What Is NATO Good For?
In 2019, The Strategy Bridge announced a writing contest on NATO at 70: The Past, Present, and Future of the Atlantic Alliance. Today, we’re pleased to present the first-place essay.
What is NATO good for? This is a question that gets asked a lot these days, and there is an increasing tendency among many to mimic 1960s rocker Edwin Starr and shout, “Nothing!” Indeed, the run-up to the alliance’s 70th anniversary was accompanied by an outpouring of doubts about NATO’s future and usefulness. At War on the Rocks, the alliance was said to be both endangering American lives and overflowing with strategic liabilities as a result of expansion. The Wall Street Journal asserted that the alliance was effectively deceased. Writing in The National Review, Douglas MacGregor found “dead” insufficient, instead declaring NATO to be a zombie, while Gil Barndollar merely called for the alliance to retire at 70. MIT’s Barry Posen beat everyone to the punch with his OpEd in The New York Times in March calling for a major reassessment of America’s role in the alliance.
…better policies on how NATO is used should be the focus, rather than scrapping it altogether…
Of course, NATO’s obituary has been written many times before. In the opening to Why NATO Endures, quietly one of the best books on the alliance, Wallace J. Thies wryly notes that Henry Kissinger owns the unique distinction of having declared the alliance to be in serious peril in each of the first six decades of NATO’s existence. For the time being, better policies on how NATO is used should be the focus, rather than scrapping it altogether or withdrawing U.S. support. Key to this will be working to enhance strategic stability between the alliance and Russia.
De-Mystifying the Past
To some extent, NATO is a victim of its own myth-making. Support for the alliance is often couched in somber testaments to the wisdom of the founders and odes to the selfless nobility of collective defense. The reality is quite different.
Interestingly, the main strategic rationale for NATO that emerges in the pages of Thies’ book is as a complement to the Marshall Plan: just as funds from that initiative would allow the Europeans to rebuild their economies, NATO would remove the burden from the European allies of having to devote scarce money to their militaries. It would also provide psychological reinforcement to nations still traumatized by the Second World War, living in Stalin’s long shadow. Once the West European economies had stabilized and rebounded, they could—in theory—take on a greater share of their defense and the United States could recede.
Thus, in the late 1940s, many U.S. officials didn’t expect to base American troops in Europe indefinitely. Nor did they necessarily expect them to have to fight. While the Soviets might attempt mischief within their own sphere of influence—as seen in the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia and the blockade of West Berlin—their ability and willingness to go beyond that was considered limited by key thinkers such as George Kennan, who believed the Soviet military and people too spent from the Second World War to threaten Western Europe. Moreover, Stalin was seen as distinct from Hitler in terms of his willingness to pursue risk. While the Soviet leader might try to capitalize on existing chaos and weakness, he wasn’t disposed to the outright aggression that characterized the Nazi regime.
But in a prescient prelude to the defensibility issues surrounding the admission of the Baltic states, not a great deal of thought was given to how Western Europe would actually be defended when the alliance was formed—at least in terms of conventional forces. Of course, in April 1949, America still had a nuclear monopoly.
The Soviet detonation of its own atomic device in August 1949 changed the U.S. calculus somewhat, but it was events around the world a year later that truly focused America’s mind on what it had signed up for in NATO. The conventional defeats suffered by the U.S. military in the opening stage of the Korean Warâ??, â??as much as any development, led to a realistic discussion of what collective defense would really look like in Europe—almost eighteen months after the alliance’s inception. It was only then that planners on both sides of the Atlantic began to take seriously the practical questions of defensibility and to set up integrated military structures—such as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE—to coordinate those efforts. Subsequently, NATO’s role as an institution and U.S. force deployments in Europe would both take on permanence.
The ad hoc nature of this process is the point worth underscoring. NATO was not formed by strategic gods implementing their divine wisdom; it was the result of hardworking government officials and political leaders doing their best to deal with the security challenges of the day using the means at their disposal. That is all the alliance has ever been, and we exalt its past at the risk of its future.
