The End of NATO

Image credit: Barbara Kelley
Image credit: Barbara Kelley

by Victor Davis Hanson // Defining Ideas

Declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization dead has been a pastime of analysts since the end of the Cold War. The alliance, today 28-members strong, has survived 65 years because its glaring contradictions were often overlooked, given the dangers of an expansionist and nuclear Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact subjects.

From its beginning, NATO had billed itself as a democratic Western bastion against Soviet totalitarian aggression—if not always in practice then at least in theory. NATO never had much problem keeping Greece and Turkey in the alliance despite their occasionally oppressive, rightwing military dictatorships, given the strategic location of both and the need to keep the pair’s historical rivalries in-house. If the alliance’s exalted motto “animus inconsulendo liber” (“A free mind in consultation”) was not always applicable, NATO still protected something far better than the alternative.

The United States opposed and humiliated its NATO partners France and Britain during the Suez crisis of 1956, without much damage to NATO at large. True, a petulant France after 1959, gradually withdrew its military participation—and yet secretly still pledged to fight with the alliance in the case of a Soviet attack. The 1989 unification of Germany progressed without a hitch, largely because an economically all-powerful Fourth Reich was happy to allow its historic rivals and NATO partners France and Britain to remain Europe’s only nuclear powers.

During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the U.S. managed to leverage a few NATO countries in joining its interventions, while assuming the majority could either stand clear or damn the United States without much consequences to their American-guaranteed security. Ditto the two Iraq wars and the kerfuffle over the Bush administration’s dichotomy between “old” and “new” Europe.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and its arch nemesis, NATO limped on. Some had assumed that the often quoted aphorism about NATO’s mission from Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General—“to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”—was no longer relevant and so neither would be NATO. But note that Ismay had said “Russians” not Soviets. He knew well that the historical tensions between an always ambitious Moscow and its vulnerable European neighbors transcended Soviet communism.

In the 1990s, the alliance had been reinvented as a way to reassure newly liberated Eastern European countries that their embrace of Western social democracy would be safe from the specter of post-Soviet Russian expansionism. Of course, there were NATO squabbles over the decision to bomb Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of power—and rumors, for example, that Greek officers stealthily had collaborated with their Serbian military counterparts, apparently out of Balkan Orthodox solidarity. Nonetheless, NATO has always survived its undemocratic members, expansions both wise and foolish, duplicitous insiders, and pouty major players.

Today, the situation seems different. The current problem is not that NATO will end with a bang, but rather that it will go out with a whimper, given that the insidious forces of the new century are more pernicious than the occasional infighting and turf battles of the twentieth century. So far no one has addressed the modern paradox of NATO. Its present membership and geography mock its title. It is hardly a North Atlantic Treaty Organization, given that just two countries, the U.S. and Canada, reside on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Its 28-nation membership is now as much Mediterranean and Eastern European as North Atlantic. And it has no central organizational principles about where and when it should or should not intervene, much less criteria under which a member should be admitted—or expelled. By 2000, NATO had devolved into a sort of quasi-European Union organization that happened to include the United States largely for its money and guns.

More importantly, the European Union’s strain of post-Cold War socialism was at odds with the original notion of a muscular democratic and anti-communist NATO. This might explain why European NATO members have cut $45 billion from their annual defense budgets in the last two years alone. The EU gradually sought to consolidate many of the NATO members under the aegis of growing cradle-to-grave entitlements that by needs came at the expanse of military readiness. “Soft Power” was the EU answer to supposedly ossified NATO deterrence—a wonderful cop-out that allowed European social democracies to divert budgets to domestic spending while taking the moral high ground of outsourcing quaint and outdated ideas of hard power to a less sophisticated and rather unruly United States.

Few NATO countries since 1994 have kept their promises to invest at least 2% of their GDP in defense (the alliance-wide average was 1.6%). The few who did like Greece, Poland, or Estonia were not major international players. In the last twenty years, the United States has whined that it has provided a quarter of the yearly military wherewithal of the alliance—more if U.S. training and indirect support are included—even though by the logic of geography and geopolitics, America remains the most secure of its members.

