NATO is a military alliance, not a club of values
Launching an eight-day trip to Europe, the first of his presidency, President Joe Biden delivered a solemn message on his first stopover: Democracy as we know it risks losing its global relevance. Speaking to US troops stationed at RAF Mildenhall, Biden warned that authoritarians like China’s Xi Jinping and Russian Vladimir Putin would like nothing more than to see democratic governance wither on the vine.
“I believe we are at an inflection point in the history of the world,” Mr. Biden said noted. “We must discredit those who believe that the era of democracy is over, as some of our brethren believe.”
Halfway through its first year in office, the Biden administration adopted “democracy versus autocracy” as the organizing theme of its foreign policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has devoted a great deal of time to his first official speech the importance of not only defending democracy in the United States, but of using the United States-led alliance system around the world to contain and counter the Xis and Putin of the world. The promotion of democratic values, according to Blinken, is just as vital as the defense of American interests.
NATO, the 72-year-old transatlantic alliance, has served as the main instrument to promote these values. Hardly a week goes by without an alliance member invoking democracy, human rights or the rules-based international order in a speech or press briefing. Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have spoken of building on these values when they meet at the White House this week.
The irony, however, is that NATO was not meant to be driven by values. Fundamentally, the organization is a military alliance, and the preservation of the intransigent security interests of its members is (or at least should be) the main guiding principle.
This may be shocking, especially for those who were not alive during the Cold War. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, NATO has essentially evolved from a military organization expressly designed to contain hegemonic power into a vessel for the promotion of democratic governance across Europe and Eurasia. The alliance today is as concerned with consolidating and disseminating collective standards as it is with maintaining the security and territorial integrity of its members. NATO, in effect, operates like a country club: any potential member who pledges to abide by a certain set of rules and values is eligible for membership, regardless of their actual military contribution to the alliance.
The problem, of course, is that NATO, at its heart, is still a defense alliance, with serious defense commitments and responsibilities attached to membership. Countries under NATO’s tent not only enjoy the collective defense privileges of the entire organization, but have a duty to come to the aid of any member whose security is threatened. article 5 of the NATO charterr — which states that an attack on one member is an attack on the whole alliance — is both an insurance policy for weaker members who could not necessarily defend themselves and a statement of deterrence against adversaries who might otherwise be tempted to act aggressively.
During the 1940s and 1950s such an arrangement was reasonable and indeed necessary. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were then stationed in central and eastern Europe. In 1948, Soviet forces, eager to drive the United States, Great Britain and France completely out of Berlin, sought to cut supplies to the western half of the German capital and force a western retreat. Although the attempt failed, there remained considerable nervousness in Washington and Western Europe over Moscow making further strides westward. For the United States, Soviet domination of Europe was simply out of the question.
With the Soviet threat dead and buried, however, Europe no longer faces a potential hegemon in the east. Cyber attacks, piecemeal annexations of Ukrainian territory and disinformation operations Aside from, today’s Russia is far from the conventional juggernaut that the Soviets were decades ago. A sudden Russian military push into the Baltic states is highly unlikely – and even if Vladimir Putin were reckless enough to attempt it, the costs associated with maintaining those positions would be too high for the weary, oil-dependent economy.
This does not mean that NATO is going to close its doors anytime soon. Eastern European members of the alliance, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, still have a lingering fear of their big neighbor to the east. NATO (and by extension the United States) is still a warm security blanket for many of them and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
Despite this, the world’s oldest military alliance is trying to figure out what to do with itself. Like a bald, middle-aged man who buys a convertible in an attempt to alleviate a midlife crisis, NATO is now on the lookout for new missions in Asia and elsewhere, welcoming insignificant new members with largely armed forces. inferiors and preaching on safeguarding values in order to give oneself a purpose. Through it all, many forget the reason NATO was founded in the first place: to make a hostile invasion of Europe so costly that adversaries refrain from pursuing it.
When President Biden concludes his meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels next week, we will likely receive the usual lengthy joint statements becoming poetic about the longevity, successes and solidarity of the alliance. What NATO really needs, however, is a clear and honest internal conversation about how it works, what it needs to prioritize and why to invite more members and shift its focus to Asia. any meaning.
Daniel R. DePetris is a member of the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist for the Washington Examiner, and contributor to The National Interest.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.