Think Again: NATO

Why Europeans can defend themselves, but won't until Washington makes them.

"NATO is vital to Western security."

Only foreign policy elites believe that.

In April 1949, a dozen nations, including the United States, Great Britain, and France, signed the North Atlantic Treaty. The first secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Hastings Ismay, famously remarked that the alliance had three purposes, all in Europe: to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

NATO achieved this mission decades ago. Yet the alliance has continued to grow in the post-Cold War years: Today, it has 28 members, all but two of which are European. And while NATO struggles to find a precise mission in the absence of the Soviet threat, it maintains unparalleled popularity among foreign-policy elites in member states. It is like the third rail of national security policy -- only "unserious" people question NATO.

Two years ago, Philip Gordon, then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said, "NATO is vital to U.S. security." Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder claims it is "an alliance that is more needed by more people than ever." Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations explains that the NATO wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya "demonstrate NATO's utility and its contributions to the individual and collective welfare of its members."

This has not proven a particularly persuasive argument to the public, which wonders, not unreasonably, why the United States must keep 40,000 troops in Germany, especially when its leaders have spent the past 13 years warning that the greatest national security threat is terrorism -- while fighting one war in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. A 2012 Rasmussen poll revealed that 51 percent of likely voters wanted to remove all U.S. troops from Europe, with only 29 percent opposing that measure and 20 percent uncertain.

There have been a few outliers in Washington who have questioned the seemingly anachronistic emphasis on Atlanticism during a supposed "pivot" to Asia. Relative NATO skeptics, like Senator Rand Paul, have limited themselves to fighting rear-guard actions against legislation like the 2011 bipartisan amendment calling on President Obama to provide Georgia with a Membership Action Plan. But with the Russian annexation of Crimea and threats against eastern Ukraine, American supporters, particularly hawks like John McCain, see a validation of their views and are insisting that recent developments show why NATO is vital.

On the contrary, this is the perfect moment to demonstrate the shakiness of the case for the Atlantic alliance. 

"NATO enhances U.S. military capability."


Traditionally, the case for any alliance is that, as a whole, it is more powerful than the sum of its members. But the military contributions of NATO's European member states have not cleared that bar for some time. Consider Europe's contributions to the two most recent combat operations involving NATO forces.

While troops from some NATO countries have fought and died in disproportionately high numbers supporting the U.S. nation-building project in Afghanistan -- the only time Article V was ever invoked -- other NATO countries have placed national "caveats" on how their forces may be used. Frequently these were unofficial, but some gained notoriety. German troops, for example, were prohibited from leaving their bases at night. Other countries, like Italy, stipulated they would respond to requests to move their troops to areas where fighting was taking place within 72 hours. (This was later revised down to six hours.) And the list goes on. As a 2006 Congressional Research Service report noted, these caveats were "intended to preclude the affected units from participating in offensive combat operations or other operations that carry a high risk of casualties."

The Libyan "kinetic military action" was another illustration of NATO's combat readiness. Eight of the 28 NATO member states helped the United States oust dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. But the group ran out of munitions while beating up on a Libyan military that had been mostly neutralized by American air power just days prior. This sorry performance inspired an internal NATO report lamenting that the alliance is "overly reliant" on the United States to prevail in even the simplest of conflicts.

The United States currently keeps its troops stationed in Europe -- the bulk of its NATO costs are in paying, equipping, and maintaining them -- in large part as a function of its Article V commitment to the alliance, which states that an attack on one member state will be treated as an attack on all. Washington presently accounts for more than 70 percent of overall NATO military expenditures, despite comprising roughly 56 percent of NATO's GDP. Although in 2006 all NATO members committed to spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, currently only the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Greece are meeting that commitment.

"But Ukraine! Russian expansionism is likely to revitalize NATO." 

Don't bet on it.