To square the circle that America needed NATO less than NATO needed it, a sort of abusive parent-teen relationship ensued. The U.S., like the proverbial harping but enabling dad, whined at European NATO members, as if they were petulant teenagers, begging them to at least cool the rhetoric and be nice to their benefactors. Both Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to play along with this charade, understanding the historical consequences (two world wars in the twentieth century alone) of ripping the credit card away from the dependent teen and kicking him out the door.

Barack Obama, however, is a president of a different sort from his predecessors. By temperament and ideology he has no special investment in Europe. Indeed, his knowledge of recent European history is patchy (the Americans liberated Auschwitz; Austrians speak Austrian; the “death camps” were Polish, etc.). He envisions European social democracy and pacifism not as a NATO irritant, but as a model. After his own massive defense cuts and imposed sequestration, Obama will be the first president in modern history to see U.S. defense spending dip below 3% of GDP. Obama’s retreat from foreign policy—the loud but symbolic “Asian pivot,” “leading from behind,” and the general recessional from the Middle East—are the public manifestations of a deeper reluctance to worry much about European security—or for that matter U.S. military primacy abroad.

Yet once an American president calls NATO’s bluff—either out of chagrin or ignorance—the treaty will represent little more than a ceremonial organization of epaulettes and ribbons without much will or might. Vladimir Putin understood that reality when he went into the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He had been slapped in 2008 a bit by George W. Bush for annexing Ossetia, and then rightly understood that newly elected President Barack Obama felt that even light censure was too severe. Hence was born “reset”. But to Putin reset meant resetting an originally weak reset—or apologizing to Putin for Russia pushing about the Georgians.

The Eastern Europeans also have come to understand that NATO is a toothless nag.  Faced with Russian aggression and NATO indifference, it has not been a hard choice for Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and even Poland to about-face and cut deals of understanding with Vladimir Putin. In much of Eastern Europe there is a new opportunistic sympathy for Putin, expressed as a sort of cheap disgust with a supposed trans-Atlantic decadence that has led to a Lotus-eater like Western listlessness. In reality, those living between Western Europe and Russia accept that Vladimir Putin is more likely to bully than NATO is to protect them. Or perhaps it is worse still: there is a greater risk for a NATO power to alienate an adversary like Putin than their supposed benefactors in Brussels.

Recep Erdogan’s Turkey is an even greater threat to NATO. He represents not the twentieth-century authoritarianism of Kemalist predecessors who at least were secular and anti-Soviet in an anti-Soviet alliance, but rather an Islamism more in sympathy with NATO’s existential enemies than with its ideals. Turkey is now bullying Greek Cyprus over oil exploration, perennially starting trouble with Israel, championing the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while stealthily colluding with elements within ISIS. Turkey’s enemies—the Kurds, the Greeks, the Cypriots, or Israel—are more likely to be friends of the United States. At home, Erdogan is well on his way to replacing consensual government with an autocratic Islamic state, where wired elections function as they do in Iran, largely as in-house fights among rival theocrats.

Many observers are worried that NATO might dissolve if Vladimir Putin were soon to invade fellow member states like Estonia or Latvia, if only to dare the alliance to respond. But the organization might equally unwind were a volatile Turkey to start a regional war with almost any of its neighbors, given that many NATO members would prefer to side with Turkey’s enemies rather that with Erdogan.

In sum, NATO is confronting a tripartite existential danger. First, Putin is a far more sophisticated adversary than the old Soviet apparatchiks—projecting confidence, religion, values, and traditions to appeal to the very states that he would absorb.  His argument is that European appeasement and disarmament are not just dangerous for NATO members on Russian borders, but the logical ramification of an endemic social and cultural wasteland for which he offers a confident alternative.

Second, Turkey is a far more wayward member than France or the old member dictatorships ever were. The past NATO bond was anti-communism; and all members, from socialists to autocrats, agreed. But the new ostensible mission of NATO involves a deep distrust of Islamism and its many anti-Western agendas—from a would-be nuclear Iran to ISIS and al Qaeda. Every member but Turkey would agree. Turkey is not just aberrant in this regard, but increasingly antithetical to the entire democratic and liberal pretenses of NATO itself.

Third, Barack Obama is not the typical hectoring American president, but a European doppelganger who cannot chide NATO to man up to its responsibilities. Not only does he not believe that its members must step up, but he also does not believe that America should either.

