The Death of NATO

By Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Bateman III, U.S. Army

This is a future in which the United States no longer considers itself responsible for the collective defense of Europe. In this evolution, it becomes clear that when former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made his openly dismissive comments about “New Europe” and “Old Europe,” he was not speaking in isolation, as many Europeans appear to believe was the case. Rather, he was tapping into a raw nerve within American public opinion. Indeed, by 2004 a full 80 percent of the American public believed that the United States was contributing too much to the security of other nations by acting as a “global policeman.” 2 In the American context, this includes membership in NATO and the de facto subsidizing of European security by American taxpayers and military members.

In this vision of the future, American relations may be bilateral, trilateral, or involve short-term episodic coalitions created and shaped through situation-unique diplomacy to deal with a specific event. Indeed, over the past 18 years these have increasingly become the main American method for waging war. Such a future is particularly plausible if one understands the forces that today buffet American political leaders. To understand this point, however, one needs to grasp the foundation of those political winds swirling within the United States. And to do that it is necessary to go back almost 20 years, to the momentous period of 1990-1991.

Dust-Up Over Desert Storm

That time period witnessed two momentous events with regard to NATO and popular opinion in the United States of its transatlantic allies. First and most obvious, there was the collapse of the Soviet Union. We need not recount that history here; it is sufficient to note that between January and August of 1990 a series of internal crises ultimately ended in a failed coup and the effective end of the U.S.S.R. 3 These events, of course, followed on the heels of German reunification and the de facto collapse of the Warsaw Pact as a viable military threat—the combination of which effectively ended the original raison d’etre of NATO.

But soon after the final act of that collapse came Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the U.S.-led responses, first the defensive operation known as “Desert Shield,” beginning in mid-August 1990, and then the subsequent combat operations known as “Desert Storm,” which began in early 1991. Both involved ad hoc coalitions of nations orchestrated by the United States, and neither involved NATO—despite the fact that the nations of Western Europe were the most direct second-order beneficiaries on the basis of their vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil-driven prices.

But the larger part of the rift, as it relates to U.S.-NATO relations, really centered around American domestic political perceptions about the actions of its NATO ally, Germany. Although little remembered now outside of the United States, throughout the period of German reunification problems had surfaced in U.S.-German relations, not the least of which was an attitude of paternalism on the part of the American political elite. 4

As early as the second week of September 1990 it was widely reported in the United States that Germany, a nation to which the United States had committed massive resources for more than 40 years, had at that point contributed less to the defensive coalition of Desert Shield than had its much smaller NATO peer (and fellow NATO ally to the United States) Portugal. 5 American public opinion started turning against Germany, and was only partially mitigated with regard to NATO by the fact that other NATO allies, most notably England, but also France, were stepping up and committing not only money, but their own soldiers and airmen to the effort.

By the end of the year, and with a U.N. resolution and mandate pending, temperatures in the United States toward its German NATO ally rose to something of a fever pitch of outrage. Significantly, in light of later political developments in the United States, this anger and disdain for Germany came not from the political right, but from the political left. Moreover, it came from some of the people who are right now, in 2010, at the very pinnacle of U.S. political power.

In late December 1990, Representative David Obey (D-WI)—the man who in 2010 is the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and therefore by some political estimates one of the five most powerful politicians in the entire U.S. government—said the following:

Germany is absolutely outrageous. They are the worst because they have been the principal lecturers about the behaviors of others, and the principal beneficiaries of the collapse of the Soviet Union . . . . For ten years they have lectured us about the international need of American fiscal responsibility, getting our deficits down, until we nearly gagged . . . . But here they are, looking after their own interests (financing the merger with East Germany, sending aid to the former Soviet Union, and underwriting the cost of Soviet forces still in Germany) but nickel-nursing when it comes to world interests. 6

The message to the American public was clear, as stated by one of the highest-placed American elected officials: America could not count on cooperation in military affairs even from the nation that most directly benefited from the contribution of trillions of dollars and more than eight million man-years of American labor in that nation’s defense over the course of four decades. It was a narrative that bit hard into the American public’s political perception of Germany, and to a lesser degree, the rest of Europe and NATO.

‘An A Team and a B Team’

Beginning just two years later, the United States and most of Europe entered into one of the most prosperous periods of the post–World War II era. Not long after this sustained economic boom began, two other trends also made themselves apparent: The European members of NATO commenced, almost across the board, to reduce their defense budgets and defy NATO budget targets of 2 percent of GDP, even as NATO began to advocate the expansion of its defense umbrella to more countries. 7 The combination of these factors meant that as every year passed, U.S. taxpayers and troops carried a proportionately higher percentage of the collective defense load for the benefit of European nations, even as European technological prowess and manpower declined, creating an ever-widening capabilities gap. This alone, however, was not considered significant until the first time NATO went on the offensive.

