he goal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization used to be, as its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, phrased it, "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Today, the only reason to keep NATO going seems to be to give Americans a reason to be "in" Europe when there is no longer any need for American military involvement in European affairs. Putting the alarmism of the past few years aside, Europe is under no threat from Russia, which the Europeans seem to understand far better than Americans do. And since its reunification, Germany has become the economic and political heart of a peaceful project of European union. Sixty years since its founding and nearly 20 years since the end of the Cold War, it is well past time to dismantle NATO.
In the end, the main argument for perpetuating the NATO relic is that it provides the support structure for projecting power into remote parts of the globe where American interests are even less clearly defined. In other words, what once was a purely defensive alliance dedicated to European security now has little to do with either defense or Europe. The Alliance is not only outdated for America’s European allies, who increasingly see no reason to participate in "out-of-area" missions, but also functions as a potential enabler of American involvement in parts of Asia and Africa where no vital American interests are at stake. By keeping NATO in existence, Washington leaves itself open to the temptation to meddle in far-flung parts of the globe, even as it provides the superficial "multilateral" cover to make U.S. military intervention overseas more politically palatable.
Nine years after September 11, it no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to be asking Canadian and British soldiers, among others, to risk their lives for what has always been an American war in Afghanistan. As much as we can appreciate and honor the support our NATO allies have provided, we shouldn't drag them into conflicts that have never really been their concern. "Out-of-area" missions will just keep happening again and again as the alliance looks for new conflicts to enter to provide a rationale for its existence. European nations are clearly tired of it, and at present they can't afford it, either. The need for fiscal retrenchment has been forcing European governments, even the new coalition government in Britain, to make deep cuts in their military budgets.
Making NATO into a political club of democracies in good standing is also no solution to the Alliance's obsolescence. As we saw in the war in Georgia two years ago, proposed expansion of NATO has been more of a threat to European peace and security than dissolving it. Once again, this is something that most European governments understood at the time, and which Washington refused to see. Without the belief that Georgia was eligible for membership and would eventually be allowed to join, it is unlikely that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili would have escalated a conflict over its separatist regions and plunged his country into war with Russia. That conflict was a good sign that the Alliance had outlived its usefulness. If it isn't disbanded, it may start to become a menace to the very things it was supposed to keep safe.
America doesn't need and shouldn't want to perpetuate an outdated alliance. The creation of NATO was an imaginative solution designed to respond to the security conditions of the immediate aftermath of World War II, and it was an enormous success. But it is time for Americans to begin thinking anew about the world. A first step in doing that is letting go of an alliance neither America nor Europe needs.
Daniel Larison has a Ph.D. in history and is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He also writes on the blog Eunomia.
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