With Russian forces annexing Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine, it didn't take long before the NATO secretary-general proudly declared that "NATO is back," and that the current crisis "must lead to increased defense investment in Europe." But with a NATO mission that has been set adrift, atrophied European defense expenditures, and eroded political consensus on the alliance's future, there is little reason to believe that the alliance can pull itself together diplomatically, financially, or militarily, even in the wake of Russia's provocations.

Besides which, it's unclear that despite its provocations, Russia actually presents much of a threat. Its GDP, $2.1 trillion in 2013, was slightly less than that of Italy and Portugal combined. It confronts severe demographic challenges, and it possesses life expectancy, alcoholism, and other variables all out of step with modernized, developed countries. Its military, though large and nuclear-armed, is hardly in better shape. While beating up on the poor Georgian army in 2008, the Russian side experienced serious operational difficulties. Without a sophisticated, nationwide air defense system, Georgian forces shot down five Russian planes, including a Tu-22 M3 strategic bomber. Russian ground forces suffered severe communications and targeting difficulties. The Russian military is weak and constrained, and the further it gets from home, the weaker and more constrained it gets.

Given these handicaps, the idea that Russia could somehow snatch enough European power to threaten Germany or France, to say nothing of the United States, seems unlikely. Even for Russia to maintain an assault on Poland, its lines of communication would be stretched over more than 600 miles of mostly hostile territory. In light of the Georgia campaign, this seems fanciful. So while it's fashionable in the West to shudder at Russian revanchism, this has amounted largely to pushing on political open doors. Russia's smash-and-grab military tactics were successful in South Ossetia and Crimea because of political support among the populace.

Beyond their hollow militaries, there is little political support among the more important European NATO countries even for defending smaller NATO member states, to say nothing of Ukraine. An April poll of Germans, after the Kremlin annexed Crimea and menaced Eastern Ukraine, revealed that 53 percent of Germans did not want to do more to help defend even existing NATO members in Eastern Europe. The same is true in the United States, where a May 2014 poll taken after the Russian annexation of Ukraine found that 36 percent of Americans wanted to remove U.S. troops from Europe, 39 percent to maintain them at their current level, and 25 percent were undecided.

There is little appetite in Europe for a U.S.-Russian conflict, and even less of an appetite for one in which European countries would be asked to exert themselves in any meaningful way.

Europe hasn't proved its worth. Meanwhile, in some ways NATO may actually have made it tougher to deal with Russia.

"There's no reason NATO should frighten Russia."


In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker sat down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, looked him in the eyes, and told him that if a unified Germany could be a NATO member, the alliance's jurisdiction would not move "one inch eastward." The problem with Baker's words, as historian Mary Elise Sarotte points out, is that Moscow never got them in writing. It's true that Baker never "promised" that the alliance would "never" expand to Eastern Europe; but that's what Gorbachev heard. After the Soviet leader publicly agreed to the terms of German unification, including its NATO membership, Western leaders would emphasize that they had kept their pledge not to do anything to, in Gorbachev's phrasing, "diminish the security of the Soviet Union." Unsurprisingly, though, Western and Soviet and Russian leaders would come to define that phrase somewhat differently.

Since then, Russia has made clear that it views the expansion of NATO territory and military power as a threat. However innocent the West believes its intentions, it isn't hard to see why Russia would be concerned. In 1999 NATO added the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. And over the next 10 years, that list grew to include Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia. In 2008, President George W. Bush suggested adding Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance, for the first time absorbing not simply former Warsaw Pact members, but former Soviet republics themselves.

The cost of surrounding Russia militarily is that Russia feels surrounded militarily. Allowing NATO to die after it achieved its mission after the Cold War would have left Moscow with a freer hand in Eastern Europe -- and some current NATO member states would have faced negative consequences. Their relations with Russia would have reflected relative power and geography, and they would have had to defer to Russian prerogatives more than at present.

At the same time, other states, such as Ukraine, have arguably been worse off as a result of NATO's persistence. Its internal politics have been more consequential to Moscow because not only of its economic orientation, but also because of the threat that it may someday become a NATO member. The downside of drawing lines across Europe, as NATO has, is that lines have two sides. And being on the non-NATO side of the line makes one a particularly appetizing target for predation, incentivizing the Kremlin to act before it's too late. The choice facing, say, the Baltic states becomes even starker.

