Sorry, Liberals. But You Really Shouldn’t Love NATO.


At least the Middle East contains the real, if receding, threat of terrorism, against which minimal military action can be warranted. But Europe is stable and affluent, far removed from its warring past. America’s European allies provide their people with world-leading living standards. They can also perform the most basic task of government: self-defense. In any case, Russia, with an economy the size of Italy’s, lacks the capability to overrun Europe, supposing it had any reason to try. If American leaders cannot countenance pulling U.S. forces back from Europe, then from where would they be willing to pull back, ever?

The danger of permanent subordination to America has started to register in European capitals, long solicitous of American commitment. President Emmanuel Macron of France has accused NATO of experiencing “brain death” and proposed creating an independent European army, an idea rhetorically welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. The watchword in Brussels these days is “strategic autonomy,” meaning autonomy from the United States. Europeans scarcely seek to disinvite American forces from their continent. Still, they are finding that cheap security from Washington carries mounting costs: dependence on an erratic superpower, pressure to restrict business with China and Russia, and division in Europe itself.

The real question is what Americans want. They could continue to fetishize military alliances as a “sacred obligation,” as President Biden characterized NATO on Wednesday. Or they could treat them as means to ends — and coercive means that often corrupt worthy ends.

For progressives who seek to end endless wars and prevent new ones, the matter of Europe can no longer be skirted. The United States can trust Europeans to defend Europe. Otherwise, it would seem that America truly intends to dominate the world in perpetuity, or until the day a war so great puts dreams of dominance to rest.

Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim) is a historian of U.S. foreign policy, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and a visiting faculty fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School. He is the author of “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.”

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