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Thought Experiment: NATO Distorts American Strategic Interest

In Aesop’s fable the Lion, the Bear and the Fox, the lion and the bear fight over a deer until both are too tired to continue, the fox, having seen their fatigue and lacerations runs off with the deer in its jaws. America, being the Lion, is reengaging in its global power struggle through NATO with Russia, the Bear. The deer in this scenario is a strategic interest or something akin to a superpower status. For the sake of argument, the Fox can be China. America too busy with Russia means it cannot pay attention to a greater threat of China who economically and demographically is far more likely to supersede it than Russia – which is both geopolitically vulnerable and demographically weak. In this sense NATO drags America to engage against Russia over Ukraine and it complicates a possible convergence of interests with Russia in combatting radical Islamic terrorism. In sum there are few direct strategic interests in combatting Russia.

The election of Donald Trump marks a turning point in the liberal world order. Whilst some essential elements of the world order remain the same, such as the predominance of US military and economic power, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The liberal elements inherit in the supranational institutions and international norms of the current world order will fade. Particularly if France votes in Le Pen. As that would mean all five members of the UN Security Council are populist-authoritarians or in the UK’s case, the government got into power through a populist revolt (and not via a General Election). Liberal institutions, like NATO and as we are beginning to see with the EU may well have less strategic interest for its member states in this new reality.

NATO, in the eyes of the West is a liberal institution to better the international community. However, in the eyes of Russia, NATO extends Western military power into its traditional sphere of influence – Eastern Europe and the Baltic. Russian leaders see Ukraine, as ‘little Russia’ and Belarus as ‘white Russia’. To the Kremlin, Ukraine is a core strategic interest with the warm water Black Sea access, a buffer against further Western aggression, ethnically Russian, and economically useful – most of Ukraine’s metal mining and industry is located in the east. Yet to America, what does Ukraine offer? It’d cost a huge amount to defend it in face of Russian aggression because the Ukrainian military is weak, and Turkey, a NATO ally allows America access to the Black Sea anyway. Keeping eastern Ukraine out of Russian influence could make America look like a tyrant forcing a population to stay with the Kiev government. Ukraine is a far bigger strategic asset or liability to Europe than America. It is only NATO and America’s sense of duty that brings it into conflict with Russia. A non-aligned Ukraine with a healthy economy might be the best option – this is more difficult because the US would have to overrule NATO’s and European sense of threat.

Stemming from this issue is the differing conceptions of threat. Instability in North Africa and Middle East are direct threats to European stability, for example, the Syrian migration crisis. Some hawks in Washington see America failing to intervene in Syria as American weakness, as if US global power is at stake there. In reality there are no direct strategic interests in Syria for it, save the containment and defeat of ISIS. This could explain why Obama has not fully intervened in Syria. The US ‘leading from behind’ in the NATO airstrikes on Libya highlights that America is already reprioritising its strategic interests. Libya has turned into a fragile state from the NATO bombing – but this doesn’t matter to the overall strategic position of America. The fragility of Libya matters more to Europe because Libya is nearer Europe, and because the failure of the state allows terrorists and illegal migration to flourish. As long as America subsidizes European military power through NATO, Europe will continue to spend less, and do less.    

On one issue America and Russia align well: combatting radical Islamic terrorism particularly ISIS and Al-Qaeda. NATO backed with the European countries makes a potential thaw with Russia impossible. The rise of Eurosceptic-populist parties in Europe can make the EU seem as if it is a geopolitical shell of decaying Great Powers. One can see that Russian intrusion into Eastern Europe – not necessarily with military force, but with disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks and sanctions – directly affecting Europe and the EU, but not America. Even Trump and his hawkish inclined cabinet – Flynn, Mattis and Pompeo may well play ‘moneyball’ and see little to gain in terms of power even if there is a moral case to maintain Article 5. In this respect Trump and the Eurosceptic populist parties, some of which are inclined to Russia, may find NATO a relic of the old liberal world order. Outlived its strategic utility.   

NATO will have to undergo reform whether Europeans like it or not. Conservatives and liberals in Washington have begun to align that Western Europe is edging towards a parasitical relationship with American military power. This snowball was been rolling as early as 1984 when J Joffe wrote about how America was Europe’s pacifier. Trump may well roll this snowball into a size that Europe and NATO cannot ignore. NATO doesn’t have to be activist for it to be useful. It could be a largely dormant institution – that is, it doesn’t have to grow into Ukraine or engage with actors that only directly affect Europe – such as northern Africa terrorists. The withdrawal of America could stop the dilatory attitudes in European Union foreign policy bureaucracy. But Europeans will have to recognise that given a choice between defending strategic interests in south-east Asia or defending European borderlands – America will chose the former.     

Thomas Furse is studying International Security MSc at Bristol.

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