Monday, October 12, 2009

Is NATO Necessary?

21st Century Jeffersonians believe that the United States must abandon its long-standing policy of high-level interventions around the world. This does not mean isolationism, as we must acknowledge the critical importance of global trade and recognize that the safety provided by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is no longer what it was in Jefferson's time. But in the murky waters of the 21st Century, we would do well to remember Jefferson's exhortations against becoming too deeply embedded in the affairs of other nations.

2009 has seen the 60th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was the key foundation of American policy during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It effectively deterred a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and played an enormous role in the eventual victory of America and its allies in the ideological struggle with the Soviets. But with the end of the Cold War in 1989, it can easily be argued that the mission of NATO was at an end. Today, it's hard to identify exactly what NATO is for.

In 2009, the United States maintains 56,000 troops in Germany, about 9,000 in Italy and another 9,000 in the United Kingdom. To defend against whom? Russia no longer poises any conventional military threat to Western Europe, and even if it did, shouldn't the defense of Western Europe be undertaken by the Europeans?

America spends nearly 5% of his GDP on defense, whereas only four other NATO members spend even 2% of their GDP on defense. Germany spends only 1.19% of its GDP on defense, while Spain spends a mere 0.73% of its GDP on defense. European nations can afford to do this only because of the American commitment to defend Western Europe. Since they are not required to spend much on their own defense, European nations are able to spend immense amounts on social programs while keeping taxes artificially low. When you get right down to it, the main effect of the American membership in NATO is that the American taxpayer subsidizes European social programs.

NATO is continuing to expand, bringing in small and vulnerable countries that are fearful of a resurgent Russia. This is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it needlessly provoke Russia, but it raises the possibility of the United States being drawn into a full-scale war with that country over some minor squabble in the Balkans or Caucuses. In 2008, Russia and and the small nation of Georgia (a prospective NATO member) engaged in a brief but fierce war over the status of the tiny region of South Ossetia, a dispute in which the United States has absolutely no compelling interest. Is America really willing to risk a nuclear war with Russia over such petty disputes?

NATO's extremely disappointing performance in Afghanistan raises further questions about the utility of the alliance. Nearly all the fighting against the Taliban has been done by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands. Other NATO members have deployed troops to Afghanistan, but insist on keeping them away from combat zones. What good is having allies when they won't help you?

NATO achieved its goal with the end of the Cold War in 1989, and its continued existence is simply the result of bureaucratic sluggishness. The American fiscal crisis demands that we significantly cut our military spending, and the deployment of massive numbers of American military forces in Europe must therefore be put under the microscope. It is imperative that the federal government implement a phased withdrawal of American troops from Europe, to begin as soon as possible.

The political unification of Europe under the auspices of the European Union is a development that America should watch with great interest, and good relations between America and Europe are essential for the well-being of the American republic. But NATO seems an anachronism, more likely to drag America into an unwanted war than promote American national security. It is time we sent it into honorable retirement.

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