President Barack Obama speaks during a joint news conference with EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the EU-U.S. summit meeting on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, in Brussels.

NATO's Wake-Up Call

The Ukraine crisis proves NATO needs an overhaul.

President Barack Obama speaks during a joint news conference with EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the EU-U.S. summit meeting on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, in Brussels.

NATO need leaders that are sensitive to European interests.

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By its aggressive actions in the heart of Europe, Russia has vividly illuminated the military impotence of NATO. As Russia has just demonstrated, “the strongest military alliance in history” is, in that colorful Texas phrase, all hat and no cattle.

Sure, there are calls for NATO to fulfill its destiny, to step up to the plate and stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine to blow back Russia’s annexation. But the very idea of NATO doing anything of the sort is a joke, as NATO’s last war, the one the alliance fought against Libya, clearly showed.

What happened then was summarized by the then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “All members of the alliance voted for the Libya mission, but less than half have participated,” Gates said. “Just 11 weeks into the mission, the 'mightiest military alliance in history' is beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S. once more to make up the difference.” The United States would ultimately spend more than $1 billion dollars to pull NATO’s chestnuts from the fire. How did matters come to this sorry state?

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

NATO was set up 64 years ago to defend Europe against the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty that created the alliance hitched the United States’ military might to the defense of Europe and ring-fenced the Soviet empire until it collapsed. Thanks to European industry and NATO’s defense umbrella, Europeans rebuilt their countries from the devastation of World War II, created the European Union, and are today the largest economy in the world.

But NATO also left two corrosive legacies on the transatlantic allies: Europeans became accustomed to getting their defense on the cheap via the U.S. taxpayer, and the United States drank too deeply from the jug of “leader of the free world” and now has difficulty passing even a regional baton to the Europeans. The result: an anemic European security establishment that is regularly criticized by American leaders.

Can the unbalanced division of labor in which one NATO member, the United States, is permanently responsible for the protection of 26 European countries continue to be viable forever? Given the deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget, America’s “pivot to Asia,” and increasing calls from Americans to fix the domestic economy and infrastructure, I do not think so.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Ukraine-Crimea crisis.]

Let’s first correct the commonly held, but erroneous, perception in America that the Europeans do not spend enough on their defense. Even after the recent cutbacks, NATO’s European members’ annual defense spending tops $250 billion dollars, almost equal to the U.S. defense budget prior to 9/11. That's a huge sum considering that the Europeans have no interest in policing the world.

It is not that the Europeans do not spend enough on their defense, they just spend it inefficiently, on duplicate military procurement programs and acquisitions that benefit individual countries rather than contributing to a Europe-wide defense profile.

Can the Europeans now begin to think in terms of a European defense profile, especially as Russia encroaches on its borders? I believe they can, but it will take a dose of tough medicine from Washington to point them in the right direction. It is time to rethink the relationship between the EU and NATO. To move the EU-NATO conversation forward and to generate debate, I would like to propose the following agenda:

  • As part of the U.S. defense budget trimming exercise, the U.S. Congress should make it clear that within a specified number of years America expects that the responsibility for the defense of Europe and its periphery will be assumed by the EU, with Americans acting largely as force enablers for a transitional period.
  • The United States should progressively turn over the leadership of NATO to the EU by replacing Americans with Europeans in key NATO positions.
  • NATO’s “board of directors,” the North Atlantic Council, was designed for a world without the EU and consists of permanent representatives from individual European countries. It should be recast to include one representative each from the EU, U.S., Canada and from each non-EU member of NATO, such as Norway and Turkey.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This arrangement will also result in an alliance that is more sensitive to European interests. In 2008, it took strong opposition from Germany and France to deflect President George W. Bush’s push to move Georgia into NATO. And might Crimea still be a part of Ukraine if the Europeans had held the United States back from visibly supporting the Ukrainian opposition? We will never know.

It is time for Europeans to stop believing that the transatlantic defense and security equation cannot work without U.S. leadership. And it's time for the U.S. to accept that it does not have to lead everywhere in the world, and certainly not in Europe where its closest and richest allies dwell.