The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been a major piece of American and European (Transatlantic) cooperative international security efforts since its establishment in 1949. Formed as a collective defense alliance, NATO has arguably played a major role in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and North America. However, as with any complex international institution, NATO has its share of pros and cons. In this article, we will delve into the history of NATO, explore its current benefits and challenges, and examine its impact on American interests.
NATO was created in response to the rising tensions of the Cold War. It was established on April 4, 1949, with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, sometimes referred to as the Washington Treaty. The founding members included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The treaty established a mutual defense pact, stipulating that an attack against one member would be considered an attack against all members, and they would respond collectively. Its primary objective was to counter the Soviet Union and provide collective defense for its member states. Over the years, NATO expanded its membership and now includes several former Eastern Bloc countries and former Soviet republics.
Presently, American involvement in NATO, and the overall endeavor, is being questioned by many foreign policy experts on both sides of the aisle, so to speak, over the present usefulness of NATO and continuing American involvement. So let’s consider what both sides understand to be the pros and cons of the organization.
Those who support NATO and continuing American participation in the treaty will point to a variety of benefits. Here are three.
1. Collective Decision-Making: NATO operates on the principle of consensus, requiring all member states to agree on major decisions. This collective decision-making process ensures that actions taken by the alliance reflect the interests and concerns of all members. Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that it is unlikely Putin would launch an attack on a NATO ally. Kupchan told ABC News, that if Putin ever did this, he would be looking at a “full-scale war.” An attack on one NATO ally is considered an attack on all, which proponents argue serves as a major deterrent (more on that shortly) and helps prevent World War III.
2. Military Capabilities: NATO boasts a formidable military force comprising troops, equipment, and advanced technology. This collective military strength acts as a deterrent against potential adversaries and enhances the security of member states. These capabilities include but are not limited to conventional forces including armored units, infantry, naval vessels, and air assets. These forces are designed to provide a visible presence and credible deterrence; a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, made up of radar stations, interceptors, and other assets, to protect member countries from the threat of ballistic missile attacks; and cyber defense, including a Cyber Operations Center to monitor and defend against cyber threats that could impact member countries’ security and infrastructure.
3. Deterrence: Defenders argue that the alliance’s commitment to collective defense acts as a powerful deterrent. Any aggression against one member state is considered an attack on the entire alliance, thus dissuading potential adversaries from engaging in hostile actions. For example, NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The alliance supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan as part of the broader international efforts against terrorism.
Ian Brzezinski, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, argued that “NATO remains essential for American interests. It serves as a deterrent against potential adversaries and provides a platform for cooperation on emerging security challenges, such as cyber warfare.” And Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. envoy to Russia and South Korea who also served for four years as NATO’s deputy secretary-general in Brussels, argued in 2020 that “NATO remains essential to deter Russian aggression, which is a real threat. It’s also a standing coalition of like-minded democracies that the United States can still call upon to defend shared interests and project stability beyond NATO’s borders.”
With the advent of the Russian-Ukrainian war, NATO has faced increased criticism. Some leading conservatives have called for America to withdraw from the arrangement entirely. Here are two of the main issues that the critics of NATO point to in order to support their concerns.
1. Unequal Burden-Sharing: One of the persistent challenges facing NATO is the unequal burden-sharing among its member states. While the United States remains the largest contributor in terms of defense spending, some European allies fall short of meeting the agreed-upon defense expenditure target of 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This imbalance has strained relations within the alliance, leading to calls for a fairer distribution of responsibilities. Barry Posen, professor of political science at MIT, has argued that “The unequal burden-sharing within NATO is unsustainable. The United States should pressure its European allies to increase their defense spending and take more responsibility for their own security.”
In his article titled “Pivoting the US Away from Europe to a Dormant NATO,” at the Center for Renewing America, foreign policy expert Sumantra Maitra highlights concerns about NATO’s relevance in the current geopolitical landscape. He argues that the United States should focus on other global challenges and reduce its commitments to NATO, noting that “American overcommitment to NATO is a case of ideology over interest.”
And in an article at The Week exploring the pros and cons of NATO, the authors note that “Even in 2021, two-thirds of NATO members are not spending 2%, although Germany has just promised to increase its defense spending in the wake of the war in Ukraine” and that foreign policy experts have “said the benchmark has ‘undermined Alliance credibility and solidarity,’ with the failure of members to live up to the pledge a ‘black eye to NATO’s public image.’”
2. Strained Relations with Russia: Critics of NATO argue that its expansion eastward has strained relations with Russia, leading to increased tensions and a deteriorating security environment. Other critics argue that NATO’s actions have been provocative and have contributed to a new wave of geopolitical competition. John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has suggested that “NATO’s eastward expansion has been a strategic blunder. It has heightened tensions with Russia and undermined the security architecture in Europe. The United States should rethink its commitments to the alliance.”
Echoing this sentiment, Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, has also argued that “NATO’s expansion has been misguided and has unnecessarily antagonized Russia. The alliance should refocus on its core mission of defending its member states, rather than pursuing a confrontational approach.”
It can certainly be argued that NATO has played a significant role in maintaining peace and stability in Europe and North America since its inception. It has provided a platform for collective decision-making, enhanced military capabilities, and acted as a deterrent against aggression. However, challenges such as unequal burden-sharing and strained relations with Russia necessitate a meaningful discussion on the future of the alliance, and the threat of a Russian attack on a European NATO ally threatens to drag the United States into another world war.
Whatever happens with NATO going forward, it is important that Americans understand its history and the cases both for and against continuing American involvement.
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