The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been an alliance without a purpose for thirty years, and every few years it latches on to the latest big security issue to justify its continued existence. In the 1990s, Balkan interventionism and peacekeeping filled the void left by the demise of the Soviet Union and collapse of the Warsaw Pact. The illegal Kosovo war in 1999 was the alliance’s first time fighting against an enemy, and that was a war of aggression against a single, much weaker country. Since then, the "most successful alliance in history" has opted to fight almost everywhere but in Europe in wars that have had nothing to do with the collective security of the alliance’s members. If NATO had remained a strictly defensive alliance committed to its members’ security and nothing else, it might have been worth preserving. Since it long ago turned into a vehicle for enabling and supporting unnecessary U.S. military interventions, the US should get out.
The alliance tried to reinvent itself as an organization engaged in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in the decade immediately following 9/11, and many new and aspiring NATO members threw in their lot with George W. Bush’s Iraq war on the assumption that this would win them favor in Washington. NATO then briefly tried its hand at joining in regime change efforts during the "Arab Spring" when it agreed to adopt the misbegotten 2011 Libyan war as its own campaign, and it joined in the endless war in Afghanistan for its most far-flung "out of area" expedition of all. Today there are more than a few hawks that would like to dragoon the Atlantic alliance into an anti-China policy in the Pacific, and in their ongoing search for relevance alliance leaders are at least willing to pay lip service to having a role in the so-called "Indo-Pacific." Only an alliance whose original reason for being has long since vanished would feel compelled to look to the other side of the world for a mission. If NATO allies have the luxury of sending ships to the Pacific to "send a message" to China, they should be more than capable of defending their own countries without US assistance.
NATO may have served a legitimate purpose once, but those days are long gone. Insofar as European allies can provide for their own defense, US involvement in NATO has served mainly to drag European states into our wars of choice elsewhere. Even when the alliance as a whole does not join a certain war, many allies feel pressure to take part to show their solidarity with the US on account of their membership in NATO. That allied support in turn lends political support to wars that the US shouldn’t be fighting anyway, and then when the American public seeks to end these wars we are lectured by hawks about how we cannot "abandon" our allies that are fighting alongside us.
The bottom line is that Europe does not need the US to defend it any longer, Europe is not that seriously threatened, and the US doesn’t need to be taking responsibility for European security more than seventy years since the end of WWII and three decades after the Cold War ended. Whether the alliance dissolves or it transforms into a European security organization, the US has overstayed our welcome and intruded on the affairs of Europe long enough. As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his new book After the Apocalypse, "US security guarantees to Europe have today become redundant." Security guarantees don’t exist for their own sake, and our government shouldn’t cling to them out of some sense of attachment to a bygone era.
The main reason why NATO has gone "out of area" so many times in the last twenty years is that it has precious little to do at home. Except for the conflicts that the promise of NATO expansion helped to stoke, Europe has been at peace since the turn of the century. Had it not been for the reckless promise to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 that they would one day become members (a promise that the NATO summit in Brussels has just reaffirmed), it is probable that the August 2008 war would not have happened at all. It is also possible that the conflict in Ukraine might not have occurred. Far from stabilizing and securing eastern Europe, NATO and the promise of NATO expansion have helped to trigger armed conflict. We must hope that the reaffirmation of the Bucharest summit promises does not lead similar results. Regardless, the lesson from both conflicts is that the US and our allies are unable and unwilling to defend these states if Russia chooses to use force, and we are doing these countries a great disservice if we keep stringing them along with promises we never intend to keep.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO and NATO expansion have served to sour relations between the US and Russia. Because Russia views the alliance as its chief adversary and main threat, the alliance’s existence has been a constant irritant in the relationship, and the alliance’s expansion has inflamed that irritation with regularity. The fact that the alliance is still talking as though Ukraine and Georgia could still be welcomed in as members will contribute to the further deterioration in U.S.-Russian ties and an increase of tensions between Russia and its neighbors. It is possible to imagine a much more constructive relationship with Russia in the future if the US were no longer at the head of a military alliance that Russia perceives as its biggest threat. The alternative is to remain mired in deepening suspicion and hostility, and unfortunately it appears that this is the direction that the Biden administration and most of our political class want to go.
Defenders of the alliance conveniently claim that it was the alliance that prevented WWIII from breaking out, but there are other explanations for why there was no great power war in Europe after 1945. John Mueller argues in The Stupidity of War that US alliances and security guarantees were not crucial to preventing great power war: "I contend that, for the most part, it was not the machinations of the reigning superpower that was instrumental, but the aversion to international war that was embraced after World War II especially by developed countries." If the alliance was not essential to keeping the peace then, how much less so is it now?
Biden has repeatedly referred to the US commitment to defend NATO allies as a "sacred obligation," and it is fitting that he talks about the alliance with religious language because the desire to keep the US on the hook for ensuring Europe’s security really is an article of faith. It is not a commitment based on current US or allied security needs, but one founded on myths that US and European Atlanticists keep telling themselves about how important the alliance is to continued peace. We should assess the alliance on its current merits and not on flattering stories that our leaders like to tell about it, and for that reason the US needs to begin preparing its allies for the eventuality when America is no longer part of the alliance.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.