Evaluating NATO in 2022

Photo via @bionihil, Flickr.com (orig. Nov. 13, 1971)
Photo via @bionihil, Flickr.com (orig. Nov. 13, 1971)

In response to the devastation occasioned by the Second World War and the looming threat of Communism led by the Soviet Union with its new stronghold in West Berlin, the United States sought to help rebuild Europe via the Marshall Plan, but the Plan alone was not enough.[1] Vulnerable European governments were already struggling to reckon with tens of millions dead, many more internally displaced or refugees, high infant mortality, devastated infrastructure, and intense resource rationing.[2] Real economic stabilization would require military and political cooperation to restore the requisite security and public confidence needed to encourage talk, trade, and investment.[3] So, the twelve founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”) signed the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April, 1949.[4] The alliance provided for regional cooperation and collective defense with three aims: (1) to deter militant nationalism in post-war Europe (2) to encourage a democratic, politically integrated Europe, and (3) to deter Soviet aggression.[5] The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 caused many to doubt NATO’s relevance ahead of the turn of the century, but conflicts in the Caucasus and Balkan states throughout the 1990s revitalized NATO’s function as a “pan-European security architecture.”[6] Shortly thereafter, NATO invoked its Article 5 collective defense provision for the first time in history in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, concretizing the human and political consequences of involuntary collective defense.[7] Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion of the Ukraine in February 2022 have again brought NATO into the spotlight.[8] This article considers the role of NATO in our changing world.

There are three primary critiques of NATO: realism, economics, and fairness.[9] Understanding the geopolitical threat to Russian security, the realist critique frames NATO’s postwar enlargement as aggressive, irresponsible, and needless provocation.[10] Realists would argue that the West is to blame for the current crisis in Ukraine because of its refusal to treat Russia (and others) as rational actors.[11] The economic critique argues that the United States, against its own national interest, generously subsidizes the national defense of most of Europe via NATO.[12] The fairness critique contrasts the dissolution of the Russian military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, against the continued existence of NATO.[13]Consider Russia’s ire over NATO enlargement against American geopolitical sensitivity, having declared the entire Western hemisphere, Middle East, and Persian Gulf off limits in the Monroe and Carter Doctrines and Roosevelt and Reagan Corollaries. Like the realists, fairness critics may argue that NATO causes much of the geopolitical instability it was founded to combat.[14]

NATO supporters, of course, do not agree with the critiques. In response to the realists, supporters emphasize that the alliance is not a military alliance strictly speaking—it is a community of values, and two thirds of the organization is premised upon international cooperation and political integration.[15] Moreover, the military aspect of the organization provides for collective defense.[16] Thus, it is unreasonable to view NATO as antagonistic or threatening without presupposing prior bad acts.[17] Supporters counter the economic argument by pointing out that despite historical trends doubting the utility and value of the organization, in times of real crisis like 9/11 and the current war in the Ukraine, NATO has proven its worth as the “most successful of the international bodies created in the wake of the second world war.”[18] Finally, proponents argue that fairness critics significantly underestimate: (1) the immediacy and severity of contemporary Chinese and Russian threats,[19] (2) the value of democracy and Western institutions,[20] (3) the importance of the United States security apparatus in Europe and Asia,[21] and (4) the importance of prior agreements where negotiation of new treaties is politically impracticable.[22]

Arguments on both sides have merit. On one hand, in view of the February 2022 Russian invasion of the Ukraine, NATO’s critics clearly undersold the Russian threat. On the other hand, NATO’s enlargement and aggressive posturing since 2004 likely contributed to heightening tensions among Russia, the Ukraine, and the West.[23] Nevertheless, NATO and other international bodies play a critical role in preserving and strengthening liberal democratic institutions responsible for durable international prosperity, peace, and security.[24] Of course, we can and should strive to continuously reform these institutions and systems to add greater access, fairness, justice, and more wherever possible, and NATO is no exception.

[1] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, A Short History of NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_139339.htm (last visited Mar. 12, 2022) [hereinafter “NATO History”]

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id., North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Member States (Sept. 24, 2020), https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_52044.htm.

[5] Id.

[6] NATO History, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] This list is clearly not exhaustive and makes no attempt to be.

[10] Stephen M. Walt, Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis, Foreign Policy (Jan. 19, 2022), https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/19/ukraine-russia-nato-crisis-liberal-illusions/ (using “Liberal” in the context of political theory, not the American Democratic party). See Jules Darmanin, Russia, China call for halt to NATO enlargement, Politico (Feb. 4, 2022), https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-china-oppose-nato-enlargement-vladimir-putin-xi-jinping-ukraine/ (Russia and China calling for NATO to halt enlargement); Yuras Karmanau, et al., Russia attacks Ukraine as defiant Putin warns US, NATO, Military Times (Feb. 23, 2022), https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2022/02/23/russias-putin-announces-military-operation-in-ukraine/ (Putin calling attention to the risk of NATO’s critical collective defense provision); Ros Krasny, Russian Official Warns Finland, Sweden Against Joining NATO, Bloomberg (Mar. 12, 2022), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-12/russian-official-warns-finland-sweden-against-joining-nato (Other Russian officials have issued threats of retaliation against Scandinavian countries considering joining NATO).

