At Large

Doddering at Sixty

Is there any reason to keep NATO going?

By 4.17.09

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The core element in the American relationship with Europe is membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After President Barack Obama's recent trip to Europe it is not unreasonable to inquire as to the relevance of that organization to U.S. military and political interests.

Often quoted has been the justification for NATO in Europe given by its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay: "to keep the Russians out, to keep the Americans in, and the Germans down." It doesn't appear to be working anymore.

The Russians have thoroughly penetrated West Europe as their major supplier (controller) of energy. The Germans are calling the tune when it comes to both European economic and military matters. And the United States has proven itself to have little in common with continental Europe other than near total failure of memories of past glories and obligations therein. The concept of "an attack on one is an attack on all" has aged to the point of atrophy.

The European Union's new defense structure already has intimated what the future will be as it now has an established claim on the NATO military organization's assets if the latter doesn't want to use them. All that NATO has now is a so-called "right of first refusal." If that isn't a planned redundancy, it will have to do until the new De Gaulle or perhaps Bismarck comes along. NATO's 28 member countries, 22 partner countries, 43 different agencies and organizations plus 9 logistics bodies and 5 production bodies appear formidable in theory. In practice it is little more than an expensive bureaucracy.

The original purpose of NATO in 1949, with apologies to the brilliantly cynical General Lord Ismay, was to convert the WWII alliance of Western European nations into a similar grouping to check the post-war Soviet expansion to the west. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the center of American relations with Western Europe ever since. President Obama's recent trip to Europe has clearly shown exactly how little that relationship is now worth.

In simple terms, the arithmetic of American relations with West Europe -- conspicuously excluding the United Kingdom -- is as follows: Taking serious additional steps to stimulate the EU economy so that it might increase its capability to assist the rest of the world economy -- Zero! Acceptance of a fair portion of NATO's obligation in Afghanistan -- Zero! Support for strengthening of economic sanctions on Iran condemning their nuclear weapon development -- Zero!

In fact, the entire basis for continued American participation in NATO may have been undercut. Attempts to broaden NATO's role have failed or simply been subsumed in the ambitions of the European Union that instead of wanting the United States as an ally views its onetime champion as a competitor.

In spite of U.S./UK efforts to drag NATO along with them in Bosnia, Iraq, and now Afghanistan, the results have been either negative or marginal at best. NATO may have some basing advantages for U.S. forward defense posture, but in terms of being an active military participant alongside US/UK forces, the major powers in the European Union no longer see a profit.

NATO came under attack during the Clinton years and was strongly defended by high profile generals. The thesis of the American defenders of NATO was based on the perception of both the need for and ability of the United States to maintain a special role in Europe in the newly post-Soviet period. There was a logic to that argument then, but that logic is now strained.

An oft-repeated defense of American continued military participation has been to suggest the value to the U.S. of the political leverage afforded by maintaining its physical presence in Europe. This certainly has not turned out to be the case with Germany, where the American military long has had its largest continuing presence.

The current situation is as follows: There is no doubt the Russians would love the suspension of NATO; that in itself could be reason enough to keep it going. The reality, however, is that the ineffectuality of NATO negates its value as an instrument of American policy and severely diminishes its military worth to the United States.

The solidarity of NATO has been severely weakened and its viability as an effective military alliance has been endangered by European popular political indifference. The United States soon must ask what is in it for the American people.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.