a market in St. Petersburg, Russia, in January 2009. Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters

In a letter to hello@theatlantic.com, Oana Lungescu, a spokesperson for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, responds to my essay advocating a “Detente 2.0” between the NATO alliance and Russia. Spokesperson Lungescu begins by countering a figure I cited:

The United States does not “cover 72.2 percent of NATO’s budget.” This is a very misleading statistic. In reality, the U.S. share of the NATO budget is precisely 22.1446 percent. While the United States does account for over 70 percent of total defense spending by NATO countries, this funds U.S. security commitments worldwide, not just in Europe or related to NATO.

Jeffrey Tayler also repeats the old myth that NATO promised not to expand to the east at the time of German reunification. NATO has never made such a promise. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself refuted the claim, saying “the topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years.”

Mr. Tayler reiterates President Vladimir Putin’s claim that NATO planned to take over naval bases in Crimea—again, complete fiction. The facts are that Russia has violated sovereign borders by force—unprecedented in Europe since the end of the Second World War—and that it continues to supply weapons, equipment, and personnel to the militants in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Tayler’s “Détente 2.0” proposes a written renunciation of “NATO’s plans to invite Ukraine and Georgia.” Leaving aside the fact that Ukraine is not currently seeking membership, this approach embodies a worldview past its sell-by date: the idea that the large can dictate to the small. Each sovereign country has the right to choose for itself whether it joins any treaty or alliance. This is enshrined in international documents that Russia itself has signed up to.

Throughout Mr. Tayler’s essay we see a fundamental confusion of cause and effect. It is Russia’s actions in Ukraine that have prompted NATO to increase its military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance. This was simply not on the agenda before 2014. Our response has always been defensive and proportionate, transparent and fully in line with our international obligations.

I’ll close by rebutting the claim that absent a “Soviet-level threat or any real public debate,” NATO “has been expanding beyond its historical mandate.” In recent years, we have seen Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, as well as its military build-up from the Barents Sea to the Baltic, and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. We have also seen turmoil wrack the Middle East and North Africa, as well as other threats like cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation. At the Warsaw summit in July, NATO leaders took clear decisions to tackle all those challenges, while also keeping open political dialogue with Russia. Dialogue is even more important when tensions are high, to reduce risks and increase predictability.  

NATO represents nearly one billion citizens, and half the world’s economic and military might. Our “historical mandate” is set out in the Washington Treaty of 1949: a commitment to “collective defense and … the preservation of peace and security.” In an unpredictable world, NATO allies remain committed to defending one another.

Institutional blindness, and the propensity of an institution to perpetuate and aggrandize itself, are on full display in Spokesperson Lungescu’s response to my essay. Simply countering with a flurry of budgetary statistics fails to address my basic point: Why had Washington been devoting such tremendous resources to its defense (which NATO is intended to buttress) in the absence of a major foe equal to its stature? That is, after the collapse of the Soviet Union? This growth was underway long before 2014, when the current, exacerbated standoff with Russia began.   

George Kennan’s prediction, along with the critique by George Will I also cite in my essay, speak for themselves. NATO’s enlargement has validated Russia’s historical suspicion of the West. It has fostered the very anti-Western atmosphere about which Kennan warned, and increased the chances of a “hot war.”

The United States has long had other areas on which it could have been spending. Given the need to deal with its perpetual budget crises, to say nothing of its crumbling national infrastructure and relatively anemic economic recovery, such huge allocations for weapons constitute nothing short of an obscenity.