NATO as an Instrument, Not a Theology
Understanding that NATO outlasted its original purpose—to allow the Europeans to focus on rebuilding their economies in tandem with the Marshall Plan—well before the end of the Cold War illustrates that the alliance has always been an adaptable instrument. It is true that some twentieth-century luminaries such as Kennan and Dwight Eisenhower didn’t foresee NATO evolving into a permanent fixture in European security at its inception. But should that have stopped the alliance from becoming an effective military bulwark against the Soviets as the Cold War developed and demands on the alliance evolved?
Just as it adapted and changed throughout its early history, NATO’s purpose now can be whatever is required. This doesn’t mean that NATO should do everything—or be everywhere. The past thirty years have shown that there are some things the alliance does better than others and also that there are questionable benefits to unending expansion of its membership. President George W. Bush’s support for Georgian and Ukrainian membership at the 2008 Bucharest Summit is the most prominent example of this and likely contributed to both the August War in Georgia and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But here, too, perspective is needed. Because the alliance should consider ending expansion doesn’t mean previous rounds were inherently mistakes. Enlargement permanently settled the Polish Question—which provided grist for a century and a half of European wars—and also has on balance contributed to stability between Russia and the Baltic states. Likewise, being realistic about the failure of the Libya intervention doesn’t mean the 1995 operation to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was also a mistake. The 1999 Kosovo intervention probably falls somewhere in the middle.
NATO frankly does its best work when no one hears about it. Its strength lies in the day-to-day military cooperation it fosters and the general sense of deterrence and stability it promotes. These contributions are neither as dramatic as facing off against the Red Army at the height of the Cold War, nor as controversial as the Libyan intervention, but they would be glaring in their absence.
Why arbitrarily remove the structure that provides that stability—both with Russia and also among NATO’s many disparate members? Withdrawing NATO protection from the Baltic states or the smaller Balkan members, for example, will not preclude the possibility of their becoming involved in a war with Russia or Serbia; just the opposite, it could make it more likely. Once such a conflict begins, is it certain the United States will not be entangled or affected even if it is no longer actively participating in NATO?
Again, it is worth reiterating that NATO is an instrument. Many of the alliance’s opponents may actually be opposed to the way the United States and its partners have employed force since the end of the Cold War—especially in the case of operations falling under the rubric of regime change. The argument, implicit in Posen’s OpEd, for example, is that NATO needs to be taken away from reckless U.S. policymakers to prevent them from future adventures.
This argument is backwards. Yes, the consequences of three decades of continuous military operations should be examined. But increasing national restraint and making better strategic decisions seems like a smarter path than summarily scrapping an effective, tested tool that could play an essential role in a wiser foreign policy.
Stabilizing the Present
NATO’s advocates are also prone to hyperbole, but one word that is not an overstatement is irreplaceable. It would be difficult—if not impossible—to recreate NATO or something like it from scratch. Still, even irreplaceable doesn’t imply permanence if the alliance’s value cannot readily be established and sold to the populations of its constituent members, especially Americans.
…shared historical experience or even simple nostalgia will not be enough to sustain the alliance through the twenty-first century.
Demography is not on the alliance’s side. Should NATO survive to celebrate its centennial, the generation being born at that time will be as far removed from the end of the Second World War as someone born in 1969 was from the conclusion of the American Civil War. Even the September 11th attacks—and NATO’s ensuing invocation of Article 5—will be a half century in the past. In short, shared historical experience or even simple nostalgia will not be enough to sustain the alliance through the twenty-first century. NATO needs to show that it is not just relevant, but crucial to continued security in Europe and, to be blunt, the broader interests of its essential member, the United States.
