By Gil Barndollar
In the wake of President Trump’s trip to France earlier this month, America’s guardians of the trans-Atlantic status quo have again sallied forth. The unblinking advocates of a perpetual American security blanket for a wealthy and peaceful Europe have raised their faltering swords. But we should not let foolish rhetoric and historical amnesia distract us from the truth: The NATO alliance has desperately needed reform since the fall of the Soviet Union eliminated its primary purpose.
NATO, in Lord Ismay’s famous phrasing, was established to keep “the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It has succeeded all too well. The Germans are down—militarily anyway—to the point of irrelevance, even as their economic might summons talk of empire. The Soviet Union is not just out but dead, a fact concealed by ceaseless threat inflation and fear mongering by many U.S. politicians and the media. And the Americans, despite the previous two realities, are firmly and mindlessly in thanks to Washington.
With the Russian bear hobbled, NATO was used to pull mostly half-hearted European contingents into a nation-building exercise in Central Asia in 2002. The understandable risk aversion and national caveats of most NATO forces in Afghanistan undermined the alliance’s credibility and cohesion. In a fitting rebuttal, the British and French dragged the U.S. and NATO into the even more foolish Libyan intervention in 2011. Far from protecting Europe, let alone America, NATO has become an engine for putting muscle behind bad ideas. That NATO and even the European Union could be destroyed by the refugee tides flowing partly from Afghanistan and through Libya may end up being one of history’s ironies.
To those who argue that American troops are required to deter supposed Russian revanchism in Europe, one need only look just outside the alliance’s borders to Ukraine. There, even in a state that borders his own, Russian President Vladimir Putin is unable to achieve his larger aims. A grinding frozen conflict is the result, regardless of provocations like this week’s naval attack in the Kerch Strait.
Yes, Russia could overrun the Baltics, NATO’s ultimate bridge too far. Poland or Germany are another matter, despite European military weakness and free riding on American tripwire forces. Europe is capable of defending itself from Russia, a country with an economy the size of Italy’s.
Yet the United States has remained the major military power and leader within NATO by an enormous margin. As a result, all European NATO armies, not just the Germans, have shortchanged common defense by free riding on American power. This defense welfare, funded by the American taxpayer, serves no one’s interests.
At the behest of the trans-Atlanticists, we have now over-expanded the alliance and weakened its credibility.
The addition of the Baltic states in 2004 was irresponsible. More Eastern and Southern European countries followed. And despite what he said to Tucker Carlson in July, President Trump gave his approval to adding Montenegro to the alliance last summer and Macedonia next.
The Balkans have been a proverbial powder keg for centuries. One of the greatest statesmen in history, Otto von Bismarck, correctly predicted that the next major war would start over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” More recently, British General Sir Michael Jackson refused a U.S. order to confront Russian troops in Kosovo in 1999, telling U.S. General Wesley Clark, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.”
The tiny, obsolescent armies of these new NATO members may be worthy of satire, but the liabilities the alliance is taking on are more serious. While Macedonia does not have any issues as dangerous as the real and frozen conflicts of Ukraine and Georgia, it remains a nation that could potentially pull the rest of NATO into a fresh round of Balkan troubles. In July, Macedonia’s Prime Minister accused Greek businessmen allied with Russia of meddling in his country to undermine the referendum. Barely a year ago, Macedonia seemed to be on the verge of war with its significant Albanian minority. It has also been described as “the fake news factory to the world.” There is reason to fear that Macedonia could drag NATO (meaning the U.S.) into another nasty little Balkan war.
These weak and distant allies also undermine deterrence. Deterrence—not token European contributions to misconceived interventions—is NATO’s chief value now. Yet expanding the alliance with even more peripheral members calls NATO’s credibility into question. Does anyone seriously believe that NATO troops should die for Macedonia? How is Macedonia’s security a vital national interest of the United States?
As the Spectator’s Bill Kauffman noted this summer, now that NATO has never been less necessary to the U.S. it is, perversely, a bipartisan third rail. The U.S. Senate’s non-binding resolution in support of NATO in July passed by a vote of 97-2; only Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee had the sense and independence to vote against it. It was not always thus.
NATO was founded in 1949 to fulfill Lord Ismay’s trinity of aims, the protection of Western Europe from Soviet aggression foremost among them. The alliance was a means to an end. Today NATO has somehow become an end in itself, ceaselessly expanding east and south, with no one stopping to ask whether each new member is an asset or a liability. All members, old and new alike, expect protection from an America whose real challenges lie in Asia. It is high time that a president who preaches “America First” really applies those words to the NATO alliance.
Gil Barndollar is Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship and a Fellow with Defense Priorities. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on on December 3, 2018. Read more HERE.