NATO expansion has validated the narratives of Russian nationalists and made Russian liberals look like suckers, a nuance that is lost on many in the West.

"Absent NATO, Europe couldn't defend itself."

With NATO, it won't.

"Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus," political commentator Robert Kagan once said, but the dirty little secret is that Washington never wanted Europeans to get their act together on defense. From NATO's founding, American policymakers were concerned both with preventing Soviet domination of Europe and with preventing the emergence of a "third force" of Western European power divorced from Washington.

From at least the early 1950s, U.S. officials focused at least as much on containing Europe as on containing the Soviet Union. As Texas A&M political scientist Christopher Layne has written, NATO was designed with the purpose of preventing European defense cooperation. In 1952, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson cabled instructions to the U.S. Embassy in Paris that NATO must be prioritized because it would "preclud[e] possibility of Eur Union becoming third force or opposing force."

Throughout the Cold War, American policymakers worked to ensure a weak Europe that depended on the United States for its security. As then-National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote to President John F. Kennedy in 1962, it would be better if the United Kingdom would spend its resources on conventional arms and "join with the rest of NATO in accepting a single U.S.-dominated [nuclear] force." The United States reacted angrily to French President Charles de Gaulle's Europe-centric policies and worked to scuttle the Franco-German Treaty of 1963 by intervening in German domestic politics to get the Bundestag to alter the treaty preamble in a way that reinforced NATO's -- U.S. -- primacy. At every turn, Washington opposed European security cooperation on the thinking that all decisions should go through the White House. As Acheson remarked, Washington did not "need to coordinate with our allies. We need to tell them."

By the early 1990s, Europeans -- in keeping with the edicts of the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union in 1993 -- began working together on integrating their foreign and security policies. But at the 1998 NATO summit, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright neatly delineated the three things about European security cooperation that Washington would oppose. Labeling them the "Three D's," she said that Washington sought "no diminution of NATO, no discrimination, and no duplication" of the alliance's functions. This continued in the Bush administration, when in 2003 it called a special meeting with NATO to discuss European defense integration. At that meeting, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns condemned European security cooperation as "one of the greatest dangers to the transatlantic relationship."

Aside from Washington, there are other obstacles to European defense cooperation. European nations disagree about burden-sharing and about the degree of integration that would be desirable. Germany prefers not to think about defense issues at all, which has driven the French and British, uncomfortably, to sign a set of bilateral defense treaties (the Lancaster House treaties) in 2010. Some of the more ambitious European proposals, such as "permanent structured cooperation," resemble the completion of the European state-building project, in that they involve folding national European militaries into something resembling a single European military. Washington should support more European defense integration, and a smaller role for itself in European defense matters.

NATO has produced some benefits, but the costs to the United States -- tens of billions per year, validating Russian nationalist narratives about the West, and infantilizing its European partners -- are often ignored. Washington should cut the Europeans loose, and encourage them to cooperate with each other on European security matters. With a combined GDP larger than the United States and a benign threat environment, Europeans are capable of defending themselves, but won't until Washington makes them.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


The Two Faces of Ratko Mladic

How Serbia has become indifferent toward the man who lost the war, his honor, and his freedom. 

When Ratko Mladic appeared at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in mid-May, he bore little resemblance to the Mladic that the world knew from TV news, documentaries, and photos taken during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Here, in The Hague, he was gray-haired and looked like a ragged, worn-out old man -- a shadow of the strong, cocky army commander he once was, accused of perpetrating genocide and other terrible crimes.

Seeing him in such different form, as the defense portion of his trial finally began, it was easy to wonder: Is this really the notorious "butcher of the Balkans," who oversaw the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica? Was this slightly confused grandpa the same man who had been among the most-hunted people in the world for more than a decade, with offers of millions of dollars in rewards for tips on his whereabouts?

