Let Europe Be Europe

Why the United States must withdraw from NATO.

Over the course of the disastrous 20th century, inhabitants of the liberal democratic world in ever-increasing numbers reached this conclusion: War doesn't pay and usually doesn't work. As recounted by historian James J. Sheehan in his excellent book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, the countries possessing the greatest capability to employ force to further their political aims lost their enthusiasm for doing so. Over time, they turned away from war.

Of course, there were lingering exceptions. The United States and Israel have remained adamant in their determination to harness war and demonstrate its utility.

Europe, however, is another matter. By the dawn of this century, Europeans had long since lost their stomach for battle. The change was not simply political. It was profoundly cultural.

The cradle of Western civilization -- and incubator of ambitions that drenched the contemporary age in blood -- had become thoroughly debellicized. As a consequence, however willing they are to spend money updating military museums or maintaining war memorials, present-day Europeans have become altogether stingy when it comes to raising and equipping fighting armies.

This pacification of Europe is quite likely to prove irreversible. Yet even if reigniting an affinity for war among the people of, say, Germany and France were possible, why would any sane person even try? Why not allow Europeans to busy themselves with their never-ending European unification project? It keeps them out of mischief.

Washington, however, finds it difficult to accept this extraordinary gift -- purchased in part through the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers -- of a Europe that has laid down its arms. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have pushed, prodded, cajoled, and browbeaten European democracies to shoulder a heavier share of responsibility for maintaining world order and enforcing liberal norms.

In concrete terms, this attempt to reignite Europe's martial spirit has found expression in the attempted conversion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from a defensive alliance into an instrument of power projection. Washington's aim is this: take a Cold War-inspired organization designed to keep the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in, and transform it into a post-Cold War arrangement in which Europe will help underwrite American globalism without, of course, being permitted any notable say regarding U.S. policy.

The allies have not proven accommodating. True, NATO has gotten bigger -- there were 16 member states 20 years ago, 28 today -- but growth has come at the expense of cohesion. Once an organization that possessed considerable capability, NATO today resembles a club that just about anyone can join, including, most recently, such military powerhouses as Albania and Croatia.

A club with lax entrance requirements is unlikely to inspire respect even from its own members. NATO's agreed-upon target for defense spending, for example, is a paltry 2 percent of GDP. Last year, aside from the United States, exactly four member states met that goal.

The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe -- today, as always, a U.S. general -- still presides in splendor over NATO's military headquarters in Belgium. Yet SACEUR wields about as much clout as the president of a decent-sized university. He is not a commander. He is a supplicant. SACEUR's impressive title, a relic of World War II, is merely an honorific, akin to calling Elvis the King or Bruce the Boss.

Afghanistan provides the most important leading indicator of where Washington's attempt to nurture a muscle-flexing new NATO is heading; it is the decisive test of whether the alliance can handle large-scale, out-of-area missions. And after eight years, the results have been disappointing. Complaints about the courage and commitment of NATO soldiers have been few. Complaints about their limited numbers and the inadequacy of their kit have been legion. An immense complicating factor has been the tendency of national governments to impose restrictions on where and how their forces are permitted to operate. The result has been dysfunction.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal's famous assessment of the situation in Afghanistan leaked to the media last year, most observers focused on his call for additional U.S. troops. Yet the report was also a scathing demand for change in NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "ISAF will change its operating culture.... ISAF will change the way it does business," he wrote. "ISAF's subordinate headquarters must stop fighting separate campaigns." The U.S. general found just about nothing in ISAF's performance to commend.

But McChrystal's prospects for fixing ISAF run headlong into two stubborn facts. First, European governments prioritize social welfare over all other considerations -- including funding their armed forces. Second, European governments have an exceedingly limited appetite for casualties. So the tepid, condition-laden European response to McChrystal's call for reinforcements -- a couple of battalions here, a few dozen trainers there, some creative bookkeeping to count units that deployed months ago as fresh arrivals -- is hardly surprising.

This doesn't mean that NATO is without value. It does suggest that relying on the alliance to sustain a protracted counterinsurgency aimed at dragging Afghans kicking and screaming into modernity makes about as much sense as expecting the "war on drugs" to curb the world's appetite for various banned substances. It's not going to happen.