[11] Walt, supra note 9 (“Great powers are never indifferent to the geostrategic forces arrayed on their borders”); Ted Galen Carpenter, Many predicted Nato expansion would lead to war. Those warnings were ignored, The Guardian (Feb. 28, 2022), acc., Dan Bilefsky, et al., The Roots of the Ukraine War: How the Crisis Developed, N.Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/article/russia-ukraine-nato-europe.html, Richard N. Haass, Enlarging NATO: A Questionable Idea Whose Time Has Come, Brookings Institute (Mar. 1, 1997), https://www.brookings.edu/research/enlarging-nato-a-questionable-idea-whose-time-has-come/, John J. Mearsheimer, Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin, Foreign Policy (Sept./Oct. 2014).

[12] Alex Gatapoulos, Desperately seeking relevance: NATO in the 21st century, Al Jazeera (Jun. 14, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/6/14/desperately-seeking-relevance-nato-in-the-21st-century (“US defence secretary Robert Gates . . . berated the Alliance and castigated the Europeans for their lack of foresight, ineptitude and reliance on America’s endless help”) (“Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European [defense] capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders . . . may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost”). To illustrate, in 2020, less than a third of NATO Member States spent the agreed minimum two percent of gross domestic product on defense. The United States by contrast spent an estimated $811 billion on defense in 2021, with US defense spending per capita roughly four times that of NATO Europe and Canada combined. Reality Check Team, Nato summit: What does the US contribute?, BBC News (Jun. 14, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44717074. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has sparked interest in renewed financial commitments from NATO leadership and its individual Member States. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the Extraordinary meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs (Mar. 4, 2022), https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_192739.htm.

[13] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO-Russia relations: the facts (Jan. 27, 2022), https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_111767.htm#c103 [hereinafter “NATO-Russia Relations”].

[14] Carpenter, supra note 13.

[15] Lindsay Floyd & Bradford M. Freeman, NATO: Still Relevant in a Dangerous World, The Catalyst: a Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute(Summer 2019), https://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/global-challenges/lloyd-nato-still-relevant-in-a-dangerous-world.html (highlighting democracy, freedom, market economics, solidarity, and mutual respect).

[16] NATO-Russia Relations, supra note 12.

[17] E.g., an aggressive act of violence or war violative of the national sovereignty of a Member State.

[18] Rose Gottemoeller, Rose Gottemoeller says that NATO has proved its worth in dealing with Russia, The Economist (Mar. 7, 2022), https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/07/rose-gottemoeller-says-that-nato-has-proved-its-worth-in-dealing-with-russia (Rose Gottemoeller is a former NATO secretary-general).

[19] Bruce Jones, The future of NATO in an order transformed, Brookings Institute (Jun. 14, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/06/14/the-future-of-nato-in-an-order-transformed/.

[20] James Stavridis, Why NATO Is Essential For World Peace, According to Its Former Commander, Time (Apr. 4, 2019), https://time.com/5564171/why-nato-is-essential-world-peace/.

[21] Jones, supra note 18, Robert E. Litan & Roger Noll, As Trump twists NATO’s arm, let’s run the math on defense spending, Brookings Institute(Jul. 12, 2018), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2018/07/12/as-trump-twists-natos-arm-lets-run-the-math-on-defense-spending/ (emphasizing the United States’ contributions to security in Europe and the Pacific), acc. Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack, Why NATO is worth preserving for US, Europe — and even Russia, The Hill (Dec. 03, 2019), https://thehill.com/opinion/international/472739-why-nato-is-worth-preserving-for-us-europe-and-even-russia?rl=1.

[22] Becky Ferreira, The new Space Race, and the desperately outdated laws that govern it, Document Journal (May 28, 2019), https://www.documentjournal.com/2019/05/the-new-space-race-and-the-desperately-outdated-laws-that-govern-it/ (“The international issue is that we’re not in a treatymaking environment these days”); Charles Perrings, National polarization and international agreements, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Dec. 6, 2021) (arguing political polarization dampens willingness to comply with existing agreements or negotiate new ones)

[23] Walt, supra note 10 (contributing to Russian tension by, inter alia, nominating Georgia and Ukraine for membership in 2008 and allowing U.S.-support for protestors and revolutionaries reminiscent of the Color Revolutions after Ukraine rebuffed an EU-negotiated accession agreement).

[24] Joseph Siegle, Why Democracy Is Central to Prosperity and Peace, Auslandsinformationen (Jan. 2006), https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/105515/Why_Democracy_is_Central.pdf, Performance.gov, Encourage Democratic Governance as a Force for Stability, Peace, and Prosperity, https://obamaadministration.archives.performance.gov/content/encourage-democratic-governance-force-stability-peace-and-prosperity.html (last visited Mar. 13, 2022).