The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 marks one of the United States’ greatest institutional and foreign policy achievements. However, there are questions regarding NATO’s present and future value to the United States. During his presidential campaign, President Trump labeled NATO as “obsolete”. Despite the noticeable softening of President Trump’s rhetoric regarding NATO in recent months and his affirmation of support for America’s allies during the latest NATO summit in May, questions still linger regarding the future of NATO. These questions may be answered by reviewing the geopolitics surrounding the formation of NATO, the organization’s current challenges, and the present international system.
Following the aftermath of the Second World War, the European Continent was completely devastated by total war, and the United States and the Soviet Union stood as the two unassailable global hegemons. Yet, these two powers could hardly be more different. While the United States was a liberal democratic maritime power, the Soviet Union was an autocratic communist land power. Furthermore, both nations saw it as their sacred duty to spread their respective political ideologies. More ominously, both powers felt that control of Germany and Central Europe was key to their national interest.
As a land power, the Soviet Union saw potential enemies along its borders. Historically, the Soviet Union’s greatest geographic vulnerability was the North European Plain. In fact, it was through the North European Plain that both Napoleon and Hitler struck at the heart of the Russian state. Although there were no geographic barriers impeding the progress of Napoleon and Hitler’s invasions, Russia’s vast size and harsh climate prevented invaders from conquering it. This historical reality created the geopolitical imperative for the Soviets to dominate the North European Plain. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, much of the North European Plain was occupied by the U.S.-led allied powers in West Germany, France, and the Low Countries.
As the dominant power in North America and the Western Hemisphere, America did not face major military threats along its borders, unlike its Soviet counterpart. America’s geographic position granted it the natural ability to project power into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And after World War II, the United States possessed unrivaled control of the world’s oceans. This not only enabled the United States to prevent sustained military operations against its homeland, it also allowed the United States to conduct sustained military operations overseas against its enemies.
Despite this tremendous geopolitical advantage, the United States did have one great fear: the emergence of a single Eurasian power that would use Europe’s population, industry, and technology to rival America’s naval dominance. The potential of the Soviet Union supplement its already formidable military capabilities, industrial base, and natural resources being supplementing with Western Europe capabilities consequently posed an existential threat to the United States. Additionally, due to the distance of the United States homeland from Western Europe, it would take months for substantial American military forces to arrive in the advent of a Soviet invasion.
To combat the Soviet threat, the United States formed NATO in 1949 alongside the other original member states of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. The most notable aspect of NATO is Article V, which states “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” thus establishing a clear statement of collective self-defense. Furthermore, NATO allowed America to establish forward operating bases in Western Europe which supplemented the United States’ ability to respond in the event of a Soviet invasion. The combination of collective self-defense and American forward-operating bases enabled NATO to create an effective deterrent against Soviet aggression throughout the course of the Cold War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a formerly bipolar world split between Moscow and Washington suddenly morphed into a unipolar world where the United States and its allies reigned supreme. Without the existential threat of Soviet invasion, NATO’s role morphed into the guardian of liberal democracy and stability within Europe. The 1990s saw NATO intervene in Yugoslavia to end a brutal civil war as well as add three former Warsaw Pact nations to the alliance. After 9/11, NATO shifted its role again to include counterterrorism to combat a growing global terrorist threat. Additionally, NATO continued its goal of advancing liberal democracy and political integration in Europe by adding nine new members in 2004 and 2009, seven of which were former Soviet vassal states.
Despite the rapid membership growth of NATO since the end of the Cold War, the military effectiveness of NATO as an institution remains highly suspect. In his book, Of Paradise and Power, international relations scholar Robert Kagan notes that in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many European NATO members cut defense spending to allocate additional funds to social welfare projects. To help reverse this trend, NATO set a standard target in 2006 for members to spend at least two percent or more of GDP on military expenditures. While six members met the spending targets in 2006, only five meet the spending requirements today. Indeed, Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump all highlighted Europe’s unwillingness to increase military spending.
The low levels of military spending by NATO members directly impact the military effectiveness of NATO as an institution. Throughout missions in Afghanistan, U.S. officials complained that many NATO members often failed to fulfill promised troop deployments or included combat stipulations that greatly impeded counterinsurgency operations. Additionally, the 2011 Libyan intervention highlighted the limited military capabilities of NATO’s European members. For instance, the United Kingdom and France, NATO’s strongest European members, ran out of munitions after one month of combat operations. And during France’s 2013 intervention in Mali, France relied heavily upon American logistical support to sustain its expeditionary force. These instances all raise serious questions regarding NATO’s military capabilities in the advent of a major conflict.
Despite the present weaknesses of NATO’s European members, NATO still possesses great strategic utility to the United States due to Russia’s resurgence as a great power. Starting with its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia is demonstrating a bellicose attitude geopolitically. In 2013, Russia brokered a chemical weapons agreement with the United State in Syria. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and began a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. In 2015, Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War to support Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. In 2016, Russian support proved instrumental during the capture of Aleppo by forces loyal to Assad. And in recent months, reports indicate that Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. All the while, Russian incursions into Baltic airspace continues to unnerve NATO members.
In the face of clear Russian provocation, the need for a strong NATO is self-evident. However, it must be noted that the geopolitical stakes in 2017 are much lower than during the Cold War. While Russia does possess the capability to gravely threaten Baltic nations and overrun NATO forces in the region, its ability to project power beyond the Baltics is constrained. Russia’s proxy war in Eastern Ukraine is in a stalemate, and the Syrian conflict is far from a final resolution. In addition, Russia’s troubled deployment of its sole aircraft carrier underscores the limited ability of Russia to project power. Russia’s domestic situation is also tenuous due to recent massive nationwide anti-government protests and low energy prices which have decimated Russia’s economy. These instances suggest that Russia does not possess the ability to fully capitalize on present instability in the international system and reclaim its former sphere of influence.
NATO’s reason for existence is the same today as during its creation: to prevent Russia from dominating the North European Plain. Although Russian aggression directly threatens European security, Russia is no longer the United States’ chief geopolitical concern. In 2017, the United States faces geopolitical imperatives not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. And due to NATO’s limited ability to project power outside of Europe, it is questionable if NATO will be able to provide tangible military support to the United States in the advent of a war with North Korea. Consequently, NATO’s relative importance to the United States has decreased significantly since the Cold War and will continue to decrease in the coming decades. But so long as Russia represents a major threat to European security, so shall NATO remain a cornerstone of American foreign policy.