It seems that two images of Mladic, from almost 20 years apart -- the one in The Hague now and the other in Srebrenica in 1995 -- provide a useful illustration of what has happened not only to him, but to the treatment of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.


In July 1995, when Serbian troops under his command marched on Srebrenica, Mladic was 53 years old. He was self-assured; he had already earned the "butcher" nickname -- and seemed proud of it. Mladic held his head high, a slight, ironic smile hovering on his reddish face that glowed with sweat as he walked on a hot day along Srebrenica's empty streets.

TV cameras from Republika Srpska Television and the Serbian Television recorded it all. (They were the only TV stations present, reporting on the "liberation" of the town.) Speaking into the cameras, Mladic triumphantly announced not only victory but also revenge: "We are presenting this town to the Serbian people," he said. "Finally, the time has come to get even with the Turks for the first time since the uprising against Ottoman rule." (Here, he was presumably referring to the battle of Kosovo Polje that took place in 1389.)

Nearby, in Potocari, where a U.N. battalion of 400 Dutch men was stationed, some 30,000 refugees from surrounding Muslim villages were looking for protection. When Mladic arrived in Potocari, accompanied by a TV crew, he started distributing chocolate bars to children, telling their parents not to be afraid because "nobody will do them any harm." It was a perverse gesture, considering that, at the same time, buses were driving thousands of men -- fathers, brothers, husbands -- to summary executions. (At first, the bodies were buried where the men were killed. Later on, however, as was revealed during the trial of his deputy commander, Radislav Krstic, in 2001, Mladic gave orders for the remains of some 8,000 people to be dug up and dispersed in different locations, in order to hide them.)

Other footage shows that Mladic was fully aware of his power: He has an encounter with colonel Thom Karremans, the commander of the Dutch U.N. battalion. "Do you smoke?" Mladic asks, offering Karremans a cigarette. Karremans says he does not. But he takes a cigarette while Mladic laughs straight to his face. "Do you want to drink something, a beer?" Karremans politely declines his offer and even tries to explain why he does not drink. But Mladic again laughs, sarcastically, and says, "But surely you will drink!" In the next scene, the two men are seen drinking together.

Military victory was not enough for Mladic; he also wanted to humiliate his enemy. 

At the time, Mladic was very popular in Serbia and the Serb-dominated parts of Bosnia. Yet his "glory" for taking Srebrenica did not last long. That November, the Dayton Accords sealed the end of the war in Bosnia. The next year, Mladic went into retirement and began receiving a pension for his service. Times were changing.

Still, Mladic moved freely about Belgrade for several years. He was a symbol of Serbian patriotism -- not a war criminal, but a war hero, a legend. And he reportedly enjoyed the protection of the Serbian army's leadership, the government of then-President Vojislav Kostunica, the secret police, and even his country's Orthodox Church. 

In 2002, once Serbian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, Mladic went into hiding. For years, people speculated as to his whereabouts, and as the ICTY proceeded with its work, his extradition became more or less a prerequisite for Serbia joining the European Union.

All this points to a critical shift in efforts at reconciliation, one that is still ongoing today: Previously, there had been no visible political will throughout the Balkans to engage in such efforts. But in the past few years, a new impulse to at least check off the right boxes when it comes to cooperation and justice has emerged among a generation of politicians who seem determined to lead their countries into Europe's embrace. Along the way, the past deeds of a figure like Mladic have mattered less and less to people, including many of those who once revered him.


In the early morning of May 26, 2011, in the small Serbian town of Lazarevo, Mladic was quietly waiting to be arrested. He had packed and dressed and, according to a witness, when the police came, he offered them a plate with cheese and ham and glasses of homemade brandy. Serbian hospitality prescribes that you offer food to guests. Although these men who came to get him were no guests, Mladic had nothing against them. They were only fulfilling their duty -- as he himself had done long ago, he might say.

