NATO is Obsolete


Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Europe recently to announce that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may have a “dismal future” and that before long, American leaders “may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

Why does he make that sound like a bad thing? “Watch out! We may have to stop spending so much money protecting countries that can protect themselves!”

The prospect is not likely to throw millions of Americans into despair. As Gates himself has pointed out more than once, the United States has been carrying more than its share of the load for a long time now — and the situation is getting worse, not better. It’s hard to see what we would lose from the gradual dissolution of the Atlantic alliance.

It’s also hard to see what Europe would lose. NATO has been around more than 60 years, which is an awfully long time for a coalition of sovereign nations to last. That survival is especially notable considering the monumental changes of the past couple of decades.

Its entire purpose was to protect Western Europe from the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe, which were a plausible threat to invade and conquer. But at this point, maintaining NATO is like keeping forts in South Dakota to defend settlers against hostile Indians.

The Western alliance won the Cold War, and in the absence of some major, general threat, Gates would do better to ask why it needs to be preserved.

He certainly doesn’t like the way it operates. In his June 10 speech in Brussels, he complained that “while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.”

This may have something to do with the fact that Libya is way outside NATO’s traditional responsibility. The centerpiece of its founding treaty is this sentence: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

But in Libya — which, you may notice, is not in Europe or North America — there was no attack on any member. It was NATO that did the attacking. Not surprisingly, some allies haven’t had their hearts in the war.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been an answer in search of a question. It validates what Ronald Reagan is credited with saying: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

Everyone understood why we kept huge forces in (West) Germany a generation ago. But today, it’s a puzzle. Who are they supposed to fight? The Finns? Missions like Libya are an attempt to justify an organization that has outlived the problem it was created to solve.

The attempt is not working well. NATO endured partly because for decades, it never had to go to war. Once it did, in Afghanistan, it was exposed as flimsy and unreliable.

In 2007, Gates accused our European pals of shirking their duty against the Taliban. He reiterated his gripe in 2008. In 2009, more of the same.

How much good did all this grousing do? The other day, on Capitol Hill, Gates called the European contribution to training Afghan security forces “a joke.”

Libya is more proof of the futility of trying to rouse equal motivation among 28 different countries. It confirms that the alliance has become an obsolete luxury.

Our insistence on preserving it anyway means we have to take an oversized role, which frees our partners of the need to attend to their own defense. Only five NATO governments spend more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on the military — while the U.S. shells out 5 percent.

The defense secretary fumes that too many countries “enjoy the benefits of membership” but “don’t want to share the risks and costs.” Of course they do. If you let people join a nice club without paying dues, how many would turn it down? And if you later asked them to mop the floors, how many would grab a bucket?

Our allies are behaving rationally, and we keep wondering why. Gates may enjoy continually pounding his head against a brick wall. But the rest of us might find it feels really good to stop.



Steve Chapman


Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio's Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

  • Michael PS

    As a European, I feel that, whilst NATO may serve as a symbolic reassurance to some countries, such as the Baltic States, it should be restructured on the two principles enunciated by General de Gaulle, who insisted on two rules (1) No French troops should ever be placed under foreign command and (2) No foreign troops, not under French command, should be permitted on French soil.

    If all member states adopted these two principles, (Sarkozy has actually resiled from them) which are simply the single principle of national sovereignty, many of the problems of the alliance would disappear.

    • Pete

      Problems are there because Western Europe does no longer see Russia as a threat, partly because of buffers like Poland, which the Germans are happy to again become Russian vassals with no sovereign control. Molotov-Ribbentrop lite. When the USSR was still in existence, the Germans were more than happy to have US bases on their soil and NATO was essential. The French buffered by US soldiers in Germany could take the higher moral ground and denounce NATO.

  • Rob Holland

    “Our allies are behaving rationally, and we keep wondering why. Gates may enjoy continually pounding his head against a brick wall. But the rest of us might find it feels really good to stop.”

    Methinks too many folks have been pounding their heads against the wall for so long that they’re numb to its effects. Any suggestion that they stop is met with bewilderment and cries of “isolationist”!

    Stop the madness. Vote Ron Paul 2012!!!

  • TommyAquinas

    NATO obsolete?

    The former countries of the Soviet bloc, who do not wish to return to Russian domination, would disagree with you.

  • “No French troops should ever be placed under foreign command and (2) No foreign troops, not under French command, should be permitted on French soil.”

    That was cute.

  • Pete

    What Tommy Aquinas said. Russia and emergent Germany – note how German attitudes towards USA changed after Soviet collapse – want to dominate Europe again, a symbolic NATO presence is some reassurance to ex WTO countries. But as a pro-US European I do see that it is unfair for Americans to pay so much for this. From your POV you should have let the Soviets have all of Europe. US would have been able to trade with a Soviet Europe quite well. You can see how grateful Germany and France are for your nuclear showdown with the USSR, a showdown which was about Europe and not your own country. Such is life, I suppose.