NATO at Fifty: Time to Quit

By Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne

21 April 1999 NATION

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The war against Serbia is the Banquo’s ghost of NATO’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in Washington. Disappointing partygoers and policy wonks alike, it has dampened plans for the gala (no black tie, no Barbra Streisand) and prompted the alliance to postpone decisions about new members. The war has, however, answered concretely the important issue the summit was to address: when and if the alliance would be intervening outside the territory of its members. Still, two crucial questions remain unanswered. The first–why is NATO still in business?–leads inevitably to the second–why do US policy-makers still think American leadership in Europe vital? After all, the Soviet threat has vanished, and the Western Europeans certainly have the resources to provide for their own security.

With the Warsaw Pact’s collapse, both NATO and US leadership in Europe would seem to have outlived their usefulness. Yet, far from disappearing, at Washington’s prompting NATO has both expanded geographically (adding Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) and redefined its strategic mission. The “new” NATO is being tested in Kosovo–where US and alliance officials have declared that the alliance must prevail to establish its credibility, lest a pall be cast over its golden anniversary gala. Rather than celebrating the alliance’s fiftieth birthday as a prelude to NATO’s second halfcentury, it is long past time for Americans to ask whether a continued US military role in Europe is either necessary or justifiable. To answer these questions, we have to examine the assumptions, spoken and otherwise, that underlie America’s European strategy.

In the early cold war years, the United States, through its dominant role in NATO, assumed responsibility for defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union because immediately after World War II that area was clearly incapable of protecting itself. Yet, by the mid-sixties, the Western Europeans had staged a vigorous economic recovery, and the Soviet Union’s objective in Europe was obviously to maintain, rather than overthrow, the post-1945 status quo. Indeed, even the hawkish former Reagan Administration Pentagon official Fred Ikle has suggested that any serious likelihood of Soviet aggression against Western Europe had already vanished by the end of the fifties. So why then did the United States persist in its strategy long after it was apparent that, if indeed really threatened at all, Western Europe was capable of providing for its own security? And why did the United States continue to insist–as it still does–that a US-led NATO was the indispensable foundation of any European security architecture, thus consistently blocking proposals that would have given Western Europe the responsibility for its own defense?

Although the continuity and fundamental goals of America’s role in Europe are in many ways obscured by focusing on the containment of its cold war enemy, they are illuminated by examining the containment of its allies. By providing for Germany’s security and by enmeshing its military and foreign policies into an alliance that it dominated, the United States contained its erstwhile enemy, preventing its “partner” from embarking upon independent foreign and military policies. This stabilized relations among the states of Western Europe, for by controlling Germany, the United States–to use a current term in policy-making circles–“reassured” Germany’s neighbors that they would not be threatened by the resurgence of German power (a resurgence that was necessary both to contain the Soviet Union and to insure a prosperous Western European and world economy). The leash of America’s security leadership thereby reined in the dogs of war. By, in effect, banishing power politics, NATO protected the states of Western Europe from themselves.

To US policy-makers, America’s “leadership” through NATO in ameliorating the security concerns of the Europeans continues to be vital despite the Soviet Union’s demise. After all, the now-infamous draft of the Pentagon’s 1992 “post-cold war” Defense Planning Guidance argued that the United States should still do this by “discouraging the advanced industrialized nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger global or regional role,” thereby dominating the international system.

To accomplish this, Washington must keep the former great powers of Western Europe, as well as Japan, firmly within the constraints of the US-created postwar system by providing what one of the guidance’s authors terms “adult supervision.” It must protect the interests of virtually all potential great powers for them so that they need not acquire the capabilities to protect themselves–that is, so that they need not act like great powers. (No wonder the United States must spend more on its “national security” than the rest of the world’s countries combined.) The very existence of truly independent actors would be intolerable, for it would challenge US hegemony, which Washington says is the key to a prosperous and stable international order.