The most effective way of doing that is reinforcing the image of NATO as a vehicle for stability, something which has been recently diminished. There are legitimate arguments to be made that NATO now endangers American security by having antagonized Russia through enlargement and increased the likelihood of confrontation, possibly a nuclear one, rather than decreasing it. That relations between America and Russia—and overall stability in Eastern Europe—might be far worse without the alliance is also true, but is a difficult sell in trying to promote the alliance’s relevance. NATO needs to be an active participant in visibly promoting stability, beyond the important day-to-day but low-key role it plays in this regard.
Some potential steps are obvious, the most high profile of which would be a public declaration on closing the alliance to further expansion after the current candidacy of North Macedonia is vetted. To be clear, such a move need not be taken in a vacuum. In general, NATO must engage with Russia and some sort of quid pro quo shouldn’t be ruled out on ending further expansion of the alliance. Cessation of Moscow’s support for separatist activities in Transnistria and the Donbass certainly should be on the table as should guarantees from Russia that Belarus and Ukraine would be free to pursue their own independent relationships with the West, perhaps to someday include the possibility of membership in the European Union if either state wants it.
Even the taboo question of recognizing Russian annexation of Crimea shouldn’t be off limits, though again strong concessions and actions by Russia to promote security in Central and Eastern Europe must be exacted in return. There exists a real danger that, in time, the annexation of Crimea will more-or-less be accepted by the international community, producing a de facto recognition of Russian adventurism. Would it not be better to address the question head-on and elicit a price from Moscow—ideally one that benefits overall regional stability?
All of this might well be too much to ask. But by pursuing negotiations along these lines, it would at least have the effect of engaging Russia in a strategic dialogue—one that could eventually yield results while also serving as an outlet for regional stress before it metastasizes into genuine crises. Such a dialogue would also publicly bolster the image of NATO as a force working to diffuse tension—both in Central and Eastern Europe and between Russia and the United States more broadly—rather than being an aggravating factor in those relationships.
A more workmanlike complement to this higher-level discussion could be to resuscitate serious arms control discussions between Russia and NATO. Unfortunately, the most obvious candidate for attention—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—is probably a non-starter at this point and also an issue that has extended out of NATO’s purview given American concerns over Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles in the Pacific. But discussion on conventional force deployments is something that the alliance could lead on, perhaps mimicking the useful negotiations that took place in the late 1980s, ultimately resulting in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. NATO could either attempt such talks directly or channel them through a third-party organization, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). While new efforts to improve transparency and, possibly, impose limits on force deployments need not be an exact replica of the CFE process, or even lead to a formal treaty, they could be a further step both in burnishing the alliance’s public role as a stabilizing entity and yet another means of engaging Russia in a dialogue that, in itself, could contribute to a reduction in tensions.
A first step to consider in this regard, might be talks between NATO and Russia on reducing—or even halting—major exercises in close proximity to one another’s territory. As one informed observer has noted, military exercises are an important part of “the larger geopolitical discourse.” Effectively, the conduct of exercises—and their timing and locale—is a language unto itself. A negotiated moratorium on large-scale maneuvers, like NATO’s Saber Strike and Russia’s Zapad exercises, could be one way for NATO and Russia to say hello to one another again.
Seeing Russia Clearly
In all of these efforts, it is important for NATO to see Russia as it is and not as it was. To be clear, there is no question that Russia meddles in the affairs of its neighbors; its annexation of Crimea and support to the Donbass insurgency speak plainly to this. But Russia, like any power, is bound by the limits of its capabilities and they are not infinite.
Russian economic resources are, at best, those of a middle power. In 2018, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ranked eleventh after the likes of Canada; price-adjusted GDP is slightly more impressive at sixth overall globally, but still leaves Russia trailing Germany, India, Japan, the United States, and China. Russia has chosen to expend these limited resources on an at least half a dozen neo-imperial projects in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Crimea, the Donbass, Transnistria, and South Ossetia. There is also Russia’s open-ended military commitment in Syria. Each of these adventures costs money, limiting Moscow’s ability to placate its population through social programs. That Vladimir Putin’s popularity took perhaps its worst hit after he was forced to raise the retirement age speaks to the long-term risks inherent in supporting what are essentially six mini-client states.
