The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was more the result of haste and desperation than shrewd politicking. But NATO’s chief architects were adept at concealing its true circumstantial origins. “An armed attack against one or more [member state] in Europe or North America,” they declared, firmly, in Article 5 of NATO’s charter, “shall be considered an attack against them all.” These few words, seemingly innocuous, are arguably some of the most influential in all of the twentieth century. With unassuming brevity, this single sentiment encapsulated the doctrine of international politics that indelibly influenced Cold War diplomacy, averted wide-scale military conflict, and oriented the worldview of the American public for decades to come around a central conviction: collective security.
Birthed by that sentence of Article 5 and perpetuated almost religiously since NATO’s inception in 1949, collective security is the political principle whereby nations share and coordinate military equipment and defense strategy with the broader intention of opposing a single common enemy. More importantly, nations bound together by collective security treaties typically agree to act as a single protective unit; that is, as Article 5 goes, an attack on one nation is an attack on all nations. During the Cold War, NATO served as the primary instrument by which the western world, horrified by the geopolitical preeminence of the Soviet Union, resisted the expansion of communism. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, communist movement in Europe posed a very real problem. Flourishing in the war-induced conditions of infrastructural ruin and general destitution, leftist groups threatened to erase the very democratic institutions that the Allied forces had fought so hard to salvage.
After nearly seven decades, NATO remains the foundation upon which western sociopolitical solidarity and security rest. But, it seems, in a world saturated with geopolitical conundrums far more complicated than the Cold War-era binary tug-of-war between American capitalism and Soviet communism, NATO is growing increasingly irrelevant, fiscally unsustainable, and fundamentally deleterious for the international community. Nations conjoined by collective security agreements, by definition, share an interest in alienating, antagonizing, and eventually defeating a singular enemy. During the Cold War, the enemy was the Soviet Union, whose aggression on the world stage effectively warranted NATO establishment. But, in the twenty-first century, Russia is no longer the Soviet Union; it does not wield any aspirations of installing communist governments in remote corners of the planet, despite its agitation for greater influence. Yet, because the organization’s cohesion is contingent upon the identification and vilification of a rival, NATO will, for the foreseeable future, ceaselessly seek enemies to validate its existence. Collective security, then, as an ethos of western foreign affairs, is a terrible and self-defeating practice.
The troubles, it appears, have already begun: Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, NATO maintains its obsessive mistrust of Russia, viewing the country, its people, and its government with armed-to-the-teeth suspicion. In 2015, for example, NATO conducted Operation Trident Juncture, its largest military exercise in ten years. Trident Juncture involved 36,000 personnel, 60 naval vessels, and 140 warplanes from thirty countries. The whole operation took place in various locations in the Western hemisphere, including the Atlantic Ocean, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Mediterranean Sea. NATO officials attempted to portray the colossal exercise as one without a specific target, but their singular fear of Russian aggression could not be concealed. “We’re concerned about the Russian military build-up,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told reporters last year. Ultimately, the overarching objective of Trident Juncture was, “to defend every Ally and to deter Russia from even thinking about aggressive actions against NATO.”
If the United States wishes to retain its planetary preeminence, it must rethink its blind dedication to the hemispheric culture of collective security.
It is undeniable that President Vladimir Putin, along with his plutocratic cronies in the Russian government, has engaged in reprehensibly unscrupulous behavior in recent years. Incursions in Crimea, the conspicuous sponsorship of Ukrainian separatists, and pro-Assad airstrikes in Syria are merely highlights in Russia’s long list of geopolitical horseplay. But NATO, far from impeding Russian expansion, only fuels Putin’s ambitions of resuscitating the imperial glories of the Soviet Union. Indeed, for Putin, NATO is a political lifeline; currently, the Russian economy is collapsing under the confluent pressures of plummeting oil prices, international sanctions, and a glaring lack of basic public services. The statistics paint a dismal picture: In 2015, inflation in Russia doubled to 15.8 percent, the ruble lost half its exchange value, and the central government’s budget deficit swelled to 4.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
In the midst of this economic desolation, NATO is the perfect scapegoat, a polychromatic distraction, to satisfy the spiritual and patriotic needs of an otherwise struggling Russian populace. And Putin didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity. Following the conclusion of Operation Trident Juncture, Putin adjusted his regime’s national security priorities, declaring that NATO is now a serious threat to Russian security. And, to top the propaganda sundae off, Putin used his State of the Nation address to depict NATO’s “containment”-style military preparations as just another western effort to stymie well-deserved Russian prosperity. “The policy of containment was not invented yesterday,” he declared. “It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.” The game plan is simple: Blame NATO for Russia’s problems.
If the West really wants to hinder Putin’s Soviet revivalism, it desperately needs to undercut the roots of his popular support. That is, it needs to prohibit Putin from selling the clever narrative of western hostility to his people. So long as the triumphant glory of the Russian state isn’t on the line, ordinary Russians will reconsider, and probably discontinue, their support for the kinds of optically attractive but substantially self-destructive interventions that get Russian soldiers killed and Russian planes shot down. According to unofficial estimates, close to 2,000 soldiers died during secret operations in Ukraine and the government’s lack of transparency with regards to military deaths has reportedly exacerbated Russian troops’ low morale.
But the drawbacks of NATO extend far beyond Russia. In terms of basic accounting, NATO is an exorbitant investment for the United States, which provides the vast majority of the organization’s military spending. If fiscal commitments are any indication, most NATO nations are not truly dedicated to the project of collective security. NATO recommends that member nations spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on military-related expenditures; only four European NATO countries – Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Estonia, a resoundingly unintimidating group – are projected to meet this requirement. (Since the Great Recession, manpower equivalent to the entire German Army was slashed from the NATO budget.) Secondly, the United States comprises 75 percent of all NATO-related military spending. This wouldn’t be a problem if America didn’t have any better places to spend its taxpayer dollars – but, alas, it does. Cutting spending on domestic education and infrastructure in the short-run, in favor of keeping afloat the fledgling military allocations of austere European allies, is awful for the United States – and the world. Dilapidated infrastructure, for instance, reduces the competitiveness of the American economy; crumbling bridges and roadways will cost the United States $3 trillion in added transportation costs for households and businesses, $72 billion in exports, and roughly 400,000 jobs by 2040. A structurally deficient economy will necessarily translate to faltering American power in the long-run. Militarily, the United States will lose its ability to pay for the enormous carrier fleets and advanced airplanes needed to project power abroad. And diplomatically, the US will lose its commercial sway over critical trading partners who will likely seek refuge under the economic umbrellas of rival powers. In effect, astronomical American spending on NATO now counterintuitively damages the United States’ ability to keep its European allies safe in coming years.
The twenty-first century, so far, has seen the emergence of substantial challenges to America’s longstanding monopoly on global dominance. If the United States wishes to retain its planetary preeminence, it must rethink its blind dedication to the hemispheric culture of collective security. It’s true: NATO, and its ability to execute the mission of containment, was remarkably effective against the Soviet Union. But if an introductory course in international relations teaches us anything, it’s that past success is not a reliable determinant of future efficacy. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and it’s even tougher to teach old allies new strategies. Retiring the inflexible collective security of NATO might just be a crucial first step in rejuvenating American power, eliminating entrenched hostilities, and forging a safer world.