Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week Joe Biden and his foreign policy team attended the NATO Heads of State and Government summit in Brussels. This gathering was more consequential than usual given the ongoing brutal war Russia is waging against Ukraine. Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, this conflict on the borders of several NATO nations highlights the long-evident dysfunctions of the treaty, some of which are only now being acknowledged.
Yet little went on last week to suggest that NATO member-states are serious about making the deep reforms that should have taken place in the decade after the Cold War ended.
The official NATO statement was certainly filled with “rules-based international order” clichés typical of large bureaucracies suffering from professional deformation and fossilized narratives. It spoke of Russia’s “assault on international norms” that don’t exist, any more than the “international community” it implies will “hold accountable those responsible for violations of humanitarian and international law, including war crimes.” No more substantial are phrases like the “values and norms that have brought security and prosperity”; or “the foundations of international security and stability”; or the “international order including the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as enshrined in the UN Charter.”
In reality, all these laws, institutions, and principles are the result of treaties made among sovereign nations that join them not because of shared “norms” or “values,” but because they serve those nations’ interests. And when a treaty stops doing so, those nations will ignore or violate them. That fact of history calls into doubt the statement’s claim that “Our commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is iron-clad.”
But who really thinks that Germany or the UK or the U.S. will go to war with Russia over Estonia or Romania? If Ukraine had been a NATO member, would Article 5 really have changed the political and security risk-calculus that earlier led Joe Biden to announce to the world that the U.S. won’t go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine?
The primacy of national interests over the terms and strictures of “parchment barriers” like the Washington Treaty explains the biggest weakness of NATO the should have long ago been corrected––the shameless free-riding on U.S. taxpayers for funding member-states’ security. In the last few weeks lots of promises to increase defense spending have been made by NATO states, pledges hostage to each country’s political and economic interests.
So we should be skeptical when the statement promises that “we will also significantly strengthen our longer-term deterrence and defence posture and will further develop the full range of ready forces and capabilities necessary to maintain credible deterrence and defence.”
This aim, of course, means spending a lot of money: “Today, we have decided to accelerate our efforts to fulfill our commitment to the Defence Investment Pledge in its entirety. In line with our commitment in Article 3 of the Washington Treaty, we will further strengthen our individual and collective capacity to resist all forms of attack.”
That is, NATO will finally honor the requirement––which only 10 of 30 member states do now––of spending at least 2% of GDP on defense, as well as devoting at least 20% of that 2% on developing and purchasing war materiel, and fulfilling Article 3’s requirement that states can ensure their own self-defense. Germany, the fourth wealthiest country in the world by GDP, announced after three decades that it will finally comply. But given NATO’s history of ignoring those requirements, we should be skeptical that such promises will be kept once the current crisis passes.
Indeed, chiding European NATO to pay its fair share didn’t start with the blunt-talking Donald Trump. As I’ve written before, after NATO’s birth in 1949, “It didn’t take long for American politicians to start grousing over American taxpayers having to pay for the defense of some of the richest countries in the world. In 1970, Montana Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield wrote a column calling for the ‘Europeanization’ of NATO in order to reduce the costs of American troops stationed in Europe. And European heart-throb Barack Obama in 2016 complained about NATO ‘free riders.’”
But the issue goes beyond the 2% minimum for defense expenditures. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “This target should be a floor, not a ceiling.” Two-percent is embarrassingly low, particularly for rich Germany (GDP $3.63 trillion), which is promising to reach that low bar, while Greece (GDP $203 billion) spends nearly twice the percentage of its GDP. And many other NATO laggards are still vague about exactly how much and when these increases will happen. Nor is the U.S. doing much better: as the world’s biggest economy with global responsibilities, we should be spending much more than 3.7% of GDP, which is less than Greece.
How the new money is spent, however, is more important than how much is appropriated. Most important is increased spending on the war-making materiel needed to deter a power like Russia or China. “This means,” the Journal writes,
a ready arsenal of tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and other heavy equipment. As the Ukrainians have shown, antitank and short-range air-defense systems are highly effective. Drones and loitering munitions, even relatively low-tech, are critical to success on the modern battlefield. Europeans can also invest more in the sophisticated coastal- and air-defense systems and long-range precision fires that Ukraine wishes it had now.
Finally, NATO’s credibility regarding its promises is pretty thin. Given that European nations (and the U.S.) are still subsidizing Putin’s war by buying his oil and gas, European action is still lagging behind its bellicose rhetoric, and casting doubt on all these promises. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz explains why: He won’t agree to a complete ban of Russian energy, because it would mean “plunging our country and all of Europe into a recession.” Funny how Vladimir Putin is willing to put his country’s economy at risk in order to achieve his irredentist aims.
So, once again Uncle Sam will step in and mitigate the consequence of the feckless war on carbon that has led to Europe’s energy servitude to Russia, and its de facto financing of Putin’s war. According to the Wall Street Journal,
The U.S. aims to ship 50 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe annually through at least 2030, officials said Friday, making up for about a third of the gas the EU receives from Russia. The EU imported a record 22 billion cubic meters of LNG from the U.S. last year.
The EU in January imported 4.4 billion cubic meters of LNG from the U.S., a record. But that is only a fraction of the 155 billion cubic meters of gas that Europe imported from Russia last year—45% of its total imports.
Sharp readers will recognize that the deep “green” Biden regime is fighting the same suicidal war against carbon that has contributed to gas prices rising to over five dollars a gallon in some places, and oil to $112 a barrel. The West’s difficulty in confronting Russia in part reflects this self-destructive assault on cheap energy that is shutting down oil development and pipelines, and restricting the West’s abundant domestic energy resources, while enabling a declining petrostate like Russia to invade a neighboring nation and wage a scorched-earth war that targets civilians.
Finally, NATO’s inherent weaknesses were compounded by the end of the Cold War. The West went on a binge, cashing in the so-called “peace dividend” while reducing its military expenditures. Germany is particularly revealing. According to Georg Löfflmann of the University of Warwick, up to the end of the Cold War Germany had a half-million-man army with an “impressive arsenal of thousands of Leopard tanks, Marder infantry fighting vehicles and some of the best ground-based mobile air defenses in western Europe with the Gepard anti-aircraft tank, plus hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters and fighter bombers. The Bundeswehr was regarded as the conventional backbone of Nato and one of its most capable armies.”
Then after the Cold War, Germany’s military shrank drastically. The army was cut nearly in half, and “Germany reduced the equipment of its heavy army divisions geared for territorial defence by as much as 80 to 90 percent.” As a result, “Today, over half the German defence budget is eaten up by personnel, maintenance and running costs. In 2016 only 13 per cent of the budget went toward acquisition of new equipment – the Nato target is 20 per cent, a goal Germany has never met.”
In the Nineties our foreign policy establishment suffered a failure of imagination. We seemingly didn’t consider that NATO’s reason for existing––“ to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as NATO Secretary General Lord Ismay famously put it––had become outdated. NATO needed a reset to a military force more adequate for the new dangers in the multipolar world that would follow the loss of the Cold War’s bipolar balance of terror. As potential global aggressors, some of them non-state actors like jihadist organizations, were given greater scope, member states needed to field much larger armies with much greater firepower to meet those potential threats. Most importantly, it needed a new, more reliable funding formula, with expulsion as the penalty for deadbeats.
Then expanding NATO would have made sense, for it would have had the military assets necessary for backing up its Article 5 guarantees, and creating the deterrent power that Putin has exposed as sorely lacks. As Ukrainians continue to die, the West now must rely on Russia’s military incompetence, its economic collapse, or a palace coup to bring this war to an end.