Militarily, Russia has steadily rebuilt itself since the nadir of the early 1990s. In particular, Russia took pains to learn from its shaky performance during the 2008 war with Georgia and implement needed reforms. That said, Russia of today is nowhere near the menace that the Red Army once was believed to be. And while it would be wrong to say that funds aren’t available for Russian military modernization, planned investments reflect modest improvements rather than transformative capabilities.
NATO’s strategic depth has also radically changed since the Cold War, through both the inclusion of Poland and the territory of East Germany. Russian forces must now also traverse either Belarus or Ukraine before even touching the edge of NATO’s main territory. There is, obviously, the important exception of the Baltic states which will be examined later. For all the understandable concern over Russian aggression in the wake of the Crimean annexation, it is essential to remember that the overall military situation and balance of forces has improved remarkably for NATO in the past thirty years.
Russia’s overall conventional threat to NATO is thus extremely limited. Would Russia have the wherewithal to occupy Belarus and Ukraine and then still successfully invade Poland, let alone to enter German territory? It seems extremely unlikely. Forcibly placating Belarus and/or Ukraine alone might stretch Russian capabilities to their limits and there still is the question of economically supporting a prolonged occupation of those territories.
…when dealing with Russia, NATO can afford to be both patient and perhaps even generous…
In sum, when dealing with Russia, NATO can afford to be both patient and perhaps even generous; after all, the alliance won the Cold War and maintains a much stronger strategic position in its aftermath. This doesn’t mean that Russia still can’t be dangerous, but its diminished capabilities limit the damage it can do conventionally. Russia can and does intimidate its immediate neighbors and—especially in the case of Ukraine—actively undermines their security. But if NATO wants this to stop and is unwilling to use military force to end the incursions in Crimea and the Donbass, the only alternative is some kind of negotiated settlement. That means NATO has to talk to Russia—despite its bad behavior—just as it once spoke to the Soviets, in spite of their own serious transgressions.
Must NATO Nuke?
There are, of course, two obvious caveats to the preceding discussion about Russia’s capacity to inflict damage on NATO. The first is that Russia does pose a very real threat to the territory of the Baltic states, inarguably the portion of alliance territory most susceptible to conventional attack. Second, Russia retains the ability to devastate all NATO territory, in both Europe and North America, through its strategic forces. The intersection of these two issues—Baltic vulnerability and the potency of the Russian nuclear arsenal—remains at the heart of many arguments by NATO detractors in America: that the alliance could entangle the United States in an unnecessary war in northeast Europe, one that would likely escalate to a suicidal strategic exchange.
The first is that Russian dominance in a war for the Baltics is not absolutely assured. To a large degree this has become the popularly accepted view following RAND’s 2016 wargame series that established Russia could overrun the Baltic states in as little as 60 hours. This does not discount these exercises wholesale; no doubt, they were an important contribution to the debate on the viability of NATO’s security guarantee to the Baltics and helped to focus thinking on defensibility in northeast Europe. But it was a single set of exercises conducted by one organization and one set of analysts, respected though they might be. Would it not be useful to replicate conflict scenarios with other planners and analysts who might bring a different set of assumptions to the gaming table?
Perhaps the results would be exactly the same, but it is worth asking if Russia’s ability to seize the Baltics is being overestimated—or at least the speed with which they would do so—and the price Russia might pay to achieve its objectives. There are a host of variables that come into play including the actions of other regional actors—such as Belarus—that are often taken for granted. The scope of such games should also be extended to the essential question of what it would cost Russia to operate a prolonged occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, both militarily and economically. Additional assessments and a broader lens to examine the second- and third-order consequences of Russian actions might yield a different perspective on how easy it would be for Russia to take the Baltic states.
