Opinion | NATO Isn’t Really About Defense, and It Never Was


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When European populations proved too stubborn, or undesirably swayed by socialist or nationalist sentiments, Atlantic integration proceeded all the same. The Czech Republic was a telling case. Faced with a likely “no” vote in a referendum on joining the alliance in 1997, the secretary general and top NATO officials saw to it that the government in Prague simply dispense with the exercise; the country joined two years later. The new century brought more of the same, with an appropriate shift in emphasis. Coinciding with the global war on terrorism, the “big bang” expansion of 2004 — in which seven countries acceded — saw counterterrorism supersede democracy and human rights in alliance rhetoric. Stress on the need for liberalization and public sector reforms remained a constant.

In the realm of defense, the alliance was not as advertised. For decades, the United States has been the chief provider of weapons, logistics, air bases and battle plans. The war in Ukraine, for all the talk of Europe stepping up, has left that asymmetry essentially untouched. Tellingly, the scale of U.S. military aid — $47 billion over the first year of the conflict — is more than double that offered by European Union countries combined. European spending pledges may also turn out to be less impressive than they appear. More than a year after the German government publicized the creation of a special $110 billion fund for its armed forces, the bulk of the credits remain unused. In the meantime, German military commanders have said that they lack sufficient munitions for more than two days of high-intensity combat.

Whatever the levels of expenditure, it is remarkable how little military capability Europeans get for the outlays involved. Lack of coordination, as much as penny-pinching, hamstrings Europe’s ability to ensure its own security. By forbidding duplication of existing capabilities and prodding allies to accept niche roles, NATO has stymied the emergence of any semiautonomous European force capable of independent action. As for defense procurement, common standards for interoperability, coupled with the sheer size of the U.S. military-industrial sector and bureaucratic impediments in Brussels, favor American firms at the expense of their European competitors. The alliance, paradoxically, appears to have weakened allies’ ability to defend themselves.

Yet the paradox is only superficial. In fact, NATO is working exactly as it was designed by postwar U.S. planners, drawing Europe into a dependency on American power that reduces its room for maneuver. Far from a costly charity program, NATO secures American influence in Europe on the cheap. U.S. contributions to NATO and other security assistance programs in Europe account for a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget — less than 6 percent by a recent estimate. And the war has only strengthened America’s hand. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, roughly half of European military spending went to American manufacturers. Surging demand has exacerbated this tendency as buyers rush to acquire tanks, combat aircraft and other weapons systems, locking into costly, multiyear contracts. Europe may be remilitarizing, but America is reaping the rewards.

In Ukraine, the pattern is clear. Washington will provide the military security, and its corporations will benefit from a bonanza of European armament orders, while Europeans will shoulder the cost of postwar reconstruction — something Germany is better poised to accomplish than the buildup of its military. The war also serves as a dress rehearsal for U.S. confrontation with China, in which European support cannot be so easily counted on. Limiting Beijing’s access to strategic technologies and promoting American industry are hardly European priorities, and severing European and Chinese trade is still difficult to imagine. Yet already there are signs that NATO is making headway in getting Europe to follow its lead in the theater. On the eve of a visit to Washington at the end of June, Germany’s defense minister duly advertised his awareness of “European responsibility for the Indo-Pacific” and the importance of “the rules-based international order” in the South China Sea.


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