Thus, in 1990 Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs James Dobbins–now ambassador and one of Madeleine Albright’s closest advisers–explained America’s post-cold war role in Europe. Testifying before Congress, Dobbins argued that “we need NATO now for the same reasons NATO was created.” The danger, he asserted, was that without the “glue” of US leadership in NATO, Western Europeans would revert to their bad ways, that is, “re-nationalizing” their armed forces, playing the “old geopolitical game,” and “shifting alliances.” According to Dobbins, without the United States acting as the stabilizer, jockeying among the states of Western Europe would “undermine political and economic structures like the EC” and even lead to a resumption of “historic conflicts” like the two world wars. President Clinton has maintained NATO’s central role, asserting that since the late forties the US-led alliance has prevented “a return to local rivalries” in Western Europe. More important, this thinking has impelled NATO’s two most dangerous and controversial post-cold war actions: its eastward expansion and its interventions in the Balkans.

The argument that NATO’s security umbrella must be expanded to Eastern (and now southeastern) Europe is merely an extension of the argument that the United States must provide “adult supervision” by leading in European security affairs. In the view of the proponents of NATO enlargement, if a US-dominated NATO demonstrates that it cannot or will not address the new security problems in post-cold war Europe (for instance, the “spillover” of ethnic conflict, refugee flows into Western Europe and the possibility that these could ignite ultranationalist feelings in, for example, Germany), then the alliance will be rendered impotent. Should that happen, policy-makers fear, the post-cold war continent will lapse into the same old power politics that the alliance was supposed to suppress, shattering economic and political cooperation in Western Europe.

So, as Senator Richard Lugar–the leading Republican foreign policy spokesman–has argued, since European stability is now threatened by “those areas in the east and south where the seeds of future conflict in Europe lie,” the US-led NATO must stabilize both halves of the continent. The important point is that the logic of US global strategy does indeed dictate that the US-led NATO move eastward. While NATO expansion is often described as a “new bargain,” it is in fact only the latest investment, made necessary by changing geopolitical circumstances, in a pursuit begun long ago. Since the logic of US policy won’t allow America’s Western European “partners” to assume responsibility for stabilizing their own neighborhood, US responsibilities must multiply. As Lugar explained, “The only mechanism capable of this task is NATO; not the European Community, not CSCE, not the WEU…. if NATO does not deal with the security problems of its members, they will ultimately seek to deal with these problems either in new alliances or on their own.” This thinking leads inevitably to dangerously open-ended commitments.

Military involvement in Kosovo–or someplace like it–was foreshadowed by NATO expansion. As Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott stated in arguing the case for an enlarged NATO, “The lesson of the tragedy in the former Yugoslavia is not to retire NATO in disgrace but to develop its ability to counter precisely those forces that have exploded in the Balkans.”

And as NATO’s war against Serbia demonstrates, there is no logical stopping point for US commitments in Europe according to the calculus driving America’s European strategy. For example, now that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have been admitted to NATO, instability arising in the regions to the east of the expanded alliance will threaten those states and ultimately Western Europe, or so it will inevitably be argued. The need to defend already extant security interests will be invoked to support subsequent enlargement, thus incurring new strategic responsibilities for the alliance and entangling it even more deeply in a geopolitically volatile region. After all, Lugar argues that the US-led NATO must “go out of area” because “there can be no lasting security at the center without security at the periphery.” Of course, to follow this logic means that the ostensible threats to US security will be nearly endless.

American policy-makers believe that perpetuating US hegemony in Europe (and globally) will enhance US security and maintain stability on the continent. But this belief rests on a misreading of history’s lessons and betrays a naïveté about the nature of international relations. This is especially apparent with respect to Washington’s relations with Moscow, which have been badly damaged by NATO expansion and by the US-led intervention in Kosovo. American policy-makers can tell Moscow that it should not perceive US policies as a threat. But in a “unipolar” world–today’s world in which the United States is the only great power–it should come as no surprise that Russia (and others) assign more weight to America’s unchecked power than to its assurances that it doesn’t constitute a threat to any other state.

