After centuries dominated by constant wars between states, the end of World War II brought about more than seven decades of “big peace” and no wars between great powers. This past week marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, which has been instrumental in this long peace.
Founded in 1949 as a collective defense pact against Soviet aggression, NATO is an enduring cornerstone of the post-war efforts to prevent further global-scale conflict and encourage strong diplomatic ties between countries who share common interests and values.
Engagement with NATO and support for the alliance has been a longstanding, bipartisan tenet of American foreign policy — one that I have seen play out personally in my own deployment flying with NATO forces in Libya. Recently, however, a growing number of voices in the United States have begun to more forcefully question U.S. involvement with NATO — with some of the loudest of these voices, unfortunately, coming from near and at the top.
While there are certainly things that can be done to improve NATO’s effectiveness in the 21st century, such rhetoric has led America’s closest allies to question U.S. commitments to the alliance and the good that it does for all members. The best way to ensure the continued effectiveness of NATO is through thoughtful engagement in concert with our partners. Such engagement is the key to continued collective defense and increased member defense spending.
Without a doubt, collective defense — a core piece of NATO — makes us safer. Nevertheless, a growing number of people view NATO as some sort of United States protectorate whereby European nations require American protection. What this argument forgets is that the alliance has come to our aid before. The only time in history that NATO’s collective defense measure, Article V, has been invoked was after the 9/11 attacks when our allies sent troops alongside the U.S. military to Afghanistan. In fact, troops from NATO countries still serve alongside our men and women in uniform today.
The core idea behind NATO is that collective defense, or the idea that “an attack on one is an attack on all,” deters outside aggression and prevents global-scale conflicts like the two World Wars. Such a collective defense upholds the democratic peace and deters bad actors from upending the global order. The entire Free World benefits from such an arrangement.
Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to meet then NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen where he summarized all this. His message to those of us showing him around our aircraft was that the only way we identify and defeat threats is by working together with allies. He knew that no one nation, no one organization, can do it alone, and that solidarity between NATO partners has and will remain vital to our continued success.
The opposition to continued American involvement with NATO would tell you that being 70 years old goes to show just how out of date the alliance is, or that the alliance has been ineffective because allies don’t put up enough money (or that they owe the U.S. money for protecting them).
It is a longstanding, bipartisan U.S. foreign policy position that NATO allies need to increase their military spending to, and beyond, the 2 percent of GDP requirement — but NATO does not operate on a dues system. Therefore, rather than berate allies, the United States should urge allies to increase their spending by illustrating the shared threats faced. For instance, part of this spending must be focused on evolving the alliance to face 21st-century threats like transnational terrorism, disinformation and a rising China.
All of this can, and should, be done while providing a still-needed check on Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Europe — a role still very much needed in light of Putin’s invasion of two European countries in the last 10 years.
Ultimately, NATO was created to make the world a safer place, and its idea of “an attack on one is an attack on all” led allies to come to American aid after 9/11. The United States should urge its allies to put more money into defense, through continued basing, engagement and sharing of information and training. Attacking the alliance itself only does Vladimir Putin’s work for him, and is not the strongly held view that critics of NATO seem to think it is.
As a combat aircrew member and military leader, I have personally seen that we are all stronger when working together. Should the worst ever come, I want to know that America will operate well with its NATO allies — but what I really want is a strong alliance that prevents that from ever having to happen.