The second, and perhaps even more important, correction that needs to be made is challenging the assumption that NATO must resort to nuclear use if it is unable to win conventionally. This is simply unrealistic in the current setting and it is essentially a mental hangover from Cold War-era policies. Nuclear escalation after conventional loss was a by-product of the perceived conventional weakness of NATO during the Cold War vis-à-vis Warsaw Pact forces. It should not somehow, three decades after the conflict’s end, be seen as the current de facto response.
Yes, it would be difficult and painful to alliance cohesion and reliability—to say nothing of the Baltic states themselves—if Russia won a conventional conflict in northeast Europe. But the idea that preventing that eventuality must lead NATO to use nuclear weapons is discordant, at best, with the current strategic environment. Moving away from any discussion of a nuclear response in a Baltic conflict would be an essential step toward reducing the criticism that NATO endangers American security more than helping it.
Moreover, removing the possibility of a nuclear response in a Baltic contingency would not inherently mean that the alliance was surrendering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; there remain viable strategies for deterring Russia with conventional forces, as seen in the success of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups. Even if Baltic territory were lost in a war with Russia tactical nuclear forces are unlikely to save it—not least because they would possibly be employed on said territory. Win or lose, nuclear forces should thus have no role in NATO’s response to aggression against the Baltics and the alliance needs to consider declaring that policy publicly.
Taking this argument a step further, would it boost regional security—to say nothing of NATO’s image as a force for stability—if the alliance finally relinquished its remaining tactical nuclear weapons? A definitive answer is beyond the scope of this paper, but it demands more attention than it has received. What is the scenario where tactical nuclear weapons are somehow deployed to stem a conventional attack without leading to dangerous escalation? How, for example, could they be used in a Baltic conflict without sparking a strategic exchange with Russia and/or decimating large portions of the territory NATO is supposed to be defending? And if there is no reasonable applicability for these weapons in a Baltic conflict, why keep them at all?
There has been an understandable and necessary debate over the question of what was and was not promised to Soviet and then-Russian leaders regarding NATO enlargement at the end of the Cold War. This is an important subject that needs to be examined, but the discussion over what happened and its subsequent impact on relations between Russia and the West have, to a degree, obscured another equally prominent move at the end of the Cold War. In September 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the field all of its tactical nuclear weapons, except for a small force of B61 gravity bombs left in NATO Europe. Bringing those weapons home now—â??along with a public declaration on a cessation of further expansion of the alliance’s membership—would do much to reset NATO’s image as a force for stability. It would undercut many of the arguments that the alliance is ultimately a liability for broader American security interests.
To reiterate, NATO is an instrument, one that has shown it can be adapted to different tasks and goals as the strategic setting changes. Those adaptations have not always been swift or graceful, yet the alliance’s endurance speaks to the fact that it eventually does meet its members’ needs. If NATO can reassert itself in the current environment as an engine of stability and not just a provider of military security it has a much stronger chance of persevering, even as its origins in the aftermath of World War II and the early years of the Cold War recede further into history.
Mike Sweeney spent thirteen years as a think tank analyst. Currently, he lives and writes in New Jersey. He is the author of the essay, “Could America Lose a War Well?” He’s still not sure how he feels about it.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
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 Mead, Walter Russell. 2019. “NATO Is Dying, but Don’t Blame Trump.” The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-is-dying-but-dont-blame-trump-11553555665.
 Macgregor, Douglas. “NATO Is Not Dying. It’s a Zombie.” The National Review, March 31, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/nato-not-dying-it%E2%80%99s-zombie-49747; Barndollar, Gil. “NATO Is 70 and Past Retirement Age.” The National Review, April 8, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/nato-70-and-past-retirement-age-51482.
 Posen, Barry R. “Trump Aside, What’s the U.S. Role in NATO?” The New York Times, March 10, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/opinion/trump-aside-whats-the-us-role-in-nato.html.
