McDougall Responds on NATO

Once again I am pleased to thank the editors at Law & Liberty for selecting a gracious, diverse, and erudite panel to comment on my Liberty Forum essay. I am especially gratified by the fact that none of the commentators had the least criticism of my historical adumbration of the first seven decades of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Hence we may stipulate how and why  it was the alliance arrived at its present (I believe parlous) condition, and focus on what its leading members ought to do next.

Matthew Kroenig and Connor McPartland believe that NATO’s expansion up to and even into the boundaries of the former Soviet Union has been an unalloyed boon. Hence they put in scare quotes my reference to President Clinton’s “theologians” who preached in favor of NATO expansion, yet they proceed to expound the “end of history” theology of liberal internationalists who ceased to think about NATO in terms of security following the end of the Cold War, instead reimagining it a tool of Clinton’s Enlargement. In their view, mere membership in NATO would ensure the former Soviet satellite states a future of peace, prosperity, and freedom. So far, that has been indeed been their future—but does it follow that NATO membership was the cause of it?  For instance, they cite the 140 percent increase in Estonia’s GNP since it joined the alliance. Isn’t it far more likely that Estonia’s growth has been a function of its initiation into the European Union, which occurred just one month after its NATO membership? In any event, if accession to NATO were a prerequisite for peace, freedom, and prosperity, how do they explain the blissful histories of non-members Finland and Sweden even during the Cold War, much less after?

Kroenig and McPartland warn that Russia, whenever given the opportunity, “will attempt to impose its will over its neighbors.” I believe they are right: All Russian history attests to that geopolitical constant. But it does not logically follow that “NATO denies Russia that opportunity.” Rather, the provocative absorption of the Baltic states increases the likelihood that Russia will push back even as it decreases the ability and the willingness of the allied governments—largely disarmed, divided among themselves, not at all fearful of Russia, and obsessed with domestic concerns—to fulfill their risky commitments.

To be sure, Kroenig and McPartland claim the alliance has recently made progress toward more robust deterrence through the Forward Presence, Response Force, and Four Thirties initiatives.  But if the past is any guide, the chances of Europeans making good on those promises are slim or none. In sum, to state that “we should all hope that NATO continues to underwrite peace, prosperity, and freedom in Europe for another 70 years” sounds to me like whistling past the graveyard. History happens. Already over the past 30 years, tremendous change has occurred on the continent NATO was designed to protect, and more wrenching changes loom in the near future. Hence the question its leaders must confront is how to adapt to such changes lest the alliance cease to be relevant or cease to exist at all.

That is why David P. Goldman’s brilliant response is entitled “Repurpose It or It Dies.” Goldman begins by stating in no uncertain terms that expansion, far from strengthening NATO, has only transformed it from a military alliance designed to promote security into a political club designed to promote globalization. The upshot is that it serves neither end well while being rapidly hollowed out by additional aggravations. These include Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas, Eastern Europe’s (and now Italy’s) accession to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the Europeans’ embrace of Chinese companies such as Huawei in their rollout of 5G technology. One might also mention another of Goldman’s manifold specialties, demography, which portends a shrinking, aging European population and/or one whose composition has altered significantly. How relevant will the old Atlantic alliance become in a world defined by those dire trends?

Goldman’s piercing answer is that it all depends on technology. Just as NATO prevailed over the Soviet Union during the Cold War’s end game thanks to technological superiority, so the survival of NATO in years to come will depend on whether its members, led by the United States, can restore their critical edge in research and development. He deplores the fact that Americans squandered trillions of dollars pretending to export democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq while allowing R&D budgets to shrink. As a result, the Chinese and Russians have been grabbing the lead on hypersonic missiles, air defense systems, killer satellites, and 5G telecommunications, itself the foundation on which all manner of commercial and military applications—including drones—will be built.

Goldman therefore advocates a comprehensive national strategy to restore American leadership through technological superiority. He suggests that that might also reinvigorate the alliance as Europeans bandwagon behind the United States. He reminds us in no uncertain terms that the best deterrent is technological superiority, without which treaties and troop deployments are fruitless. I find it impossible to argue with that logic.

William Ruger’s praise and support of my core argument were much appreciated. He strongly agrees that the expansion of NATO, especially into the Baltics, added nothing to the strength of the alliance while undermining its credibility in dangerous ways. Ruger, like Goldman, also thinks constructively about what the leading alliance members might do going forward.

First, he says (and I obviously shout “Amen”) that NATO must resist the blandishments of those who want to expand the alliance further—for instance, to Georgia and Ukraine. Instead Ruger would revive the old notion of Europe’s developing a “common foreign and defense policy,” suggesting that its time might at last be arriving. The economic and potential military weight of Western and Central Europe is far more than what would be needed to deter a revanchist Russia, while a serious American pivot toward Asia might be just the goad Europeans require to get serious about their own defense.

Ruger knows that a number of scholars and strategists in the realist camp have warned that untethering Europe from the United States would run the risk of creating a rival regional hegemon. But he gives sufficient credence to the constructivist camp to suspect that a European super-state would continue to champion values and institutions compatible with America’s.  Moreover, a Europe pursuing a common foreign and defense policy backed by real muscle might relieve the United States of the burdens, not only of NATO, but of others they have shouldered (for instance, in the Middle East) for more than 50 years.

Let us not forget it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who said his administration would have failed if U.S. troops were still in Europe at the end of his second term. That was 1961. If in 2019, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it still isn’t time to disengage, when will it be?

Restore NATO’s vigor and credibility through a technological offensive that might rally Europeans once again to follow America’s lead? Or retire NATO in order to make room for a “United States of Europe”? Both are intriguing agendas, one of which needs immediate implementation and the other of which needs timely discussion. But alas, I suspect that the gridlocked, brain-dead, and childish politicians currently holding elective office in the United States and the countries of Europe are incapable of any bold, bipartisan action.