With the media focused at the NATO summit in Chicago on the organization’s future role in Afghanistan, President Obama’s plan to strengthen the alliance passed largely under the radar. Even as the United States supposedly “pivots” to Asia to contain a rising China by augmenting alliances with China’s neighbors, the United States is once again trying to secure everything by shoring up NATO in Europe.
At least in Asia there exists a rising power to be nervous about. In Europe, even a Russia that sometimes fails to do exactly what the United States wants is no Soviet Union. True, the Russians still have a large nuclear arsenal, from which its Eastern European neighbors would like protection; but even without the U.S. nuclear shield afforded by NATO, these nations could be protected by the nuclear deterrents of Britain and France.
Since the Cold War ended, NATO went into an “expand (territory and mission) or die” mode. The alliance, meaning the United States, pledged to defend many new Eastern European members and conducted most of its military missions outside the North Atlantic area (for example, interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya) in violation of its charter. The charter provides only for the collective defense of the member states. Instead of expanding, NATO should have been allowed to die. The alliance succeeded in its original mission to deter a Soviet attack on the NATO area until the Soviet Union collapsed from its own contradictions.
Although relations with Russia are not ideal — one reason being that the United States has shoved a hostile alliance right up to a weakened Russia’s borders — they are better than they were during Vladimir Putin’s earlier stint as president. The Russians provided the desperate alliance with an alternative supply line into Afghanistan when the route through Pakistan became problematic. In general, Russia and the United States see their interests coinciding in the battle against radical Islamists. Russia also signed an important arms-control treaty with the United States limiting strategic nuclear weapons and has provided the U.S. with some behind-the-scenes help in pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear program.
In any event, the Cold War is over, and the still relatively wealthy Europeans should now defend themselves instead of relying on a United States with its own fiscal woes. Yet President Obama has proposed measures to strengthen the alliance: the purchase of NATO surveillance drones, giving NATO control over a missile defense system built by the United States, donating U.S. Aegis ships’ radars and missile interceptors to NATO in time of crisis, and replacing U.S. troops transferred from Europe with rotating American military units to keep forces from alliance countries training together even after they leave Afghanistan. Because the threat to the treaty area in Europe is so low, this training merely allows the United States to extract the quid pro quo for providing Europe’s defense: a fig leaf of multilateralism when undertaking American military adventures in the developing world.
The recent intervention in Libya, ostensibly with the United States following the Europeans’ lead, actually proved the indispensability of American military power. Since 9/11, as the NATO “free rider” problem got worse with American defense budgets exploding and those of allied countries contracting, the gap between U.S. and allied military capabilities has widened. In Libya, the Americans had to undertake the heavy lifting of initially knocking down the Libyan air defenses. After the United States set up the allies to take over airstrikes, it then had to provide surveillance, intelligence, logistics, and refueling for allied air operations. The meager allied surveillance capability is the reason President Obama wants NATO to buy five Global Hawk surveillance drones.
And the free riding is not going to get any better with the Europeans in worse fiscal shape — at least for the moment — than the United States. Thus, the Europeans will continue to enjoy a U.S. nuclear and conventional shield while not even fully opening their markets to American goods and services — as has always been the case in the post–World War II world. American defense contractors do get a little back from the Europeans, as do U.S. policymakers, who get vague “influence” in European capitals, but the American taxpayer, as usual, gets the short end of the stick by funding the defense of countries that can afford to do so themselves.
As NATO’s Afghanistan mission winds down, to save money to prevent its own financial meltdown, the United States needs to withdraw from the alliance and let Europe defend itself from a now manageable threat. Alas, the United States seems unable to give up its addiction to meddling in and attempting to control the affairs of Europe.