NATO has become obsolete. Indeed, Washington’s whole Europe-first orientation is anachronistic, a wasteful, expensive holdover from the cold war that ought to have been abandoned years ago.
I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago when the cold war ended, and I had the privilege of taking John Mearsheimer’s legendary course on great-power conflict. With the Berlin Wall coming down, the Warsaw Pact dismantled, the Red Army in retreat, and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe John Galvin admitting to CNN that he no longer knew which line he was supposed to defend, we students had many urgent questions about the emerging new world order. One of the most pressing involved the future of the North Atlantic TreatyOrganization (NATO). Did it have a future? It had, after all, been created in 1949 to guard against the Soviet threat, and that threat was gone. Would the member states therefore dissolve their partnership? Mearsheimer thought not. “We’ll probably stick with it for a while,” he mused, “for reasons of...nostalgia.” The lecture hall roared.
Three decades on, we are still stuck with the alliance, and as recent events demonstrate, it is no laughing matter. NATO has become obsolete. Indeed, Washington’s whole Europe-first orientation is anachronistic, a wasteful, expensive holdover from the cold war that ought to have been abandoned years ago and that distracts us from the true dangers we face abroad.
Mearsheimer, to his credit, deplored this development more vehemently than anyone. A self-described “unrepentant realist,” he had no patience for the aggressive internationalism that defined Western statecraft in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies. NATO as an anti-Soviet bloc made sense to him; NATO as an ever-expanding club of vaguely like-minded nations was foolish—and dangerous. According to the tenets of realism, when one great power trespasses upon another’s sphere of influence, the result is nearly always conflict, and Mearsheimer insisted that that was the case with NATO’s eastward march. It did not matter that officials from the United States and its European allies insisted that they had no designs on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not convinced. He perceived their encroachment as an existential threat and responded violently, first by annexing Crimea in 2014, then by invading Ukraine in 2022. While most pundits in the West denounced Putin’s barefaced breach of international law, Mearsheimer proclaimed that NATO was to blame, that its leaders ought to have recognized that their apparent intent to incorporate Russia’s bordering countries into their alliance would trigger war, and that Putin was only doing what an American president would do if, say, Iran built a military association and invited Mexico and Canada to join. In a gauntlet-flinging guest essay for the Economist in March and a follow-up interview in the New Yorker, Mearsheimer condemned NATO for naiveté and called for a pragmatic solution to the crisis that would keep Ukraine as a neutral country and leave Putin in power, with Crimea and the Donbas in his grasp.
I am not a realist, repentant or otherwise, and I have problems with Mearsheimer’s glibness and moral relativism. Nonetheless, I agree with him that NATO no longer serves a coherent purpose. The principal geopolitical challenge to U.S. primacy in the 21st century comes from China. That is where America’s focus should be. Russia might still qualify as a great power in terms of boots on the ground, but its economy is one-dimensional and shot through with corruption, its population shrinking and aging, its weapons and equipment outmoded, and its troops demoralized. By no stretch of the imagination could it overrun Europe as the old Soviet Union once seemed capable of doing. Britain and France have nuclear weapons. They do not need the United States to defend them. Why, then, does Washington continue to station forces in Europe and bear most of the cost of this transatlantic military partnership?
Institutional factors play a role, of course—NATO employs many bureaucrats who have a stake in its preservation, and no business dissolves itself voluntarily—but the main reason, in my opinion, is that Americans have yet to outgrow the delusions that prevailed in what neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called the “unipolar moment,” that heady time after the cold war ended and no one appeared to threaten the security of the United States. Flush with victory, Washington policymakers believed that they could use this period of unprecedented economic, military, diplomatic, and geopolitical supremacy to remake the world in the American image, and they thought NATO was the perfect vehicle for accomplishing this goal on the Eurasian landmass. Thus they changed NATO’s original mandate and set about trying to foster liberal democracies in new member states like Hungary, Estonia, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. (Of course, the War on Terror saw this pattern extended to the greater Middle East, as the George W. Bush administration sought to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq.) A widely held assumption was that increasing the number of liberal democracies would make war less likely, since democracies do not fight one another. NATO aggrandizement would therefore create a broad zone of peace from the Elbe River to the gates of Russia, and perhaps beyond.
Events have not played out in that fashion. Far from nourishing democracy, NATO has seen the rise of far-right nationalist political movements in four of its oldest and most powerful members—Britain, Germany, France, and the United States—while Viktor Orbán’s second term as Hungarian prime minister witnessed an erosion of press freedom, a decrease in judicial independence, and Hungary’s descent by eleven places on the Democracy Index. Similar democratic backsliding has characterized Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland. As for being a force for peace, the carnage in Ukraine serves as eloquent testimony to NATO’s failure in this regard. Mearsheimer’s diagnosis of the origins of the conflict may be wrong—Putin might have tried to integrate neighboring nations into a greater Russia regardless of Western actions—but NATO did nothing to halt his aggression. And, of course, there is the perennial free-riding problem, with America’s allies counting on Washington to protect them even if their economies are robust enough to pay for their own defense. Moving NATO eastward has increased the number of countries America is obliged to safeguard at a time when a COVID-induced recession makes such commitments unaffordable.
Clearly, NATO has outlived its usefulness to the United States. The Biden administration should disengage from the alliance as soon as practicable. This can be done diplomatically, with some face-saving rhetoric and assurances that the departure of U.S. troops will not adversely affect Euro-American investment or trade. We could also remind nations like Spain and Turkey that they remain free to arm themselves to the teeth with American-made weapons—provided, of course, that they foot the bill. Then Washington should recalibrate its grand strategy to conform to the changed global balance of power.
Seth Jacobs is a history professor who studies the political and cultural history of the U.S. in the 20th century. His research focuses on the connection between U.S. domestic culture and foreign policy.