Repurpose It or It Dies

Professor McDougall’s persuasive indictment of American foreign policy since the fall of communism examines the positive feedback loop between misguided strategy and ill-conceived institutional objectives.

NATO’s expansion under the Clinton administration, he observes in his Liberty Forum essay, did not strengthen the alliance that brought down the Soviet Empire, but rather transformed it into something different. The 1999 war against Serbia, which the Clinton administration forced upon Serbia in emulation of the 1914 Austrian ultimatum, provided “the chance to demonstrate NATO’s new agenda and ‘out of area’ operations,” as an instrument of the world’s natural evolution towards a “globalization [that] toppled all barriers to the flow of capital, goods, labor, and ideas, spreading democracy, human rights, peace and prosperity.” Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was “NATO’s second war.” As McDougall observes, “Unanimity in the face of Al Qaeda was squandered, however, when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in a wider war that 70 to 80 percent of French and Germans opposed. It might even be said that the alliance fell into abeyance during the final six years of Bush’s tenure.”

The expansion of NATO to include not only the Middle European states of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, but also Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, attenuated NATO’s original purpose, namely defense against Russia. McDougall adds that “NATO’s Drang Nach Osten would perversely destroy the credibility of the alliance as Germans, Belgians, Portuguese, Montenegrins, and the rest—echoing Marcel Déat’s remark in 1939 about Danzig—asked themselves: ‘Why Die for Tallinn?’”

McDougall also might have mentioned the Obama administration’s much-heralded but barely noticeable pivot to the Pacific, which persuaded our European allies that we cared less about them without convincing anyone that we really cared about the Pacific.

An Incongruous Arrangement

Despite this lamentable outcome of NATO expansion during the Clinton and Bush years, McDougall notes, National Security Adviser John Bolton still argues for the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine. This is not likely to occur, because today’s hypertrophic NATO has lost purpose and cohesion. Europe has ignored the most urgent representations of the Trump administration regarding German purchases of Russian natural gas, European engagement of Chinese firms in the rollout of 5G broadband, Italy’s accession to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Washington’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal. German defense spending is falling not rising despite President Trump’s repeated demands that Europe pay its fair share of alliance expenses. We have an incongruous arrangement in which America’s security umbrella over Europe enables Europe to make itself dependent on Russian gas and Chinese telecommunications.

One might add that just as the NATO of today is radically different from the NATO of the 1980s, the populations of the NATO countries also are radically different. According to a WIN/Gallup Poll from 2017, the proportion of citizens willing to fight to defend their country is just 15 percent in the Netherlands, 18 percent in Germany, 19 percent in Belgium, 20 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Spain, 21 percent in the Czech Republic, 27 percent  in the United Kingdom, and 29 percent in France. By contrast, 74 percent of Finns said they would defend their country. One wonders what would happen if Finland invaded Holland. Nearly half of Americans, meanwhile, told the Pew Survey in 2017 that NATO does too little.

At the policy level NATO is stymied. Five years after Maidan, Russia remains entrenched in Ukraine and NATO has no effective plan to dislodge it. America’s withdrawal from the Middle East has left disorder. Turkey, notionally a NATO member, has conspired variously with Russia and Iran to frustrate American objectives. With its Syrian intervention, Russia has re-established itself as an important power in the region. Syria’s civil war has metastasized into several smaller civil wars.

Will the expanded NATO continue to be a bulwark against Russia? McDougall says, it won’t, and I agree. Will NATO maintain out-of-area deployments for humanitarian or nation-building objectives? It can’t. The path of least resistance points to American disengagement, as President Trump has mooted, and an atrophied NATO that plays no more practical a role than the Holy Roman Empire did during the last century of its existence.

That is the conclusion to which McDougall’s logic leads us. As he observes, NATO’s structural flaws were introduced in the service of poorly conceived policies. Is there a better policy, though, that might redefine the alliance’s role in a way that would give it a new raison d’etre? If we take a step back to map out a threat-assessment and then a policy response, we might be able to identify what if any role NATO could play in the future.

