Global Policy Studies & International Security

Taking the Training Wheels off NATO

Lower your wallets and keep your tax dollars where you can see them. There is no reason to go marching off to provoke—and pay for—a new Cold War.

The crisis in Ukraine caught the West unprepared to deal with Russian aggression in Eurasia. NATO, the transatlantic security bloc that manned the front lines of the Cold War, is a shell of what it once was. Less than 30 years ago, NATO included more than 400,000 combat-ready American troops and 800 American aircraft. Today, fewer than 70,000 U.S. troops and 170 planes remain in Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin knew the West had neither the appetite nor force structure to keep him from taking Crimea.

President Obama has moved quickly to reassure skittish U.S. allies in the region. Washington has already deployed extra fighter jets to Poland and the Baltics, called for new NATO ground and naval exercises, and promised to bolster the bloc in other areas in the near future.

But is rushing to whip NATO into its former Cold War shape really necessary?

NATO must be better equipped for modern security challenges. However, to be sustainable over the long term, it must be able to operate without the U.S. doing all the heavy lifting. It’s a new era, and a new strategic posture in Eurasia is probably enough to deter even Putin’s most outdated impulses—especially if our European allies do their part.

When NATO was formed in 1949, Europe was still recovering from World War II so it made sense for the U.S. to shoulder the heaviest portion of the joint defense burden. Today, despite Europe’s ongoing economic woes, it can take on a larger load. Nonetheless, the U.S. has been forced to assume an increasing share of the NATO defense burden.

In 2013, only three states besides the U.S.—the United Kingdom, Greece and Estonia—spent at least 2% of their GDP on defense, as required per NATO rules. More troubling, most NATO members are downsizing their forces. Whether due to budget cuts or military drawdowns, the gap between U.S. and other NATO members’ defense capabilities is widening, placing a growing share of the security burden to American soldiers and taxpayers.

As a result, NATO has been left with “forces that are not ready, not trained, and not sufficiently equipped,” according to a recent study by the U.S. National Defense University. If Europe continues to lean too heavily on Washington as its security guarantor, it will eventually sap the U.S. of the very strength the alliance relies on to meet its international commitments.

The U.S. must consider whether the costs it pays support its core interests. Consider the stakes of the Ukrainian crisis: Should the U.S. military lead the fight for what is inherently a European issue? While America certainly has an interest in protecting the sovereignty of countries like Ukraine and deterring naked aggression, we cannot meet every such threat without overextending ourselves and exhausting our resources.

Even if cost were not an issue, re-assuming a Cold War force posture would still likely be a bad idea. An American-led military buildup in what Russia considers its historical buffer zone could worsen tensions and provoke further aggression from Moscow. Since 1999, ten former Warsaw Pact countries have reoriented away from Moscow and toward the West. Russian aggression may be unwarranted, but its desire to secure its periphery is understandable. Russian imperatives must be considered in any decision to bolster NATO’s capabilities in Eastern Europe.

This isn’t a call for appeasement, but a call for prudence, restraint and a realistic assessment of costs, benefits and risks. NATO members should share an equal burden of regional security, and it must be the core interest of all NATO members to equally protect one another. That is, without Uncle Sam footing the bill.

Doug Cantrell, Ben Mauro and Phillip Orchard are graduate students in the Master of Global Policy Studies program at UT-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

This is part of a two-view LBJ student op-ed featured in the Austin American-Statesman. To see the post, click here.

Photo credit: Ukraine Revolution Blog



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