In 1999 NATO collectively decided to initiate combat against the Serbian Republic to end the events taking place in the Serbian province of Kosovo. During and immediately after that conflict, two other realities became apparent to the American voting public that adversely affected U.S. public opinion about Europe and NATO. The first was that because of the reduced European military budgets of the previous decade, almost none of the European NATO allies was capable of conducting combat operations alongside the United States, and this forced the United States to carry the majority of the risk and combat load. American aircraft accounted for 768 of a total of just over 1,000 NATO aircraft. 8 The U.S. Air Force commander in charge of the air campaign, Lieutenant General Michael Short, was even publicly quoted as saying, “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve got an A team and a B team now.” Those nations that failed to invest in precision guidance or night capabilities or beyond-visual-range systems were “relegated to doing nothing but flying combat air patrol in the daytime; that’s all they were capable of doing.” 9

Many Americans resented all this and considered it as something of a betrayal, particularly since Kosovo was seen as a European issue, not nearly as much an American one. 10 The second factor that incensed U.S. public opinion against NATO was the concept of “consensus” being used by European NATO nations, particularly by those who were making little or no contribution to the actual combat efforts, to control American actions through veto in the tactical targeting process. 11

When Popular Opinion Sours

Europe does not seem to acknowledge certain realities about the domestic American political scene or the forces currently in play in the United States. In particular, there seems to be a lack of understanding of how directly the U.S. government reacts to popular opinion, and an apparent inability to recognize what that opinion actually is with regard to Europe and NATO.

It appears to surprise Europeans to discover that during the 1990–2007 period, the general population of the United States developed a more negative attitude toward Europe and NATO. Those American attitudes, moreover, were exacerbated during the 2003–2006 period, when even left-wing American comedians took to mocking European leaders (and by extension, America’s NATO allies). Among the general population, negative attitudes toward Europe accelerated. Positive attitudes toward France, for example, went from 56 percent in 1984 to 45 percent in 1990, then to 39 percent in 1994. U.S. opinion about Germany went from a 76 percent rating of those who believed that relations with Germany were important in 1984 to 73 percent in 1990 and 66 percent in 2004. More recent surveys place the opinion of both of these major NATO members another ten percentage points lower, in large part in reaction to the anti-Americanism that was so evident in Western Europe from 2003 to 2007. 12 And this opinion is not limited to the general public but is reflected upward, through American political leaders of both major parties as well.

In 2007, newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued the first of what has become an annual scathing assessment of NATO and its contributions in Afghanistan. In it, he said, “I am not satisfied that an alliance, whose members have over 2 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, cannot find the modest additional resources that have been committed to Afghanistan.” 13 These were harsh words from a man known for maintaining a civil and even diplomatic tone in most of his dealings.

Indeed, American public opinion toward Europe had sunk so low by 2008 that even as Europeans lauded then-candidate Barack Obama following his stirring speech in the Tiergarten in downtown Berlin in July 2008, Obama’s political opponents were actually able to use the very fact that he was popular among Europeans as a political weapon against him. 14 And more directly related to NATO, in 1998, a year before Kosovo, when Americans were asked, “Should we increase our commitment to NATO, keep it the same, decrease it or withdraw entirely?” (with “keep it the same” being considered a neutral rating of 0 percent) the response from American political leaders was an astonishing -21 percent. 15 The numbers only get worse from there. Yet those deep and building sentiments of a preference for isolationism, a decrease in affection for some of the leading nations of Europe, and a clear desire for withdrawal from international military-aid efforts, do not seem to be known or understood by leaders in Western Europe. Indeed, it seems they are blind to American political history and political forces over time—an irony for a continent which continually reminds us how little history we have.

‘Essentially Foreign to Our Concerns’

In his farewell address to the people of the United States, President George Washington enjoined his nation to “steer clear of permanent alliances.” But he was even more explicit in exactly what he meant when he wrote this often-quoted statement:

So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. 16

This is an American political document that has been repeatedly cited and used for more than 200 years. Even today one finds it used regularly by both political parties, regularly, as a foundation for political speeches in major campaigns. And both Democrats and Republicans, for different reasons, may be on track to once again use this document and the underpinning ideas therein not only to drive reductions in the size of the U.S. military, but also to use them as a justification for adhering to Washington’s plea about permanent alliances—and pull out of NATO.

On the left end of the political landscape, the Democratic Party has a tradition of opposing large standing military forces dating back to President Thomas Jefferson. 17 The opposition is based on a traditional liberal interpretation of the dangers to liberty that such a force represents.

