Over the course of the Russo-Ukrainian War, a long-dormant debate over the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has reignited within the United States. Some have argued that the US must push forward; NATO, in the words of President Joe Biden, is not just a military alliance, but is a “sacred obligation.” Many in the burgeoning New Right and elsewhere, however, have taken a different tack: that NATO is an outdated organization which needs to be abandoned by the US.
Both of these views miss the big picture. For starters, the worship—and what other word can be used for something described as “sacred”?—of a military alliance is wrongheaded. It is imperative for states to maintain some flexibility when seeking to preserve their national interests. And there is no reason for America to keep such a focus on Europe, thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some, like former Congressman Will Hurd, have made the argument that Russia must be stopped in Ukraine so Moscow cannot ultimately threaten us. But this argument can only be taken seriously if the events of the last year are ignored: Russia, which cannot get troops to Kyiv, will not get past Poland, much less France.
Another strike against staying the course with NATO is that America’s NATO allies simply do not pay their fair share. This was, before Donald Trump and the accompanying instinctive reaction from some quarters to disagree with whatever he says, a bipartisan view; as president, Barack Obama pressured America’s NATO allies to pay more, albeit with a lighter touch. In 2022, only 7 of 30 NATO members spent at least 2% of their GDP on defense. Some, like Germany, are seemingly adamant in their refusal to do so—while being adamant America defend them from Russia, a country with which until recently they were desperate to make gas deals.
However, though some on the American right would dream otherwise, America does need allies. It needs to keep them in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, where the US is already well-loved, creating a friendly environment for America to pursue its interests. And it also needs new/strengthened alliances in East Asia, as it prepares for what could be a century-long struggle with China. A US withdrawal from NATO in this moment of Russian revanchism would foster feelings of betrayal in Europe, and small Asian states would never trust America to actually stick with them.
But there is a third way which, until now, has gone relatively unconsidered by all sides. Currently, NATO is thought of by policymakers, bureaucrats, and politicians as essentially “America+”. When new members join, they are not doing so with the hope of receiving Spanish aid in the event of an attack. They are doing so in order to get under America’s umbrella. A new way of thinking about NATO would be to treat the organization as a two-member bloc comprised of North America and Europe.
One can—to risk a patronizing analogy—think of the West as a family, with Europe as the child, (re)born in 1945, who has now reached adulthood. For its entire life, America, the stronger family member, has defended it. But now Europe needs to step out on its own. As family, America will of course be there to defend it should things really turn sour; this proposal does not involve the abrogation of Article V. After all, it would be in America’s interest to defend Europe if the latter faced a force which genuinely threatened to overrun it. Europe being conquered by anti-Western forces would clearly not be in America’s national interest.
Likewise, Europe being built into a strong military means that it could also come to America’s aid one day should America need help, be it against China or otherwise; this would give Americans the feeling that they are actually getting something from NATO. It also solves the aforementioned problem of America needing to keep old alliances while making new ones.
American policymakers scoff at the idea of Europe defending itself. But even a cursory glance at the continent reveals this scoffing to be wildly misplaced. Europe, and the EU in particular, has nearly 450 million people, an advanced arms industry, nuclear weapons (via France and, if including non-EU states, the UK) and a long history of military experience. There is no reason for the continent to have such deplorable military capabilities. Europe, expecting America’s aid if things ever turn sour, has neglected making the most of its potential.
This is not to say that such a shift would be easy. While the EU has some defense mechanisms, the creation of some sort of EU—or, if the UK and Norway were to join, European—Army would require sustained effort. But if America were to make clear that it was shifting its focus to Asia, pulling out a significant number of troops, and had a president willing to make good on such a declaration, Europe could be jump-started into getting the process done.
NATO is not a sacred organization, nor is it one devoted to taking advantage of the United States. Like any military alliance, it is fundamentally a useful tool. Time does not have to change that fact. But time can change how we use it.
Anthony J. Constantini is writing his Ph.D. on populism and early American democracy at the University of Vienna in Austria. Previously he received an M.A. in Arms Control and Strategic Studies from St. Petersburg State University. In 2016 he was the War Room Director for the NRSC.