America Needs a Strong NATO Alliance

America Needs a Strong NATO Alliance
U.S. Army photo by SGT A.M. LaVey
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For the last eight years, the world has endured a painful experiment in what happens when America shrugs off its role as the indispensable international leader and allows U.S. military supremacy to deteriorate.  The results are in, and they are not good.

Around the globe, America’s adversaries, enemies, and competitors are now emboldened, leaving our allies wondering what happened to the United States.  Predictably, the Obama administration’s experiment has left Americans and our democratic allies less safe.

Despite these concerning developments, Americans are understandably skeptical of Washington’s investment of finite resources abroad when they consider our growing national debt and the need for investments here at home.  Given the fact that a majority of our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are not carrying their fair share of the burden when it comes to defense spending, it is reasonable to scrutinize America’s contributions to European security and to ask how NATO benefits the United States. 

Despite the shortcomings of many of our allies, in light of Russian aggression and growing transnational cyber and Islamist terrorist threats, a strong and unified NATO alliance remains vital to American national security interests.   

While some NATO members have taken positive steps since the 2014 Wales Summit, it is certainly true that the majority of our NATO allies are not spending what they should on defense.  While Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland meet the two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) target, the other NATO countries do not.   For example, Germany boasts a budget surplus and one of the largest economies in the world—yet spends barely more than one percent of its GDP on defense. 

Given these facts, there is no question that the U.S. should take all prudent measures to push our NATO allies to honor their defense spending commitments.  However, those measures should not inadvertently undercut America’s core national security interests, undermine deterrence of Russia, and invite additional Russian aggression that will cost more in the long-run.  That is why U.S. leaders should reiterate unambiguously that we will continue to honor our Article 5 collective defense obligation to all of our NATO allies.

In March, the Commander of U.S forces in Europe warned that Russia seeks to “fracture” NATO’s unity.  If Putin believes that the United States may not fulfill its collective defense obligations, he will be more likely to instigate a Crimea-style invasion of a Baltic country.  This would force the United States to either go to war against Russia to defend a NATO ally or to accept the effective end of NATO.  The effective end of NATO would represent a disaster for the United States, as well as a grand strategic victory for Putin with deeply troubling implications for global security.   

America’s investments in NATO do not represent an example of naïve international charity.  While our European allies certainly benefit from a strong American military presence in Europe, the foremost beneficiary of our military presence in Europe is the United States.  America benefits when Europe is peaceful, prosperous, and free, and the best way to facilitate that outcome is by maintaining a capable and credible American-led NATO military deterrent forward-stationed in Europe. 

The last century’s world wars began in Europe, and America initially tried to avoid becoming involved.  Yet, in both cases, our core democratic principles, as well as our security and economic interests, compelled the United States to intervene.  After more than a half million Americans gave their lives, America’s leaders searched for a way to prevent such wars in the future.

As General James Mattis testified in 2015, these post-war leaders created an international order that included NATO based on the realization that “no nation lived as an island”.  Mattis said, “Like it or not, today we are part of this larger world, and we must carry out our part. We cannot wait for problems to arrive here, or it will be too late.”  He warned that this system is “not self-sustaining” and that “it demands tending by an America that leads wisely...”  In other words, deterrence is less costly than war, it is better to confront adversaries overseas than here at home, and there is no substitute for American international leadership. 

In addition to deterring further Russian aggression in Europe, the NATO alliance and the presence of U.S. forces in Europe help build the capabilities and interoperability of our allies enabling them to operate more effectively with U.S. forces and to carry a larger share of the burden in conflicts outside of Europe.  A strong NATO facilitates the projection of military power around Europe’s troubled periphery—including in the fight against ISIS.

It is worth remembering that the only time that NATO has invoked Article Five was after the terrorist attacks on our country on 9/11.  While the U.S—and not Europe—was attacked on 9/11, more than 1000 of our European allies have laid down their lives to ensure Afghanistan does not once again become a launching pad for international terrorism.  It is difficult to imagine a more tangible or significant demonstration of the willingness of our NATO allies to honor their obligations to us.

In a speech in Wisconsin recently, after an eight-year retrenchment in American international leadership and power, President-Elect Trump emphasized the importance of strengthening vital alliances and achieving peace through strength.  At a time of increasing transnational threats and escalating Russian aggression, one of the best ways to accomplish those objectives is for the new administration to demonstrate in word and deed that the United States remains unalterably committed to a strong and credible NATO alliance that is prepared to defend all of its members.

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