Has Nato Become Irrelevant?

The US has heavily criticized the Europeans for slashing their military spending. Senior American officials are already saying that with enormous cuts in military spending, Europe and Nato risk “collective military irrelevance.” (Erlanger 2013) Camille Grand from the Foundation for Strategic Research is saying that “European countries are continuing to be free riders, instead of working seriously to see how to act together.” (ibid.) In 2001, the US had contributed 63% of all Nato spending, which stands at about 75% currently. The European governments are hard pressed for cash, as they are struggling with a stagnating economy, rising unemployment and growing budget deficits and debt. In order to consolidate the budget, the governments in Europe are reducing the type of spending, which will cause the least amount of objection in the population, namely military spending. Since the end of World War II, Europe (with the exception of the Balkan) had been by far the most peaceful continent on the planet, committed to shared economic prosperity, which holds social satisfaction high, and the need for military spending low. The expectation was, furthermore, that the United States would provide Europe with a protective cover. The Nato was founded in 1949, spearheaded by the United States, and had the intention to provide security to the Western European countries against the threat of the Soviet Union (Duignan 2000; Kaplan 2004; Sloan 2005). But today, 64 years later the mission of the Nato has become increasingly challenged. I will argue that the Nato is not necessary in it current form, and that the US critique against Europe’s low defense spending is misplaced.

Interestingly, Nato as a form of military cooperation between the US and Europe was never actively used during the Cold War. Most of the Cold War tensions were carried out in East Asia, South East Asia and partly in Africa, but not in Europe. The Nato became active only after the end of the Cold War and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first Nato operation took place in Kuwait and Iraq in 1990/91 followed by interventions in Bosnia (1994/95), Kosovo/Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (2004-2011), Somalia (2009) and Libya (2011). Rather than being a defensive alliance against an external threat, as Nato was designed to be, the organization had evolved into an aggressive agent that engages in trying to solve foreign political problems. These foreign interventions have largely been driven by United States foreign political ambitions that had become unrestrained following this apparently unipolar world, which was the ruling conception in the first two decades after the conclusion of the Cold War, peaking with George W. Bush’s military adventure in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US critique against Europe’s unwillingness to contribute to the alliance is, therefore, misplaced. The alliance’s objective had never been to actively intervene in other country’s domestic affairs. With the exception of France and Britain (incidentally two former colonial powers), most European countries have absolutely no experience or interest in interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs. Even Germany that is by now the most powerful country economically has no interest in sending troops to foreign interventions. This might be related to its Nazi past, where Germany dominated almost the whole of Europe.

America’s greater defense commitment is responsible for the rising US share of Nato/defense expenditure. It is only since the United States with its unbending Hobbesian desire to play the world police that military spending had been sky-rocketing. Europe has not had any of this military obsession, which the neoconservatives in Washington have. It is, therefore, more than understandable that the Europeans, especially during a time of enormous economic challenges are now pulling back on military spending. The Americans then usually argue that the Europeans are free-loading on the backs of the Americans, who provide the military umbrella to Europe. This is an argument, which one of my teachers in the US used to advance. It is certainly true- what we hear from media reports- that France would have had enormous troubles supplying its Mali mission without US military support, and that the UK and France would have languished without US support in Libya. But my point is not proving that Europe would be successful in carrying out military interventions on its own with its paltry and shrinking defense budget commitments. My point is that further military expenditure for foreign interventions is not necessary, and that the United States should not exhort the Europeans to “shoulder a greater burden”. The burden is entirely self-inflicted. Enormous defense expenditure cuts should be happening on both sides of the Atlantic. None of these countries, in which the Nato had intervened over the last 20 years had posed any threat to Europe or the United States. The modern military challenges are mainly addressed by drones and cyber warfare. None of it involves heavy military equipment and large armies.

The foreign political realists are constantly scared that if the West does not maintain high military spending that China, Russia, Iran and other adversaries will become more powerful and eventually threaten the privileged position of the West. I would question the premise that the rise of these non-Western countries poses precisely the challenges that the realists are portraying. To suggest that Iran is a challenge is, of course, nonsense, as it is a relatively small and weak country, which is building up nuclear capacities in order to maintain itself against the US threat. More sabber-rattling from Israel or the US will do nothing to quell the desire of the Iranians to attain nuclear weapons. China is a more serious challenge, because it has enormously raised defense spending conforming with its rising economy and its rising dependence on secure sea supply lines. But I would question whether ramping up defense spending at a time when social problems are abounding in the West can do any good deterrence work to an economically rising country. My notion is that fueling a new arms race will be a suicidal mission for the US, similar to Brezhnev’s decision for the Soviet Union to keep up the arms race with the US in the 1980s (not even dragging in Europe, which is smartly not participating in armament schemes).

I do not have a grand scheme for a global government, where all of our political problems and disagreements can finally be adjudicated, but it should be increasingly clear that if we are really concerned about creating world peace and reducing the need to pursue suicidal arms races, that we need to find a common ground and develop common resources to address any political challenges that appear on the horizon. Otherwise, we shall be doomed to repeat the same mistakes of the past.


Duignan, Peter. 2000. Nato: Its Past, Present and Future. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press Publication.
Erlanger, Steven. 2013. “Shrinking Europe Military Spending Stirs Concern.” New York Times, April 22. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/world/europe/europes-shrinking-military-spending-under-scrutiny.html?pagewanted=all.
Kaplan, Lawrence S. 2004. Nato Divided, Nato United: The Evolution of an Alliance. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Sloan, Stanley R. 2005. Nato, the European Union and the Atlantic Community: The Transatlantic Bargain Challenged. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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