Britain’s vote to quit the European Union was a rude jolt to the encrusted world order. Now that the EU has been shocked into reality, NATO should be next. When NATO leaders convene for a summit in Warsaw on Friday, they will insist that their alliance is still vital because Russian aggression threatens Europe. The opposite is true. NATO has become America’s instrument in escalating our dangerous conflict with Russia. We need less NATO, not more.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949 as a way for American troops to protect a war-shattered Europe from Stalin’s Soviet Union. Today Europe is quite capable of shaping and paying for its own security, but NATO’s structure remains unchanged. The United States still pays nearly three-quarters of its budget. That no longer makes sense. The United States should remain politically close to European countries but stop telling them how to defend themselves. Left to their own devices, they might pull back from the snarling confrontation with Russia into which NATO is leading them.
Russia threatens none of America’s vital interests. On the contrary, it shares our eagerness to fight global terror, control nuclear threats, and confront other urgent challenges to global security. Depending on one’s perspective, Russia may be seen as a destabilizing force in Europe or as simply defending its border regions. Either way, it is a challenge for Europeans, not for us. Yet the American generals who run NATO, desperate for a new mission, have fastened onto Russia as an enemy. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter preposterously places Russia first on his list of threats to the United States. Anti-Russia passion has seized Washington.
This week’s NATO summit will be a festival of chest-thumping, with many warnings about the Russian “threat” and solemn vows to meet it with shows of military force. The United States plans to quadruple spending on NATO military projects on or near Russia’s borders. In recent weeks NATO has opened a new missile base in Romania, held the largest military maneuver in the modern history of Poland, and announced plans to deploy thousands more American troops at Baltic bases, some within artillery range of St. Petersburg. Russia, for its part, is building a new military base within artillery range of Ukraine and deploying 30,000 troops to border posts. Both sides are nuclear-armed.
NATO views trouble between Russia and nearby countries as a military problem. That makes sense. NATO is a military alliance run by military officers who think in military terms. Our conflict with Russia, however, is essentially political, not military. It cries out for creative diplomacy. NATO is a blunt instrument unequipped for such a delicate task. If Europeans believe tit-for-tat escalation is the best way to deal with Russia, let them pursue it. But it should be their choice, not ours.
NATO commanders and their political masters in Washington do not want to surrender control over European security. They fear Europeans would seek conciliation with Russia rather than follow the NATO model of in-your-face confrontation. That prospect is abhorrent to American generals, politicians, and defense contractors. By continuing to finance NATO, we buy the right to flash our swords on Russia’s borders.
Some Europeans are unhappy with America’s use of NATO to intensify military pressure on Russia. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany called the recent maneuvers in Poland, in which 14,000 American troops participated, “saber-rattling and war cries.” In a clear rebuke to NATO, he added, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken. We are well-advised to not create pretexts to renew an old confrontation.”
NATO helped to keep peace in Europe during the Cold War. It is not suited to the 21st century. By stoking tension with Russia, it contributes to instability, not stability. Europe needs a new security system. Unlike NATO, it should be designed by Europeans to meet European needs, run and paid for by Europeans. That would allow the United States to step back from a long mission that may have been noble, but should not last forever.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.