If NATO has a future, it will find that future back where the alliance began: in Europe. NATO's founding mission of guaranteeing the security of European democracies has lost none of its relevance. Although the Soviet threat has vanished, Russia remains. And Russia, even if no longer a military superpower, does not exactly qualify as a status quo country. The Kremlin nurses grudges and complaints, not least of them stemming from NATO's own steady expansion eastward.

So let NATO attend to this new (or residual) Russian problem. Present-day Europeans -- even Europeans with a pronounced aversion to war -- are fully capable of mounting the defenses necessary to deflect a much reduced Eastern threat. So why not have the citizens of France and Germany guarantee the territorial integrity of Poland and Lithuania, instead of fruitlessly demanding that Europeans take on responsibilities on the other side of the world that they can't and won't?

Like Nixon setting out for Beijing, like Sadat flying to Jerusalem, like Reagan deciding that Gorbachev was cut from a different cloth, the United States should dare to do the unthinkable: allow NATO to devolve into a European organization, directed by Europeans to serve European needs, upholding the safety and well-being of a Europe that is whole and free -- and more than able to manage its own affairs.

As with Nixon and Sadat and Reagan, once the deed is done everyone will ask: Why didn't we think of that sooner?

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images


Yanukovych Won. Get Over It.

Ukraine has cast its vote for the guy who was on the wrong side of the barricades in the Orange Revolution five years ago. The end of civilization as we know it? Not likely.

So Ukraine has elected a new president. The winner is Viktor Yanukovych. Remember him? He was the bad guy in the Orange Revolution, back at the end of 2004. The voting masses rose up in protest against dirty tricks at the ballot box committed by Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow party and kept at it until their man, Viktor Yushchenko, ended up president. Yushchenko's key ally in that great triumph for democracy was Yulia Tymoshenko. She's the one who lost to Yanukovych on Sunday.

You can see why some people have been saying that the Yanukovych win is a turning point in Ukraine's recent history. Ukrainian political analyst Taras Kuzio cast this year's election as a replay of the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko, he wrote, represented "European-style democracy," while Yanukovych enjoyed the ominous support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's very own political party. "The forward-looking choice is clear," Kuzio wrote, "and its [sic] not in the direction of Russia." Russian-American commentator Nina Khrushcheva delivered a glowing portrait of Tymoshenko's democratic attributes and prophesied that a Yanukovych win would mean "the last free vote Ukraine sees for a long time."

And what does Reality Check say? Life goes on. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

First of all, let's get one thing straight. Ukrainians were absolutely correct to stand up and defend their democratic rights back in 2004. Yanukovych and his party were guilty of egregious election fraud. Moscow supported Yanukovych so openly, and so brutishly, that some Ukrainians presumably ended up voting for his opponent out of sheer spite.

But let's face it. The record since then hasn't exactly been an exercise in the glories of Ukrainian democracy. No sooner had Yushchenko and Tymoshenko achieved power (as president and prime minister, respectively) than they began to indulge in a feud that essentially paralyzed Ukrainian politics for the rest of Yushchenko's term. The result was a long list of non-accomplishments. Kiev-based commentator Mykola Riabchuk, an ex-supporter, ticks off the list: "He failed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe," thus frustrating one of the central demands of the Orange demonstrators. "He failed to separate business and politics" -- another key disappointment for a country where a tiny group of business tycoons wields power constrained only by their competition among themselves. No sooner was the new president elected, Riabchuk notes, than he appointed several of his oligarch supporters to ministerial positions.

Small wonder, then, that Yushchenko didn't make much headway against Ukraine's fantastically stubborn culture of corruption. Last year global corruption watchdog Transparency International gave Ukraine a ranking of 146 on the group's notorious "Corruption Perceptions Index." To offer some context, that was the same rating achieved by Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, East Timor -- and, oh yes, Russia. In 2004, when Yushchenko scored his great victory, Ukraine's ranking was 122. "I don't think that's changed, and no one's tried to change it," says David Marples, a Ukraine-watching history professor at the University of Alberta. "In Ukraine the corruption goes right down to the village level."

