By Andrew Jarocki
Ask any 70-year-old, and they’ll tell you (sometimes in unnecessary detail) which joints don’t work like they did in their prime. Likewise, NATO faces mounting questions about its health as it celebrates seven decades. Although few realize it, the debate over the future of the American relationship with the alliance has reached a critical juncture. The most recent polling shows that public support for NATO has dropped to an all-time low. President Trump reinvigorated the debate when he questioned the commitment to spill American blood to protect a “tiny country like Montenegro.”
What should the United States do? There are three general approaches the US could take: continuing the expansionist status quo, withdrawing entirely from NATO, or reforming the alliance’s institutions. Current NATO expansionism is recklessly counterproductive but giving up the force multiplier the alliance provides would unnecessarily weaken American security. Ultimately, remaining in a reformed NATO best benefits the United States.
If a few allies are helpful, so goes the logic, even more must be better. The U.S. Senate recently agreed, voting by an overwhelming margin to support North Macedonia’s bid to become the 30th alliance member. Unfortunately, NATO expansionism will only trigger more of the very Russian aggression it was designed to deter. The Kremlin perceives such bulking up as threatening to Russian security, leading to a stronger desire for spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and beyond. Additionally, a ballooning alliance (hello, Brazil?) will be increasingly unwieldy for decision making and coordination. NATO must close the door to new members in order to remain a manageable group that can present a disciplined response to Russian aggression.
But as Russia diminishes and the Pacific grows in strategic importance for American security, one must ask why the United States still annually contributes $685 million to an Atlantic-based organization. Leaving NATO entirely, some argue, would also free America from the headaches of coalition politics and wealthy allies “freeriding” on collective defense. NATO skeptics point to America’s bilateral defense agreements with Asian allies as a model for Europe. After all, Poland did not feel safe from Russian invasion until it hosted American troops (despite the NATO defense guarantee). While tempting, leaving NATO would be rash. Membership offers the United States the assistance of what amounts to literally half of the entire world’s economic output (a sizeable force multiplier both Russia and China must take seriously). The only time this massive arsenal has ever invoked the Article V obligation to aid a member was for the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Additionally, separate agreements with each ally in a region can complicate organization against a common regional threat. South Korea and Japan currently do not share intelligence due to a trade spat, forcing the US to work as an inconvenient middleman between the two on defense issues. Lastly, all but the most hard-nosed of realists would agree that solidarity among the leading democracies of the world is worth something against authoritarian regimes (like Beijing) that would exploit disunity for dangerous ends.
NATO can still clearly serve American interests, but the status quo is unsustainable. That leaves the option of reform. Reform efforts should have two priorities: providing a way to discipline uncooperative allies and incentivizing them to pay their fair share of defense spending. Turkey’s S-400 missile system purchase from Russia and near confrontation with American forces in Kurdish territory in Syria has exposed that NATO lacks the means to hold members accountable for actions that harm other allies. The US must propose a new article under which any country can propose a vote of no confidence on any other country in the alliance. If at least a supermajority (75 percent) agree, the nation in question can be removed from the alliance. This may provide leverage in extraordinary scenarios, but how can the United States ensure members meet the regular defense spending guideline of 2% of GDP? This has been a bipartisan complaint of American presidents since the Bush era. No stranger to bombast, President Trump may have shocked the world when he politely described Canada as only “slightly delinquent” on defense spending. To encourage members, the second reform championed by the US should mandate that only members who meet spending guidelines qualify to vote in the extraordinary expulsion case outlined above. Only 8 countries would currently qualify, according to NATO’s own statistics. Such linkage between reforms would quickly increase defense investment across the alliance, raise deterrence credibility and enforce unity.
NATO is not the “dangerous dinosaur” of the Cold War that some claim. The American national security goal of deterring great power aggression from both Russia and China (along with fortifying democracy in the world) is best served by a strong but focused coalition. Allies should not, however, take America’s presence in NATO for granted. Skepticism from the younger generation and diverging partisan attitudes towards NATO means that time is running out to reengage America. Otherwise, NATO will face a quiet retirement with all the other Baby Boomers.
Andrew Jarocki is a senior studying Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He has worked in both Congressional offices and campaigns. He hails from Duluth, Minnesota, and loves a good debate about gerrymandering.