2009/05/05

The utility of the NATO

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The common perception of NATO is a quite superficial one: It's an alliance, therefore its utility is in its promotion of defensive capability, in enhancing security.

Recent history challenges this, as Europe's security has rather suffered by the link with the USA. The AQ-related terrorism against European is quite clearly a side-effect of the U.S.'s involvement in the Near East. The alliance has made us less safe in this regard.

There's of course the claim that the military power of the U.S. makes Europe safer against conventional threats. This is in my opinion again a very superficial idea.


Let's look at the interstate war variant:

a) Nuclear war
The nuclear arsenals of the UK and France threaten any nuclear assailant with doomsday destruction. The additional nukes of the U.S. would add nothing of value to this.

b) Conventional war
An especially dumb idea is the assertion that Europeans couldn't or wouldn't defend themselves. That's a great indicator about the person who says or writes that, and other than that it's just dumb and wrong. Europe has no interest in spending money on the military for the military's sake, but our conventional military - reduced as it is in comparison to 1990 - is still greater than the military power of all Arab, Persian and Russian neighbours combined. We have even a huge Turkish army for quantity.

c) Potential for a later war
The European economy isn't perfect, but still very strong. The combined economies of the Arab countries, Iran and Russia couldn't match us in an arms race (and their demographic problems are much greater than ours).


So for lack of super-powerful villain nations nearby we're safe - even without consideration of U.S. military power.

What could the transatlantic alliance be good for? I mean besides that the U.S. couldn't even fool itself into believing it's a superpower if it hadn't access to bases controlled by European powers.
The U.S. military power is non-essential for Europe's defence, but maybe it's the icing on the cake that adds an extra bit of deterrence or its participation in an actual defence would reduce the casualties of a defensive war?
That's plausible enough to accept it as a possibility, but it doesn't convince me as the real reason for the alliance's survival.


I've got a very different opinion about the utility of NATO.
It adds security by keeping us allied instead of rivals.
The interests of European powers and the U.S. are very often opposing - we even don't seem to agree on fundamental issues like whether international affairs should be constrained by rules that apply to all. The Russia policy of Germany has been counteracted and partially sabotaged by three consecutive U.S. governments.

We would find ourselves in an age of transatlantic rivalry, opposing each other and competing for influence and access to resources in a highly wasteful way if we weren't allied.

The alliance called "NATO" is an idea that keeps the illusion of shared interests and shared fate - and keeps the spectre of transatlantic rivalry and conflict in the box.

In other words; NATO protects the U.S. against its other members and the other way around. Additionally, the alliance members provide the U.S. with bases on which its relevance in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean regions is resting more than on anything else.

The absence of severe conflicts between North America and Europe is often taken as self-evident. It's not; it's a post-Cold War product of NATO.

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6 comments:

  1. I don't think it's accurate to consider NATO merely a formality in place to prevent tensions between Europe and America. The relationship between Europe and America is still very close, and the two powers cooperate a great deal to advance their common economic and geopolitical goals. There are very real disagreements over American military adventurism, which seldom serves these common interests, but in general Europeans and Americans alike benefit from the power wielded by NATO, specific military missteps notwithstanding. The power I'm talking about has little to do with fighting wars and more to do with economic policy.

    I do think that we are on the verge of a period in history when America will no longer enjoy the privilidged economic position it has held since Bretton Woods. Europe is probably the only power able to usurp this position, but to do so would be to transform Europe into a military and economic duplicate of the United States which isn't really desirable for anyone except maybe European elites. This would inevitably bring Europe and America into conflict. Europe's decision to limit stimulus spending might be an attempt to preserve the value of the Euro so that they can be in a position to replace the dollar as a reserve currency when the dollar's value plummets.

    If anything I think we'll end up seeing a much more level economic playing field across the developed and developing nations with some sort of agreement on an internationally-based reserve currency like the Chinese are now suggesting. Over the next few decades NATO might be useful in preventing trans-atlantic rivalry as the new global order shakes out.

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  2. I'd have to agree with Dr. Luny, in that I think that power will eventually even out between powers, defined by relative populations. However, this is a reason for NATO to exist. Neither Europe or the US will be able to stand up to China or India if they stand separate, but together they are a potent force. If they allied with a third group, say Russia or the wealthy Asian nations that aren't China, NATO could keep its relevance and admittedly significant bargaining power. (Yeah, Russia in NATO. Ha!)

    Of course, a similar thing could have happened with the European Community in the long run (say 50 years) if you guys hadn't called it "The European Community" and used the "Euro." That basically limits the European economic community and prevents it from expanding outside of Europe- Which may have been what they wanted.

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  3. I doubt that we need to confront India or China. China is no doubt too far away to be a conventional threat with a major portion of its force.

    India isn't the slightest bit hostile so far and still quite far away from us.

    We actually only need to prevent a Russian alliance with either India or China as a necessity and prevent a Russian alliance with Arab powers as a luxury requirement.

    Europe can handle those four blocs if they remain separate from each other.
    We have favourable geographic barriers with three of them and Russia has less potential than Germany and France combined.

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  4. I totally agree with Sven that NATO is one of the very few integrating international organizations where the US and Europe are bound to each other and need themselves in order to get security related things done.

    If you even can't convince your allies, you should really ask yourself if the prize (or the risk) of unilateral action is worth it.

    The famous Kissinger quote for US unilateral action still applies of course, but ignoring the tradeoff could be costly.

    Hence, when looking inwards, NATO provides a formidable backchannel for delicate political questions and stabilizes transatlantic relations in the long term.

    Just looking at current threat scenarios would be far too narrow, in my opinion.

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  5. The core alliance of the US is the Anglosphere seapower alliance with Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand. The US is the power providing the unchallengeable blue water fleet.
    From the NATO and other alliances the US derives a mutual support and reduced conflict feed-back that allows them to focus on others who are not integrated.
    If Europe was to cut the US alliance it would require investments in more blue water transport security with at least sea control carriers and we need at least some alliance access to nukes. The carriers will be especially important as this situation can detoriate in a Peloponnesian War playback by mutual assertiveness highlighted in the constant Boeing-Airbus bitching.

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