The epitaph of NATO will be that its many weak members won their half-century philosophical argument over its one strong member. Europe got what it wanted and thereby by its indifference has almost destroyed the very organization that it so opportunistically slighted—and always counted on.

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14 thoughts on “The End of NATO”

  1. Nonsense! The Turks are staunch supporters of Western freedom and democracy, and the hard power that is needed to defend it. This video shows three US marines waiting for a bus in Istanbul. A local group of Turkish enthusiasts greets them with some happy slapping and party tricks. Why they even put a plastic bag over the head of one of them – probably filled with helium! Then they can speak in a squeaky voice, like their great leader Obama if he makes excuses for their high spirits, in between rounds of golf.

    Anyway, they were wasting their time waiting for the bus. It was probably Erdogan’s democracy bus, you know, as he said: “Democracy is a bus that you ride to where you want, then you get off it”. So their democracy bus was probably never coming, Erdogan had already dumped it. They would probably have known this if Turkey hadn’t imprisoned more journalists than any other country, but you can’t have free speech if its going to mean insulting Islam, can you? I mean, where’s the respect? After all, ‘respect’ IS a one-way street.

    But seriously folks, in a previous VDH talk, listing Obama’s failures, he included “Nato has a toxic relationship with Turkey” as one of them. That phrase will never leave me.

  2. The point of NATO since roughly 1992 has been what, exactly? From this side of the Atlantic it seems mainly to provide much-scorned, by continental Europeans, hard power shield mainly muscled by the US and UK. Meanwhile, behind that shield, the continentals proceed to diminish their historical legacy and their very will to protect themselves from outside aggression through the euphemism of “soft power” which is a polite way of saying “no power”.

    How long will we continue to provide military protection into a failing and flailing western Europe that no longer even believes in itself?

  3. But Putin’s world is a crumbling world. He just devalued the Ruble through a crazy guns instead of good economy butter. And does the Russian Orthodox Church really teach James Madison’s lesson that every leader has a devil on his shoulder?

    In America, our heros shoot the Bad Elephant in the room. Putin’s world continues to be simply brazen machismo, denying Russian military is in the Ukraine… hence former Soviet satellites are deceived greatly if they think Putin offers anything but a Potemkin Village of citizens enslaved to more Russian slavery.

    Isn’t the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church that the Ukraine conflict is a “civil war” and so their religious leaders take an official hands off position: no elephant to see! Some religion! This is High Truth?

    Americans, after a while… call a spade a spade, shoot evil-rogue elephants, and still refuse to deify leaders. Thank God for James Madison, it is eternally true… there are no angels in Government, so beware!

  4. As an anonymous internet reader, with absolutely no literary credentials, I will now offer helpful editing: Proverbial is a word that crops up far too frequently in VDH’s essays. An argument could be made that it is being used at times incorrectly in that it does not reference a wise didactic saying. If usage is not clearly incorrect, the most colloquial meaning of the word is being employed (with the exception of its July 28, 2014 usage in “Why Is the World Becoming Such a Nasty Place?”). It reads as an absolutely discordant note written by an author that uses language with delightful precision. In many cases, simple removal would not require reworking of the sentences and other words could be found if additional qualifiers are required.

    Metrics: the word Proverbial appears, so far, 11 times this year. It possibly appeared 28 times in 2013, according to a word specific site search, although duplicate articles may come into play in this tally.

    The End of NATO (November 14, 2014)
    The U.S., like xxx xxxxxxxxxx a harping but enabling dad, whined at European NATO members, as if they were petulant teenagers, begging them to at least cool the rhetoric and be nice to their benefactors.

    Losers (November 6, 2014 7:49 am)

    The problem with trying to get out the base with . . . not just the xxxxxxxxxx turned-off white male voter, but that minorities too either were not . . .

    Democrat Dilemmas (November 3, 2014)

    Race and gender baiting appeals not just to the special interests that benefit from such smears, but influences the xxxxxxxxxx ‘”swing” voter as well, who privately does not wish for the social stigma of voting for Republicans, if such support is branded by the popular culture as illiberal and uncool.

    Living Out Critical Legal Theory (August 19, 2014)
    In response, the xxxxxxxxxx people, whether in Ferguson or at the border certainly, or, yes, at the Obama Department of Justice . . .