The R & D Dearth

Some indications of what might constitute such a policy can be derived from the alliance’s own history. Barely a dozen years before the Clinton administration turned NATO into a vehicle for its utopian vision of a post-communist world, many in the Western elite expected NATO to lose the Cold War. Russian surface-to-air missiles had swept the skies during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and both the Soviets and NATO believed that Warsaw Pact forces would easily overtake NATO forces in a European conventional war. After the 1982 Bekaa Valley air battle between Israel and Syria, the Soviets realized that America’s technological edge had turned the tables. Now it was NATO that could sweep the skies. The deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe, moreover, gave NATO a strategic advantage. U.S. technological superiority was the decisive factor in breaking the will of the Soviet Union.

NATO dissipated its power and destroyed its credibility, as McDougall observes, when it abandoned its core mission. America’s utopian effort to remake the world in its image diverted resources away from the alliance’s core competence. We spent several trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan but neglected federal research and development, which fell from 1.2 percent of GDP in the late 1970s and early 1980s to only 0.7 percent when Donald Trump took office.

In numerous fields of military technology, for example hypervelocity missiles, Russia and China appear to be well ahead of us. Killer satellites might have the capacity to destroy our military communications. Aircraft carriers are vulnerable to a variety of new threats, including surface-to-ship missiles and undetectable submarines. Russia appears to have the best air and missile defense systems on the market in the form of the S-400 and S-500. The list is extensive and has been addressed well in the administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy and other reports.

We also lag in the critical civilian technologies that have national security implications. For example, the U.S. attempt to persuade our allies to exclude Chinese telecommunications systems from the build-out of 5G mobile broadband appears to have failed, not least because America produces no competitive product. That is an unprecedented humiliation for the United States, and yet another reason for our allies to regard NATO as obsolete.

War-winning capability and effective defense depend on superior technology, and technological superiority was at the center of U.S. strategy in the late 1970s and 1980s. We won the Cold War in large measure because the world stood in awe of American ingenuity. The Russians concluded by the early 1980s that they could not keep up with us, and the Chinese wanted to emulate us. Rather than maintaining our technological edge, we elected to use our armed forces to bring about political and social transformation, and failed. In the meantime our strategic competitors and potential adversaries advanced and in some cases surpassed us in critical military and dual-use technologies.

President Trump ran for office as an opponent of the failed nation-building ambitions of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The Defense Department and the National Security Council have identified areas of strategic and technological weakness that require aggressive remedial measures. These encouraging steps do not yet add up to a defense strategy. I believe that if we advanced a comprehensive strategy to ensure strategic predominance through technological superiority, the United States could rally the support of our allies and renew the role of NATO.

Letting Beijing Get Ahead

The 5G fiasco is a case in point. While the United States cajoled and threatened its NATO partners to try to discourage them from working with Chinese telecommunications companies, the Americans offered no alternative. A crash program to develop and produce technology equal or superior to that of the Chinese in cooperation with our NATO partners might have had a different outcome. If we had committed substantial resources to R&D and implementation, the Europeans would have joined the effort for fear of missing an opportunity. The sums involved are manageable; Huawei’s total annual research budget is about $20 billion a year. A public-private partnership harnessing the resources and idle cash of American technology companies could restore U.S. dominance to the mobile telecommunications and, more importantly, establish an insuperable advantage in 5G applications such as drone-control.

Neutralizing the Russian and Chinese edge in certain weapons systems (the air defense and hypervelocity missiles I mentioned) should be another priority. Dual-use systems, for example quantum computing and communications, should receive the same focus of effort that we devoted to the invention of atomic weapons in the 1940s and missile technology during the 1950s and 1960s. If the United States reasserts its leading role in frontier technologies, our NATO partners will queue up to join the effort, if only because breakthroughs in military technology also have game-changing civilian applications.

NATO will never again field a mass army whose objective is to repel a Russian attack. But any future war would be fought and won with technologies that are now in their early stages of development and whose full implications we do not comprehend, any more than we understood in the late 1950s the ways in which the then-new integrated circuit would transform warfare. The best deterrent to Moscow’s and Beijing’s strategic ambitions is to persuade them, or any other potential adversary, of the decisive superiority of Western technology. If we mobilize our resources to achieve technological superiority our allies will want to follow us as a matter of urgent self-interest. If we do not, neither treaties nor alliances will do us much good.