U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

The Real Tragedy of NATO

The Ukraine crisis shows it's time for the U.S. to take a backseat in the alliance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

The U.S. won't lead NATO forever.

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For NATO, the venerable transatlantic military alliance, the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea is the best of times and the worst of times. The good news is that there is an alliance the West has rallied around and to which its members, especially the Eastern Europeans, can look for protection. The bad news is that the promise of protection is about all that the alliance will be able to deliver. If push comes to shove, there will be a lot of bluster with little substance.

Most people are unaware that NATO has no military forces of its own and must first get unanimous approval from its 28 member states — 26 European countries, the United States and Canada — before it can get involved in a conflict.

After the agreement to go to war is adopted – an arduous process, as the decision to go to war against Libya showed – NATO has to put together an army, a navy and an air force for its mission. In order to do so, it passes a hat around the NATO table to collect military contributions from its members. Members put into the kitty what military assets they can afford. 

Afford is the operative word, for each member country’s taxpayers must pay the costs of transporting and maintaining the military forces the country has decided to contribute to the mission. For instance, Poland’s taxpayers paid more than $1 billion a year to support its 2,600 strong contribution to the Afghanistan war, almost 10 percent of the nation’s defense budget.

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

Does anyone really believe the 26 European members of NATO, the United States and Turkey will all agree to go to war with Russia over Ukraine? It’s hardly likely given that the NATO allies have not even been able to slam Russia with hard-hitting sanctions! The United States, thousands of miles away from Ukraine, has pushed for more powerful sanctions, but the Europeans, who live next door to Ukraine and have deep commercial and energy ties with it, have fragmented over the decision. Eastern Europeans side with America, but the Western Europeans, who own more than 80 percent of European military assets, want little to do with antagonizing Russia.

Irrespective of what the spin from NATO’s Brussels headquarters is, it is obvious that the vital national interests of NATO members no longer converge as they did when NATO was set up more than six decades ago. Without this convergence, NATO can do little, if anything, as an alliance. The reality is that the military alliance created to defend Europe from aggression by “keeping Russia out and the Americans in,” as its first secretary general said, seems to have lost its political ability to do either. That is the real tragedy of NATO.

Is there a way out of this political conundrum? I believe there is, and it lies in refocusing NATO’s mission from the global cop role that it has assumed under American pressure to its original purpose — the defense of Europe – and placing the alliance’s leadership in the European Union’s hands.

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

My suggestion is economically feasible because the EU, which now holds a larger share of global gross domestic product than the United States, spends more than $280 billion collectively on its defense — what the U.S. defense budget used to spend prior to 9/11. This is a lot of money for countries that have little interest in policing the world, as America does. My suggestion also leverages NATO’s real achievement in its 64-year existence: the standardization of equipment and procedures to permit its members to operate together.

To implement this strategy, the United States needs to ask itself whether it needs to continue being the leader of NATO forever. I do not think so. The United States will always be there in case of a big bang for which America’s vast defense resources are needed. But for America to remain in charge of making political decisions for Europeans in matters that concern their vital interests, but not America’s, makes little sense.

There is still time to take the tragedy that has overtaken NATO and reshape the alliance into a transatlantic asset. But it will take bold leadership from Americans and from Europeans. The alternative is to continue on the present course of portraying NATO as the invincible knight that will ride to the rescue, when in reality the knight is without a mount and sallies with a dented lance.