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Dreaming of an older, calmer NATO

Dreaming of an older, calmer NATO

We should let the 75 year old alliance sleep

Analysis | Europe

“European leaders’ biggest concern is Trump’s potential return to the White House in 2025... plans for a ‘dormant NATO’ and advocating a shift from burden-sharing to ‘burden-shifting,’” groaned an essay from the European Council on Foreign Relations, as NATO started to gear up for its 75th anniversary with Brussels painted blue, in reflection of the sanctity of the alliance, which President Biden has called sacred.

One would be forgiven to notice the religious instinct behind something that is supposed to be an amoral alignment based purely on interest. “NATO 's shield against aggression ‘will permit us to get on with the real business of government... of achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens,’” says Secretary Blinken. Atlanticist think tanks agreed.

Incidentally, at the same time, NATO is planning to move executive decision making out of American political chaos, to Europe. Politico reported that officials hope to move the Ukraine Defense Contact Group “into the alliance’s control, according to three European officials and a U.S. official with knowledge of the internal deliberations.” The hope is “to finalize the move at the NATO leaders’ summit in Washington in July,” Politico wrote, adding that it would be better to institutionalize the process, in case Trump wins again. “With NATO’s supreme allied commander, General Chris Cavoli, in charge, such a step could protect the structure from any political change that may result after the November elections,” reported Bloomberg.

But why should talks of "burden shifting" be a "concern?” Why will NATO have to "institutionalize" decision making regarding humanity's greatest questions of war and peace, and then make it undemocratic? These are not idle questions; the very future of NATO hinges on them.

Everyone, from President John F. Kennedy onwards, has talked about "burden sharing.” It hasn't worked, because thus far there was no actual policy guideline about achieving burden shifting in certain domains. This shouldn't be a concern, as burden shifting is purely a moderate compromise. Burden shifting in certain domains is a strategy in order to achieve burden sharing, which is the aim. Only those who want to free-ride should be concerned about burden shifting.

Likewise the issue of institutionalizing is the original curse of NATO. Unless NATO assumes a supranational political role instead of a defense alliance — which has been, and is, a valid worry of conservatives — one is skeptical of how any institutionalizing will work, much less guard against democratic mandates. Consider a hypothetical. NATO established a command and coordination where Americans are working. A government back home wins election saying they would put a stop to all that. The NATO leadership proceeds to refuse civilian oversight, Congress or Presidential order and continues as is.

Getting NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe to decide on matters of war and peace, instead of the elected President or the Congress, will in reality mean that NATO bureaucracy (and American forces operating under the said NATO bureaucracy) will continue working despite changes to the civilian leadership back home and despite a democratic mandate to the contrary. That's a worldview, I suppose. But it is no different than military leadership in Pakistan or Egypt. One either believes in democracy and civilian leadership, or one doesn't. One cannot, however, tout a system of governance of and by unelected military bureaucrats, and then claim that it is for an alliance to ostensibly defend democracy.

Contrary to some, I don't think NATO should be disbanded completely, nor do I think it is even possible to do that. Realists are not utopians. And NATO was a decent alliance, for as long as it was doing what it is supposed to do. In that light, the strategy of a future Dormant NATO is predicated on three assumptions. One, as I wrote, the “NATO bureaucracy is increasingly a barrier in the path of reduced American commitment. It is self-sustaining and prone to push missions that are beyond NATO’s core role and, at times, opposed to the domestic interests of the United States.”

Two, there is no "Europe" as a coherent political identity, in the sense that there is no common European interest. Interests and threat perceptions are based on primarily geography, offensive power, offensive intention, and proximity. Both NATO and the European Union exist as artificial constructs, maintained by American martial prowess. Without American military power, the chances of the EU collapsing under its own contradiction are relatively high. This also gives America a unique leverage to shape and reshape Europe to its advantage, and not get taken for a ride.

Three, the expansion of NATO has led to a "curtailing" of American power. This third point is counterintuitive but crucial. As I wrote, "the larger the alliance, the bigger the constraint on the hegemon. Expanding an alliance would, in turn, consolidate the liberal-internationalist orthodoxy and multiply an imperial, self-sustaining and expanding bureaucracy, making it more difficult for a hegemon like the U.S. to act on its own interests as opposed to the interests of the group. The bigger the alliance and the worse Russo-American relations are, the better the deal for protectorate states.” To put simply, the tail now has more power than the dog.

One can argue that our "liberal internationalist" friends also believe in all these assumptions. They believe that democratic passions are opposed to their grand plan of social engineering through military power, which is why they want to take the power out of the hands of messy electoral processes. They absolutely believe that the European Union is an artificial construct, and a potential future trade rival to America, which is arguably why they want to ensure its survival and are worried about an American retrenchment. They have swallowed their own worldview that members of alliances are all equal, and it is not asymmetric, and there are no hegemons and protectorates.

A Dormant NATO will put a stop to all further expansions, all out of area operations, and would focus strictly on military defense of those within the club. A Dormant NATO framework will delegate all further European military burden, from infantry to logistics, armor, to artillery, in the hands of European states, for them to pay and man the posts, under an overarching American nuclear umbrella. The Cold War style of garrisoning was obsolete by the 1990s, as understood by the troop drawdown from a total of around 300,000 to around 70,000 over a span of half a decade. For a country that is reaching its Weimarian fiscal cliff, and increasingly looking like a late stage Soviet Union — with a bloated national security bureaucracy on autopilot with no democratic control, anti-meritocratic academia, broken manufacturing base, and foreign interventions and overstretch based on promoting a craven secular theocracy at home and abroad — the time to reform NATO and redistribute a fiscal burden was yesterday. Dormant NATO is therefore the moderate compromise. It is time to let the 75 year old entity sleep more.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM. President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after a NATO summit in March 2022. (Gints Ivuskans/ Shutterstock)

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