But there is a similar tradition of opposition to large military forces (and foreign “entanglements”) on the political right, as represented by the Republican Party in the United States. In that case it ties in closely with the thesis of noted military sociologist Samuel Huntington, who noted that true “conservatives” are traditionally opposed to large military forces because the support thereof requires more government, more taxes, and therefore more intrusion into the lives and business efforts of the citizenry.

Both political parties shelved their traditional positions after 1945, as the obvious threat of the Soviet Union and communism trumped the historical American inclination toward isolationism and small military forces. But it is not beyond the pale to speculate that once U.S. forces exit Iraq, and the mission in Afghanistan is either reduced or eliminated, these central elements of American political life may well come to the fore again.

Auf Wiedersehn, Adieu

American public opinion toward Europe has been slowly but steadily dropping over the past 20-plus years. Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Obey, the man who effectively controls half of the entire U.S. budget, once referred to Germany as “outrageous” for its failure to commit to Desert Shield/Desert Storm, after so many years of Germany telling the United States what it must do. Public opinion polls in the United States have subsequently found that 80 percent of Americans think that the United States spends too much on the security of other countries. This sentiment has leaked over to American political elites who have returned a -21 percent vote of no confidence toward NATO—and that was before the American reaction to NATO operations in Kosovo, let alone the perceived tepid response of NATO to the American call for a “surge” in Afghanistan in 2010. (France, as it reintegrates, is sending more than 1,000 men to NATO headquarters in Belgium, but only agreed to send an additional 80 men to Afghanistan to actually fight as part of NATO there.)

All of these downward factors, combined with traditional American inclinations toward isolationism, a building resentment among everyday Americans regarding European defense budgets and capabilities, and a now nearly 30-year tradition of the United States being forced to create de facto “coalitions of the willing” either alone or under U.N. auspices, are building political pressures on U.S. leaders—pressures that may well see the United States pulling out of the alliance. This seismic shift appears to be occurring without acknowledgment of these pressures by the European members of NATO.

Without the United States, it is not likely that the military aspect of the transatlantic alliance would last much longer. Canada, not out of sympathy but out of a simple lack of resources, would probably follow the United States out of NATO and perhaps into something more akin to a Commonwealth Alliance. The United States, for its part, may well participate in some sort of informal agreements, perhaps an expansion of the much-cited “Special Relationship” that it maintains with the United Kingdom. In any event, the result would be the same: the death of NATO.



1. Personal conversation, Dr. Stanley Sloan, Rome, Italy, 5 April 2010.

2. Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs Survey, “Global Views 2004,” http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/POS_Topline%20Reports/PO... .

3. Professor Archie Brown, “Reform, Coup and Collapse: The End of the Soviet State”, BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/soviet_end_01.shtml .

4. Frank Costigliola, “An ‘Arm around the Shoulder’: The United States, NATO and German Reunification, 1989–90,” Contemporary European History , Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1994), pp. 87–110.

5. Carol J. Williams, “Desert Shield Gets Low Priority in Bonn,” Los Angeles Times , 11 September 1990.

6. Marianne Means, “Our Deadbeat Allies, Germany Worst Deserter of Desert Shield,” Reading Observer , 31 December 1990.

7. Linda Bentley and Robert Leavitt, “The NATO Expansion Debate: Reviewing the Arguments,” Global Beat Issue Brief No. 25 (2 February 2 1998), http://www.bu.edu/globalbeat/pubs/ib25.html .

8. “Clinton increases U.S. troops for Kosovo force,” CNN.com, 2 June 1999, http://edition.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1999/06/02/clinton.graduation... .

9. John A. Tirpak , “Washington Watch: Short’s View of the Air Campaign,” Air Force Magazine , Vol. 82, No. 9 (September 1999), http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/1999/September%20... .

10. “North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO and the post–Cold War world,” http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/E-N/North-Atlantic-Treaty-Organi... .

11. See Wesley Clark, Waging Modern War , for his descriptions of NATO vetoes over targeting.

12. Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs Surveys, 1984, 1990, 1994, 2000, and 2004, http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/past_pos.php .

13. Robert M. Gates as quoted in Ahto Lobjakas, “Afghanistan: US Unhappy with NATO Allies’ Troop Contributions,” Radio Free Europe, 24 October 2007, http://www.frerl.org/content/article/1079011.html .

14. The examples are legion, but this essay at the influential conservative Web site “American Thinker” is typical: http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/07/obamas_berlin_transfiguration.html .

15. Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs Survey, “Global Views 2004.”

16. George Washington, “Farewell Address,” 19 September 1796, full text available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp .

17. Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For The Common Defense (New York: Free Press, 1984), p. 105.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Bateman is a historian and prolific writer. He was a Military Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has served as an associate professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, and as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. His published works include No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident (Stackpole, 2002).
 

 
 

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