Hidden by all the lofty (and misleading) rhetoric about NATO and transatlantic partnership is a simple fact: US policy in Europe aims not to counter others’ bids for hegemony but to perpetuate America’s own supremacy. American policy-makers seem not to understand that while hegemons love themselves, other states inevitably fear them and therefore form alliances to balance against them. Russia, the state most obviously threatened by US policy in Europe, has responded predictably, countering NATO expansion by bolstering its security ties with Belarus and Iran in an attempt to create counterweights to an expanded, US-led alliance. More ominously for the longer term, NATO expansion has provoked a strategic rapprochement between the Russians and Chinese, based on their anxiety about a world dominated by a single great power–the United States. And as the Kosovo conflict has deepened, Moscow’s concerns about NATO action in a historically Russian sphere of influence have, of course, only intensified. Over time, NATO expansion could provoke the very Russian threat it ostensibly seeks to deter. Indeed, NATO expansion may prove to be a diplomatic blunder on a par with the 1919 Versailles Treaty, which, by humiliating Germany, fanned the flames of German revanchism and sowed the seeds for Hitler and World War II.

Forty-nine years ago the French commentator J.J. Servan Schreiber defined America’s role in Europe: “When a nation bears the responsibility for the military security and the economic stability of a geographic zone, that nation is in fact–whether it wants it or not–the head of an empire.” Fifty years after NATO’s founding, as the post-cold war alliance finds itself at war, the time has come to reassess US imperial policy in Europe.

The war in Yugoslavia is a watershed in NATO’s history. Today, the United States has expanded the alliance’s geographical scope and created a new role for it: intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states whose domestic policies offend NATO’s “values”–even when such states pose no security threat to the alliance’s partners. If the United States is to avoid the risks and costs that inevitably accompany defending and expanding imperial frontiers, then a new debate must begin. Rather than focus on such narrow issues as the proper military “burden sharing” formula for the United States and its allies, this debate must assess underlying assumptions; it must stop revolving around how the Pax Americana should be administered and instead examine whether there should be a Pax Americana at all.

Arguing for the maintenance of Washington’s leftover “cold war” alliances, a high-ranking Pentagon official asked, “If we pull out, who knows what nervousness will result?” The problem is, we can never know, so, according to this logic, we must always stay. Instead of persisting in this open-ended, permanent and hazardous imperial policy, we should finally, fully and in an orderly way devolve to a thriving and democratic Europe the task of insuring its own stability and prosperity. In the West European Union, Western Europe possesses an embryonic strategic identity, and the European Union is committed to implementing a unified, independent foreign and security policy. To be sure, many US policy-makers have argued that in the Balkan crises Western Europeans have demonstrated that they are incapable of acting effectively without US “leadership.” But these protests are hypocritical–who can blame the Europeans for their inability to assert themselves in security affairs when Washington has for decades repeatedly squelched European initiatives that would have made that assertion possible?

It’s time to stop infantilizing our “partners.” Such astute US statesmen as Kennan, Marshall, Eisenhower and Fulbright did not intend for NATO to establish a permanent US protectorate over the continent, and they worried that if it became permanent, the US presence would have the ironic consequence of undermining the emergence of an independent Western Europe. A decade after the cold war’s end, the continuing US military preponderance on the continent is doing just that, and thereby crippling the sine qua non of a healthy transatlantic relationship in the twenty-first century. America’s strategic interest in Europe does not demand that it insure against every untoward event there.

Certainly, disorder in Kosovo and other places on Europe’s fringes should be a matter for Europeans, who have the wherewithal and the maturity to combat it, quarantine it or, if they choose, ignore it. Western Europe today is capable of standing on its own and looking after itself. It is in Western Europe’s interest–and America’s–that it do so.

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