Amidst the dross that clutters the New York Times op-ed page on most days, glimmers of enlightenment occasionally appear. A recent guest column by Grey Anderson and Thomas Meaney offers a case in point.
“NATO Isn’t What It Says It Is,” declares the headline. Contrary to the claims of its architects and defenders, Anderson and Meaney argue persuasively that the central purpose of the alliance from its founding was not to deter aggression from the East and certainly not to promote democracy, but to “bind Western Europe to a far vaster project of a U.S.-led world order.” In return for Cold War-era security guarantees, America’s European allies offered deference and concessions on issues like trade and monetary policy. “In that mission,” they write, NATO “has proved remarkably successful.” A plot of real estate especially valued by members of the American elite, Europe thereby became the centerpiece of the postwar American imperium.
The end of the Cold War called these arrangements into question. Desperate to preserve NATO’s viability, proponents claimed that the alliance needed to go “out of area or out of business.” NATO embraced an activist posture, leading to reckless state building interventions in Libya and Afghanistan. The results were not favorable. Acceding to U.S. pressure to venture out of area proved to be costly and served chiefly to undermine NATO’s credibility as a militarily capable enterprise.
Enter Vladimir Putin to save the day. Just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided the U.S. with an excuse to forget its own post-9/11 military failures, so too it has enabled NATO to once more constitute itself as the chief instrument for defending the West—and, crucially, to do so without actually exacting a blood sacrifice from either Americans or Europeans.
In this context, the actual fate of Ukraine itself figures as something of an afterthought. The real issue centers on reviving damaged aspirations of American global primacy. With something like unanimity, the U.S. national security establishment is devoted to the proposition that the United States must remain the world’s sole superpower, even if this requires ignoring a vast accumulation of contrary evidence suggesting the emergence of a multipolar order. On that score, Putin’s recklessness came as an impeccably timed gift.
There is an element of genius at work here. Defeating Russia without having to do any actual fighting becomes the means to restore the image of American indispensability squandered during the decades that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. For Washington, as Anderson and Meaney appreciate, the true stakes in Ukraine go far beyond the question of whose flag flies over Crimea. If Ukraine “wins” its war with Russia—however “winning” is defined and however great the price Ukrainians must pay—NATO itself (and the NATO lobby in Washington) will claim vindication.
Rest assured that major European nations will then quietly renege on promises to boost their military spending, with actual responsibility for European security once more falling to the United States. With the centennial of World War II now within hailing distance, U.S. troops will remain permanently garrisoned in Europe. This will serve as cause for celebration throughout the U.S. military industrial complex, which will prosper.
Flexing its muscles, the United States will inevitably prod a greatly expanded NATO into turning its attention to enforcing the “rules-based international order” in the Asia-Pacific, with China as the chosen adversary. Ukraine will thereby serve as a template of sorts as the U.S. and its allies throw their weight around many thousands of miles from Europe proper.
The U.S. global military footprint will expand. U.S. efforts to put its house in order domestically will founder. Pressing global problems like the climate crisis will be treated as afterthoughts. But the empire that has no name will persist, which ultimately is the purpose of the game.
President Biden is fond of saying that the world has arrived at an “inflection point,” implying the need to change directions. Yet the overarching theme of his approach to foreign policy is stasis. He clings to the geopolitical logic that prompted NATO’s founding in 1949.
Back then, when Europe was weak and Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, that logic may have possessed some merit. But today the importance attributed to NATO testifies chiefly to the bankruptcy of American strategic thought and an inability to prioritize actually existing U.S. national interests, both foreign and domestic.
A sound revision of U.S. national security strategy would begin with announcing a timeline for withdrawing from NATO, converting it into an arrangement wholly owned and operated by Europe. The near impossibility of even imagining such an action by the United States testifies to the dearth of imagination that prevails in Washington.
This piece has been republished with permission from the American Conservative.