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Understanding NATO's Longevity

Every once in a while a commentator will dust off the Wither NATO routine, asking why the U.S. and Europe sustain an alliance whose central rationale - deterring the Soviet threat - disappeared decades ago. A staple argument is that NATO risks becoming "irrelevant" as European defense budgets shrivel and some members bear unequal burdens in Afghanistan. But I think these arguments overlook an important point. If you want to know why NATO endures, I think this interview with Condoleeza Rice sheds some good light on Washington's thinking:

SPIEGEL: But Americans insisted on full NATO membership for the unified Germany. It was very unlikely that Gorbachev would swallow this. Weren't the Americans trying to block reunification this way?

Rice: No. But we couldn't afford in the end game of the Cold War to make a bad misstep. And a really bad misstep would have been to pull Germany out of NATO, which would have collapsed the most important platform for the American presence in Europe.

SPIEGEL: But who could really believe that the Russians would ever agree to that?

Rice: There were debates in the American foreign policy establishment that maybe both the Warsaw Pact and NATO should go away. But we at the White House never considered the possibility of unifying Germany outside of NATO. It would have meant that at the last minute, with everything going our way, the United States capitulated on the essential thing in terms of the American presence in Europe. [Emphasis mine]

And again at the end:

SPIEGEL: In retrospect, what would you have done differently during the negiations about the unification process?

Rice: I'm sure there were small tactical things that could have been done differently, but how could it have come out better? Germany fully integrated and united with its democratic institutions intact, integrated in Europe, integrated in NATO and the American presence is secure in Europe. [Emphasis mine]

Whatever other rationales are offered up for why NATO remains relevant, it's central, animating purpose is to keep America immersed in the affairs of Europe. Seen in this light, Europe's collective decision to continue to sacrifice defense budgets on the altar of austerity is a feature, not a bug.