His arrest spurred a veritable avalanche of news coverage. In Serbia, Mladic was hailed again as a hero; in Bosnia and Croatia, he was cursed as the butcher. The media seemed most interested, however, in how he looked. And no wonder: The man who finally showed his face in public after so many years was barely recognizable. His bullish, sturdy appearance from better days had turned into a thin and fragile one -- making him look much older than 69. So-called "serious" newspapers reported his diet almost daily while he was in prison. Serbia's Politika wrote that "he ate butter and jam for breakfast, hake and mashed potatoes for lunch, and chicken with boiled vegetables for dinner." Another Serbian paper, Kurir, reported, "According to the recommendation of the doctors, everything is unsalted. Breakfast: eggs, melted cheese, and tea. Lunch: soup, peas, and chicken. Dinner: chicken with potatoes." The public was promptly informed that, while waiting for extradition, Mladic asked his defense attorney to bring him strawberries.

Then people learned that he also wanted a TV set and a book by Leo Tolstoy. Newspapers competed in wondering about his ailments -- heart problems? lung problems? diabetes? three brain strokes? dementia? -- and his many medications. One report said that because of a stroke, Mladic could not move his arm. Another paper expressed worries about his health because, before being arrested, he had lived in a humid room. 

And so on, ad infinitum.

Much less important to write about, apparently, were the indictments at the ICTY. Charges were mentioned abstractly, obliquely, quickly. The same trend continued after Mladic was extradited and faced his trial, which began on May 16, 2012: The domestic media have covered the event at a bare minimum. (They have also spared the Balkan public details of his menu in The Hague.) The trial, it seems, has largely ceased to interest many more than the relatives of Mladic's alleged victims and representatives of some humanitarian organizations. 

It is no secret why: On the one hand, the ICTY has always been unpopular among many people in the Balkans, who have either been incapable or unwilling to put alleged war criminals on trial at home. But more broadly speaking, war is an unpleasant business that everybody would like to forget as soon as possible -- particularly one in which many citizens who are still alive were complicit. 

Compare how Mladic's trial has been received to the coverage of Radovan Karadzic's encounter with justice just a few years ago: After the former president of the Republika Srpska was apprehended in 2008, with his long white hair tied in a ponytail like an old hippie, all of Serbia passionately followed his sessions in that faraway court. They even staged protests in the streets protesting his arrest.

That isn't happening this time, with Mladic. Too much time has passed, and too many things have changed. In 2014, Serbia is more interested in other matters.


But this, apparently, is not what Mladic thinks. On the contrary, he believes that he is still somebody important, and he has tried his best to impress the public, by acting contemptuously toward the court -- mimicking the arrogant, mocking behavior of the late Slobodan Milosevic. He has sought to show that he was the victim of an international conspiracy against Serbia; his only "crime" had been to defend his own people.

In 2012, upon entering the ICTY for the first time, Mladic did something that, unfortunately, was not captured by cameras: He raised his hand quickly and drew his finger, like a knife, across his throat. It was a threatening gesture. Immediately, speculations rose among those who saw it over whom the gesture was meant to threaten. Was it meant for the public -- the relatives of victims -- on the other side of the bullet-proofed glass? Or did it mean, "I ordered killings"? Or, "We killed them and we will do it again?"

Anyway you interpret it, it was a demonstration of the obscenity of which the man is still capable.

As his trial has gone on, now advancing slowly through his defense, Mladic has kept the same smirk on his face. It stays, alongside his self-importance. He is now occupied with denying this or that fact, commenting, protesting. But he still looks like he's fading -- with age and something more intangible. At times, he has behaved like a bad pupil almost, at others like a man whose bloodied hands only become bloodier the more he tries to wash them clean.

While attempting to show that he matters, he is really reminding the world that he is a loser -- a man who lost a war, his honor, his freedom. And it seems, in the long run, he has also lost the respect of Serbians as their attentions have turned elsewhere.

"I can only be tried by my people," he declared at the beginning of his trial. And in a way, he already has been: by their indifference toward him and what he did -- an indifference that with time, hopefully, will turn into shame.