Does NATO Still Matter?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance of 31 nations. Begun with only 12 countries in 1949, NATO was created as a bulwark against Soviet aggression and premised on the idea that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”
This “Three Musketeers” kind of mutual allegiance has been critical to preventing a third world war. The USSR engaged in a massive military buildup and funded revolutions and unrest wherever its masters saw an opportunity to make inroads, yet the sustained power of the NATO allies prevented another catastrophic world conflict.
Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a united Western front remains vital to European security. Knowing that incursions into any of the NATO powers would trigger a military response it could not thwart holds Vladimir Putin’s vicious ambition in check. American interest comes into play in that if Europe were to fall under the Kremlin’s influence, our own security would face an existential danger.
Of course, America bore the lion’s share of NATO’s defense burden throughout the Cold War. We still do today. As of July, “NATO as a whole has also seen an overall eight percent real increase in defense spending above inflation, compared with two percent in 2022.” On its face, this is good news, and perhaps shows that our allies needed an unforeseen and full-scale Russian assault on a weaker power to recognize that evil never dies. It merely rests and bides its time, whether in Moscow or Beijing, Havana or Caracas.
However, this year only 10 of the 31 member countries will spend as much on defense as anticipated. To his great credit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called on all the NATO nations to spend minimally 2% of the GDP on defense. It’s reported that he wants to make this figure a requirement, not a request.
This is not too much to ask. The United States spent an estimated $13 trillion (1996 dollars) during the Cold War epoch. In constant dollars, this equaled about two full years of our GDP. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of the Eastern European nations, combined with what historian John Lewis Gaddis has called “the long peace” that American resolve and strength created and sustained, made the investment worthwhile.
Yet the dedication of the brave Americans who have now served for generations in Europe and the willingness of the American people to spend huge sums for our own and our allies’ security have frequently been unmatched by those living under the umbrella of our protection.
For example, while Germany is on-target to hit the 2% of GDP mark in defense spending next year, defense journalists Christian Molling and Torben Schutz report that Germany’s “armed forces have been underfunded for decades, measured against Germany’s commitments to its allies in NATO and the European Union. Above all, there is a lack of modern and effective equipment, and the force needs rehabilitation.”
Similarly, in April the Associated Press reported that “the French government … approved a key budget bill presented as the country’s biggest military spending spree in more than 50 years, underscoring the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
It is human nature to diminish threats until they are immediate and serious. We still hear stories of people who choose to stay in their homes even when a hurricane is bearing down on them. Yet our leaders are supposed to be men and women whose foresight and moral courage equip them to make wise decisions about long-term threats. Too often in Western society, this has not been the case. Just ask Neville Chamberlain.
While NATO remains relevant to the security of the United States and her key allies, the larger issue is its continued need for existence. Indeed, there are those who argue that NATO is a relic of a Cold War past, a needless international artifact clinging to American power at America’s expense.
This is a specious claim. Russia’s government, what some describe as a “consolidated authoritarian” regime, is a malign influence in Europe and the world at large. Additionally, Russia’s growing economic and geopolitical alliance with communist China only affirms fears that these enemies of freedom harbor ambitions contrary to the well-being of the world.
So, America needs allies, which means we need NATO and our other friends in places like South Korea, Japan, and Australia. But our resources are not infinite and it is offensive when our friends presume upon our willingness to exercise our power on their behalf. The lamp of liberty needs more than one source of fuel. Nations that value their own independence, freedom, and security should remember that.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.