It’s Not Too Big to Work: In Praise of NATO

In his Liberty Forum essay, historian Walter A. McDougall takes aim at the NATO Alliance on the eve of its 70th anniversary, suggesting that it is an organization whose purpose has passed and whose continued expansion since the end of the Cold War has led to instability in Europe and weakened the alliance’s ability to defend all its members. While McDougall is correct that NATO has faced serious challenges in its history, he fails to acknowledge its tremendous successes. Moreover, he does not consider the alternatives to NATO expansion, which likely were worse. Finally, he fails to take into account the alliance’s recent progress in addressing the external and internal problems it faces.

Contrary to McDougall, we argue that NATO has been the cornerstone of peace and security in Europe for decades and will continue to play this role in the future.

Tensions in the Alliance

McDougall begins his critique by going back to the founding of NATO in the wake of the Second World War. The alliance was created for a specific purpose, namely to keep the United States invested in European security in the face of the communist threat from the Soviet Union. The Cold War alliance portrayed by McDougall was “in a permanent state of crisis”—plagued by debates around burden-sharing, questions as to the legitimacy of the U.S. commitment to defend Europe, and the ever-looming prospect of armed confrontation with the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. Despite these obstacles and dangers, NATO was able to emerge victorious from the Cold War, which is where, according to McDougall, the real trouble began.

He gives some credit to the George H.W. Bush administration for artfully managing the collapse of the Soviet Union and he wonders how history might have changed if Bush had won reelection in 1992. Bush did not win in 1992, however, and in McDougall’s account the victor at the polls brought “theologians” into office in key foreign and defense policy posts. He argues that the Clinton administration took advantage of a weakened Russia to expand NATO’s borders eastward, absorbing former Soviet satellites in Central Europe. Eventually this expansion would include former Soviet Republics and Eastern European states traditionally within the Russian sphere of influence.

According to McDougall, this enlargement of the alliance meant the alienation of Russia, still reeling and humiliated from the collapse of the Soviet empire, and thereby sowed the seeds of Vladimir Putin’s current revanchism and hostile policy toward NATO. Expansion also meant the addition of new members that, in McDougall’s view, do not “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” He concludes, therefore, that the current security threat posed by Russia in Europe is a natural and justifiable reaction to NATO expansion, and that NATO in its expanded form is unable to credibly defend itself against threats that it is responsible for creating.

The essay points, accurately enough, to some recurring tensions in the alliance. As with any multinational organization, there are bound to be disagreements among members, and the French withdrawal from NATO command structures in 1966 is just one example of the occasionally strained relations among allies. He is also right that the decision to expand NATO in the 1990s was far from unanimous, and that there was opposition from many key voices.

McDougall’s assessment of the challenges faced by NATO today have merit as well. He is correct that burden-sharing, which has been a divisive issue almost since the Washington Treaty was signed in 1949, continues to cause friction between the United States and its allies. He is correct, too, that the continued failure of European allies to meet their spending commitments poses serious challenges to NATO’s ability to provide credible deterrence. There is no denying what he says about the exposed position of its expanded eastern flank. These small, frontline states are vulnerable to Russian attack, and their geography makes allied reinforcement in a crisis difficult. These are real challenges with which the alliance’s military planners continue to grapple.

Moscow Would Have Been Revanchist in Any Case

Yet by exclusively focusing on these negatives, McDougall overlooks the tremendous success of NATO over the last seven decades. The alliance was able to triumph over the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact without firing a shot, thereby paving the way for a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Its leaders realized that the future of that peace had to be defended, and NATO expansion, alongside that of the European Union has helped secure the progress that the states of the former Communist Bloc have made since 1989.

A bigger alliance has contributed to an expanding zone of peace, prosperity, and freedom. NATO membership has meant that these states have been able to live under an “umbrella of stability . . . allowing them to prioritize internal reforms.”[1] Since joining the alliance in 2004, the GDP of NATO member Estonia has increased by 140 percent.[2] And over 100 million people formerly under totalitarian rule now live in freedom.[3] McDougall does not consider these positive effects and implies that soothing Putin’s insecurities is a more important objective than the freedom and prosperity of millions of Europeans.

Throughout his essay, McDougall implies that many of the security challenges facing Europe are the fault of NATO expansion. What, we ask, would foregoing expansion have done? He fails to consider it, but even in the absence of NATO expansion, one can hardly envision post-communist Russia not trying to regain its influence over former satellites and pull them away from Western influence and the promise of freedom and prosperity. History has shown us that, when given the opportunity, Russia will attempt to impose its will over its neighbors.[4] NATO denies Russia that opportunity. A Europe without NATO might be filled with authoritarian and economically dysfunctional states living under Moscow’s thumb, rather than the electorally free and in many cases economically thriving nations we see today.

Finally, McDougall does not adequately recognize the progress that NATO has made in addressing the weaknesses he sees in the alliance. The perennial burden-sharing debate is still ongoing, but member states have made real progress in recent years in closing the spending gap. In 2018, seven states spent at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, up from just three states in 2014. Moreover, 27 NATO members increased their defense spending in 2018, 10 by 10 percent or more over 2017’s figures.[5] There is still a long way to go to reach equitable burden-sharing, but real progress is being made to achieve it.

New Deterrence Measures Under Way

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine and instigation of pro-Russian separatism in the eastern part of that country, NATO has also taken many steps to more effectively deter Russian aggression and defend its eastern allies in the event of a Russian attack. The enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) has placed multinational, battalion-sized units in each of the Baltic States and in Poland, providing improved deterrence on the ground for these vulnerable allies.[6] NATO has also increased its ability to rapidly respond to crises. Established in 2016, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), part of the NATO Response Force, designed to rapidly deploy a brigade-sized spearhead force within days of a crisis.[7]

Additionally, at the summit meeting last year in Brussels,  allies committed to the NATO Readiness Initiative, also known as the Four Thirties, agreeing to have 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 warships ready for use within 30 days.[8] Far from being “too big to work,” NATO has continued to demonstrate its ability to adapt to new challenges and provide credible deterrence for its member nations.

McDougall’s critical look at the history of the North Atlantic alliance gets some things right. It has always struggled with internal cohesion and there are real external challenges that continue to worry its leaders. However, it is hard to imagine that Europe would be as safe, as prosperous, and as free as it is today had the United States and NATO left Central and Eastern Europe open to Russian reoccupation. The benefits to U.S. security and to NATO’s members have been nothing short of tremendous, and the alliance is working to adapt effectively to new challenges. NATO should be proud of its achievements. Rather than anticipating an elegy, we should all hope that NATO continues to underwrite peace, prosperity, and freedom in Europe for another 70 years.

[1] Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton University Press, 2009), 204.

[2] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2019), Gross domestic product (indicator). doi: 10.1787/dc2f7aec-en.

[3] Combined populations of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Poland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Romania. Authors’ calculation. Eurostat (2019), Population on 1 January.

[4] Henry Kissinger, World Order (Penguin Press, 2015), 52.

[5] Secretary General’s Annual Report 2018, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, February 2019.

[6] “NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2019 Fact Sheet, last updated February 2019.

[7] “NATO Response Force (NRF) Fact Sheet,” NATO Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, 2018.

[8] “Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Defence Ministers’ session,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 7, 2018.