    Why Is the World Becoming Such a Nasty Place? (July 28, 2014 7:20 am)
    The EU is being exposed as a self-indulgent socialist mess [7], full of class tensions, increasing racism and anti-Semitism, angry unassimilated immigrants and minorities, and as a proverbial baying lamb with a wolf next door.
    July 10, 2014 8:33 am
    July 7, 2014 8:37 am
    May 22, 2014 8:00 am
    May 1, 2014 10:46 am
    March 24, 2014 10:45 am
    January 14, 2014 10:31 am

    1. Pray tell, Don Salieri[1], exactly what is the optimum number of “proverbials” per annum?

      [1] – From the film Amadeus

      Emperor Joseph II (at the urging of Salieri): Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

      Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

  5. Three geographic flashpoints—- asia-pacific, europe, and middle-east , with the potential domino effect. Let the courtship of India begin. Good thing King barry is working hard to weaken the country, united we stand—divided we fall. The world is in need of a miracle in the next 2 years.

  6. The Maastricht treaties disarm the EU countries by limiting government spending. Or from your perspective: the Maastricht treaties require the US to pay for European defense.

  7. The thing I like that Obama may have unintentionally done is to force Europe to bulk up and realign their social expenditures for national defence, Obama’s lack of confrontation and his negligence towards military affairs will force Europe’s hand when Putin comes knocking. No more freebies, but it may require a major shock in order to do so.
    The irony is that the aspect Obama most admires about Europe, other than the Austrian language, its social political system is the very thing he will be destroying by furthering his own agenda. As much as we hope Putin won’t call out Obama’s piss-poor wheeling and dealing buffoonery, he will. He knows that there may be a major political correction in the US and I’m sure he would like to expand his holdings around Koenigsberg. His window of opportunity is wide open, but will be shut very soon.

    1. Nate, I have to disagree with you on this. Since 1992 real expenditures on military preparedness have declined all the major European countries, including most recently the UK. Not only have real expenditures declined, but the way those expenditures have been allocated makes what paltry defense funding is allocated more of a farce. The US is intent on minimizing personnel and increasing technology and capability. European forces are more of an employment agency than they are capable modern forces. Belgium’s largest base primarily hosts a freakin’ marching band, for crying out loud. They must think a snappy rendition of “Le Internationale” will send Putin scurrying for the hills.

      I say again, given the dominance of the institutionalized Left and the wishful-thinking environmentalists, the last thing Europe has a consensus on is military preparedness. In fact, my impression of the prevailing mindset Over There is more Better Red/Green/Pink than Dead. Yes, I’m saying the vast majority of Europeans today would RATHER live under authoritarianism like the EU as currently formulated or an adventurous Putin as long as the gravy train of Socialism can be kept running. Many, perhaps most, Europeans really don’t care about anything but a child-like state of play and leisure at somebody else’s expense.

  8. @Not Theophilus
    pro•ver•bi•al (prəˈvɜr bi əl)

    1. of, characteristic of, or resembling a proverb.
    2. expressed in or as if in a proverb.
    3. having become an object of common mention or reference: for example, his proverbial wit.

    VDH has not misused this term. Its usage exactly corresponds to meaning 3.

    I note that you fail to list any of the alternatives to “proverbial”, so I will list some, with their drawbacks.

    * “anecdotal”: only applies if there are specific anecdotes in which this phrase occured

    * quote the string itself: e.g. The “turned-off” white voter
    Ironically, this works better in speech than in writing. But in any case, the quoting method is more appopriate for labels in specific source texts, not labels which are generically or widely used.

    * “alleged”: as in “the alleged turned-off white voter”. That is too strong. Its not so much that this is a specific allegation, more that it is a meme which has become accepted and fashionable in the current narrative. If it were an allegation, you could rebut it. But it isn’t directly alleged, it is just slipped in under the radar by the media, and becomes accepted as is.

    There are others, but I’m stopping here.

    So now its my turn to be nit-picking. Given that this site examines serious and pressing threats to our freedom, democracy, security and whole way of life, which could easily be lost over the next few decades, is this the best thing you can find to do with your time? Is this your contribution? Is this what you are proud of?

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