News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.” On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.” In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.
Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed. This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO. One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO. Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.
With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998. Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:
The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning. But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated. That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers. The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests. However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.
General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership. Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities. General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.
On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations. Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.” He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples? General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.
The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members. Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion. If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite. Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia. In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations. But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia. Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council. Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require. It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another. Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary. He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.
One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states. Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them. It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West. The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state. How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship? Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions? Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion? If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history? If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union? Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.
Again, this was written 20 years ago. But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:
- With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
- Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
- There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.
In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose. They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia. These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.
Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO. In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box. After all, how long should NATO last? Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end? Or is NATO to exist forever?
Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S. But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.