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether Yushchenko did anything right. So what sorts of choices did Ukrainian voters face this time around? Yanukovich hasn't changed much. For this campaign he relied on a stable of slick U.S. campaign advisors rather than the "electoral technologists" from the Kremlin who served him five years ago. But not even his K Street minders could smooth over his brutish way with words, his criminal record (he was convicted of burglary and assault back in the Soviet days), and his worryingly intimate ties with corporate bosses from his hometown of Donetsk in the country's industrial heartland.

Given his past behavior in office, there's certainly reason for concern about Yanukovych's future as Ukraine's president. Frank Sysyn, an expert from the University of Alberta, worries that social tensions could increase dramatically if Yanukovich tries to push through his plans to reintroduce Soviet-style education and raise Russian to the status of an official language, along with Ukrainian. Pro-Western Ukrainians, Sysyn notes, fear that Yanukovych will move Ukraine back firmly into Moscow's orbit -- and could succumb, as a result, to the lure of separatism (since most Yanukovich-haters tend to be concentrated in the country's western regions) or even emigration, with sad consequences for Ukraine's future development.

Tymoshenko is quite a different breed of politician -- a fiery speaker and a shrewdly manipulative populist, an avowed admirer of Eva Peron who seems to believe more in the force of her own theatrics than in the niceties of democratic give-and-take. (One of her close advisors was fired when he refused to go along with her party's policy of using noisemakers to drown out opponents in parliament.) "She has never really been a democratic figure," says Marples. "She's a real politician with tremendous possibility. And yet it's very hard to say what she really stands for. I can't really say what she'd do if she were president."

Her supporters insist, for one thing, that she'd clean up the business world. During her brief tenure as prime minister under Yushchenko she did succeed in reining in some of the egregiously corrupt practices of the country's vital gas industry. She's also declared herself in favor of renationalizing many of the industries that were chaotically privatized during the rough-and-tumble 1990s (though she tends to get vague on the details).

And yet this is the same woman who's known, at other times, to have created opaque structures that funneled profits from the lucrative energy sector to her cronies. During the privatization battles of the 1990s, Tymoshenko formed a close alliance with Pavel Lazarenko, who was later convicted of money-laundering in a U.S. court. At one point, thanks to her gas-related maneuverings, she may have controlled as much as 20 percent of the country's gross national product (as estimated by one American journalist).

So would she have taken Ukraine in a fundamentally different direction than Yanukovych had she won? It's hard to say. European integration is a long-term rather than immediate goal for Ukraine no matter who's president; France and Germany have made it clear that there's little readiness to find room within the European Union for a newcomer as enormous as Ukraine any time soon. The same goes for NATO, which is still struggling to absorb the new members from Eastern Europe it accepted during its last round of enlargement. A number of powerful factors -- and not only the country's continued dependence on Russian natural gas -- would be nudging Ukraine toward a closer relationship with Moscow at this point regardless of who commands the political heights in Kiev. That, presumably, is why Tymoshenko began pursuing an openly conciliatory policy toward Russia in recent years -- even while Yanukovych was giving lip service to notions of "reform" and "closeness to Europe."

Then again, perhaps Tymoshenko's high-profile meetings with Putin were actually aimed at burnishing her with a bit of the popularity the Russian leader enjoys among voters in her own country. Polls have shown that Putin consistently enjoys much higher ratings among Ukrainians than any of their own politicians do -- evidence, perhaps, of Ukrainians' deep fatigue with the endless infighting at the top. (A strikingly large number of them voted "against all" in the runoff.)

The simple fact of the matter is that Ukrainian voters really didn't have a lot to choose from in this election. "In 2004 it was a kind of millenarian struggle," says Riabchuk. "This time we had to decide which was the lesser of two evils." But, as he hastens to add, there's a positive note to be struck here as well. For all his faults, Yushchenko never succumbed to the temptation to crack down on Ukraine's hard-won media freedoms or rights to assembly -- and, perhaps paradoxically, they are reinforced by the deep divides in the country's political culture. "The Orange Revolution succeeded in opening up Ukrainian society," says Sysyn. "These changes are not going to go away. This is not going to disappear just because Yanukovych won the presidency." Let's certainly hope so.

A final note: As this story was published, Tymoshenko was still refusing to concede defeat, despite the urgings of international election observers, who declared the vote fair. Watch out: There may well be more to this story yet.