The Future of NATO
Anthony Fu, Austin A Mardon
April 6, 2022
Venture for Canada, Antarctic Institute of Canada
As Russian armed forces marched onto Ukrainian soil in late February of 2022, the world was sent into shock by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. This egregious act violated numerous agreements between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which forced the Ukrainian government into immediately demanding an accession into NATO; it seems that this military alliance is more relevant than ever. However, this 73 years old organization was created for a global political dynamic that no longer exists. As NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Hastings Ismay described, the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in”. This accurately reflects two key conditions to the establishment of NATO: a strong American presence in Europe and a strong outside enemy. In 2022, however, the Soviet Union only exists in history books and video games, while the Americans are increasingly occupied by their rivalry with China. Thus, this paper argues that, in today’s world order, the continuance of NATO is increasingly rendered unnecessary by America’s unwillingness to intervene in Europe and the lack of a strong outside enemy. This paper specifically demonstrates that America’s declining devotion to European affairs, due to cost-benefit concerns and the rise of China, is the most significant reason and Russia’s decreasing ability to pose significant threat ranks second.
American unwillingness to intervene
The effectiveness of NATO’s defence of Europe is largely dependent on American contribution, which makes American willingness to intervene in European affairs an integral factor to the survivability of the alliance. Scholars have argued that “the counterweight against increasingly menacing Soviet behavior could only be the United States and a community of values and military alliance led by America” (Göncz 2009, 92). The significance of American involvement to NATO is especially demonstrated by its financial contribution. While European allies collectively have a higher GDP than America, American defence expenditure accounts for over 70% of the alliance’s total defence spending and America directly contributes over 20% of direct funding for NATO—twice the amount of the second largest contributor (Garey 2020, 205). Similarly demonstrated by NATO’s intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, the success of military intervention was only possible with the involvement of American forces and “Europe was unprepared to move forward without the United States” (Garey 2020, 4). However, this imbalance between American and European contribution constitutes a free-riding problem for America. Many European allies “regularly failed to meet the alliance’s collective defense spending requests” but continue to “free ride” from the benefit of Article V—the protection of the most powerful military power in the world (Garey 2020, 3). As America consistently spends more than 3% of their GDP on their military, a majority of European allies fail to allocate more than 2% of their GDP to defense spending (Garey 2020, 205).
This unequal relationship, however, is precisely the motivation behind America’s increasing skepticism of its devotion to Europe, which was most observed during President Trump’s administration. Trump defined NATO as “one of the United States’ most detrimental relationships” and argued that “it’s costing us too much money. And frankly they have to put up more money. We’re playing disproportionately” (Garey 2020, 2). While America never left NATO during his presidency, the possibility cannot be understated. Not only did Trump’s presidency ultimately represent the growing isolationist sentiments in America, where the general belief was that “other countries have profited by taking advantage of the USA”, his administration did withdraw America from numerous international regimes, such as the Paris Agreement, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and the INF Treaty (Goldgeier 2016, 260).
Furthermore, America’s strategic shift out of Europe is accelerated by its “Pivot to Asia” policy change. Motivated by the rise of China’s military and economic power, this policy was introduced by the Obama administration and scholars in this field have observed its implication to NATO. Research has warned that America’s commitments in the Pacific will constrain its ability to engage its full strategic weight in European affairs (Frühling and Benjamin 2010, 100). Additionally, scholars have argued against the assumption that threats to NATO members “will always take precedence for the United States over threats to its Asian allies”, despite shared interests and values (Frühling and Benjamin 2010, 101). This is further evidenced by the American military’s reduced deployment in Europe and the increased focus in Asia. The US Navy, for example, “shifted vessels from the Atlantic to the Pacific fleet and deploys its most modern surface and sub-surface combatants in Asia” (Frühling and Benjamin 2010, 100). This strategic shift to Asia is most epitomized by President Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: he refused to support Ukraine anything more than weaponry, while emphasizing that America’s national interest lies in Asia. Ultimately, the cost-benefit concerns of maintaining America’s presence in Europe and its rivalry with China constituted the gradual, but significant, shift out of European affairs. Considering the sheer size of America’s contribution in NATO, this shift undoubtedly represents the most imminent and crucial threat to the continuance of NATO.
Russia’s decline as an enemy
Secondary to America’s change in strategic focus, this essay argues that, despite its frequent and recent aggressions in Eastern Europe, Russia’s declining economic power decreases its ability to pose a significant threat to NATO, rendering the defence alliance unnecessary. The importance of a strong outside enemy to the continuance of an alliance has been studied by the balance-of-threat theory proposed by realist scholar Stephan Walt. According to Walt, the major purpose of alliance formation is to counter an external threat that any individual state could not face alone (Walt 1985, 6). Walt saw the aggregate power and offensive ability of a state to be factors that determine how much threat it poses to others. In stark contrast to its former glory, today’s Russia lacks the economic power to pose an offensive threat. In a 2020 study conducted by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Russia’s global influence will be surpassed by India in the next decades, as its economic strength continues to decline (Helm, Smeltz, and Burakovsky 2020, 3). While Russia has consistently allocated over 4% of its GDP to defence spending, which is almost twice the global average, this study also predicted a decline in Russia’s military strength in the future (Helm, Smeltz, and Burakovsky 2020, 4). This decline in military and economic power undoubtedly reduces the threat posed by Russia, thus mitigating the necessity for an alliance. As described by UK security specialist, Edward Lucas, “compared to the EU as a whole, Russia looks puny in everything except its nuclear arsenal” (Szabo 2016, 126).
It must be pointed out, however, that Walt also considered the proximity and offensive intentions of a state to affect the level of threat it presents (Walt 1985, 6). From these two perspectives, Russia still poses a threat to Europe, as it is only 1,000KM away from the German border and, as we have seen in the past decade, Russian leadership consistently displayed signs of aggression. Nonetheless, this paper argues that Russia’s proximity and aggression only constitute a threat when Russia has the economic and military power to support it. Scholars of the balance-of-power theory similarly argued that states form coalition when a state has become too powerful, but this theory only considers a state’s aggregate power (Sheehan 1996, 3). Indeed, while the perceived threat of a state may influence other states’ decision to form a coalition, organizations such as NATO are ultimately formed to balance the power, not the threat, of its enemy. Thus, while Russia has consistently demonstrated aggression, its irreversible decline in aggregate power means that NATO, at least its current size and power, will become unnecessary in the future.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the continuance of NATO has been hotly debated. During the past few decades, it has evolved in many ways (such as accepting new members and participating in the war on terror) to adapt to the new world order. While these adaptations may have extended the life of NATO, they are inevitably changing NATO. But for the alliance that was formed on the fundamental principles of “keeping the Soviet Union out, the Americans in”, the currently world order, where America is moving out and Russians can be kept out easily, does not support NATO’s continuance. This paper specifically examined America’s concern over its ally’s inability to contribute their share and America’s strategic shift to Asia, and Russia’s declining power and ability to pose significant threat. It is shown that under these changes in global politics, NATO seems rather unnecessary. Future scholars may, however, examine how the changing political landscape within Europe affected NATO.
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