American military alliances never die; they just grow comical. The poster child is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO’s recent travails in Libya illustrate the trouble with permanent alliances. That alliance now constitutes a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers (and their Chinese creditors) to bloated European welfare states. If the current Washington climate of austerity can serve any fruitful end, surely it should be to reconsider such foolish alliances.
NATO was created to counter the Soviet Union, but its broader purpose in Europe was summed up in an apocryphal quote attributed to Lord Ismay: to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It helped accomplish those objectives, but not without significant costs. Today the benefits to American national security have disappeared, but the costs to taxpayers remain.
The Libya campaign exposed the alliance’s imbalance. Germany and other NATO members sat out the fight. The U.S. military provided most of the surveillance capabilities, largely via drones, that enabled NATO pilots to bomb Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists. European air forces ran out of precision-guided munitions and had to come begging for Uncle Sam to provide some. Thus, Washington essentially borrowed money from China to buy ordnance to give to Europe to drop on Libya. The post-Cold War NATO rationale is that we agree to spend and fight and the Europeans agree to support us - sometimes.
Nobody seems to deny this. As NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen observed, “The fact is that Europe couldn’t have [mounted the Libya campaign] on its own.” Consider that for a moment: Europe, with an economy and population greater than those of the United States, could not beat up on a third-rate military just across the Mediterranean Sea on its own.
The story in Afghanistan is similar. I recently met with two military officers from one of the most important European NATO partners. In discussing their participation in the Afghanistan campaign, the men were suffused with pathos, admitting that without American support, they could not participate at all because of their lack of lift, search and rescue and medical capabilities. Although some allied forces have fought hard in Afghanistan - the French, Canadians and British, for instance, have the per capita casualties to prove it - the overall European contribution to the war has been trivial compared to America’s. Despite Europe’s size and wealth, it is a military dwarf compared to the United States.
American leaders seem to think we can solve this problem by lecturing our allies. We implore them to spend more on defense, buy more airlift and come to our wars more quickly and in bigger numbers. But the allies’ weakness is perfectly rational - a product of the fact that they have their own foreign-policy prerogatives, including a reluctance to serve as permanent junior partners in every American military venture and to spend money on defense when they know we will do it for them.
Perversely, Europe’s military weakness is partly the fault of short-sighted American foreign-policy makers. Had the United States moved to dissolve NATO at the end of the Cold War - once its mission had been accomplished - Europe might be more capable today. European defense officials began planning for European military integration in the 1990s, but then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright insisted in 1998 that not only must NATO survive, but any autonomous European defense efforts must not violate what she termed the “three Ds.” In her words, Washington would oppose any European cooperation that produced diminution of, discrimination against or duplication of existing NATO capabilities. This posture helped strangle the European Union defense baby in the cradle.
Today, as the Europeans grasp for coherent military policies, the new fad is called “permanent structured cooperation.” Despite the anodyne term, the ambition is staggering: to specialize and partly decouple military capabilities from the nation-states that produce them. This development reveals the startling human tendency to expand failing enterprises. As the University of Birmingham’s Anand Menon notes, however, “given the jealousy with which governments, whatever the limited potential of their national armed forces, protect their control over defense, significant progress in terms of a more coordinated European response to capabilities shortfalls is unlikely.”
The American Founders feared permanent alliances because they figured that such alliances could entangle the nation in politico-military disputes that geography allowed it to avoid profitably. Instead of taking a victory lap when Col. Gadhafi falls, American policymakers should consider the fruits of NATO’s decades-long policy of infantilizing its allies. Now that America is broke, Europe is safe and the Soviet Union is gone, American policymakers ought to acknowledge that NATO in the 21st century constitutes a costly commitment with little benefit for Americans.
Justin Logan is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.