 Thies, Wallace J. Why NATO Endures. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 6.
 Ibid., pp. 92-99.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Kennan, George. “The Long Telegram, February 22, 1946.” National Security Archive. Accessed September 29, 2019. https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.pdf.
 Thies, p. 91.
 Ibid., pp. 106-113.
 Ibid., pp. 144-145.
 Upon assuming command of NATO forces, Eisenhower famously said "If in ten years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed." As quoted in Carroll, Eugene, and Pat Schroeder. “It’s Time to Consign NATO to History, and Look to the Future.” Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1994. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1994-09-02-9409020263-story.html. As time passed from his original writings on containment, Kennan increasingly lamented the militarization of the policy through entities such as NATO. See Gaddis, John Lewis. “A Conversation with Kennan's Biographer.” The Economist, November 28, 2011. https://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/11/quick-study-george-kennan’s-cold-war-policy-containment.
 Toal, Gerard. Near Abroad. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 7-8, 93-95, 198-199.
 Goldgeier, James, and Gorana Grgic. “The Kosovo War in Retrospect.” War on the Rocks, March 24, 2019. https://warontherocks.com/2019/03/the-kosovo-war-in-retrospect/.
 See, for example, Shifrinson, Joshua. “Time to Consolidate NATO?” The Washington Quarterly 40, no. 1 (2017): 109–23.
 For an extended discussion of what such a “grand bargain” on Eastern Europe might look like, see Sweeney, Mike. “Toward a European Buffer Zone.” Medium, January 16, 2019. https://medium.com/@mikesweeney1848/toward-a-european-buffer-zone-f5804414a708.
 “Treaty on Conventional Arms Forces in Europe.” Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 19, 1990. https://www.osce.org/library/14087.
 Clem, Ralph. “Military Exercises as Geopolitical Messaging in the NATO-Russia Dynamic: Reassurance, Deterrence, and (In)Stability.” The Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018). http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/865.
 “Russia 6th Largest Economy in World GDP Rankings.” The Moscow Times, July 13, 2018. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/07/13/russia-6th-largest-economy-in-world-GDP-rankings-a62236.
 “Latest Poll Shows Putin's Popularity Decreasing Sharply.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 8, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/latest-poll-shows-putin-s-popularity-decreasing-sharply/29532201.html.
 Kofman, Michael. “Russian Performance in the Russo-Georgian War Revisited.” War on the Rocks, September 4, 2018. https://warontherocks.com/2018/09/russian-performance-in-the-russo-georgian-war-revisited/.
 Connolly, Richard, and Mathieu Boulegue. “Russia’s Military: More Bark than Bite.” The National Review, May 23, 2018. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/russias-military-more-bark-bite-25941.
 Shlapak, David A. and Michael Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.
 For an excellent discussion of Belarus’ strategic relevance and why its complicity in Russian aggression against the Baltic states shouldn’t be taken for granted, see Lanoszka, Alexander. “The Belarus Factor in European Security.” Parameters 47, no. 4 (2017): 75–84.
 Maguire, Steven. “The Positive Impact of NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence.” The Strategy Bridge, September 3, 2019. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/9/3/the-positive-impact-of-natos-enhanced-forward-presence.
 For a more extensive discussion of this issue, see Sokolsky, Richard, and Gordon Adams. “The Problem with NATO's Nukes.” Foreign Affairs, February 9, 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2016-02-09/problem-natos-nukes.
 For two excellent analyses of current archival research on this subject, see Shifrinson, Joshua R. Itzkowitz. “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion.” International Security 40, no. 4 (2016): 7–44, and Sarotte, M.E. “How to Enlarge NATO: The Debate inside the Clinton Administration 1993-95.” International Security 44, no. 1 (2019): 7–41.
 “The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) on Tactical Nuclear Weapons at a Glance.” Arms Control Association, July 2017. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/pniglance.