Imprimis

Seven Myths About NATO

Melvyn Krauss
Senior Fellow and Professor


Melvyn KraussMelvyn Krauss is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace and a professor of economics at New York University. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. His books include The New Protectionism, Development Without Aid, and How NATO Weakens the West.



Editor’s Preview: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a collective defense alliance created in 1949 in response to alarming Soviet expansionism in Central and Eastern Europe. Its guiding principle is security through mutual aid and self-help, yet the United States has borne a larger share of the financial and military burden than any of the 16 other member nations, accounting for 50 to 65 percent of our annual defense budget. The call to “get out of NATO” is being heard more and more often today.

Melvyn Krauss, the author of How NATO Weakens the West (1986), contends that the NATO nations have the money and the manpower to defend themselves, but that “they have been able to keep the welfare state, keep U.S. support and feel safe from the Soviets.”

Jack Forrest, former deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Army in Western Europe warns, however, “Our willingness to consider abandoning NATO is a sure sign that we ought to stop and consider just what kind of commitments we are ready to uphold.” He argues that NATO ought to be reformed, not repudiated.

Much attention is focused on how we should respond to our enemies, but the NATO debate makes it clear that how we respond to our allies is just as vital.

These essays were originally presented in January of 1988 in Seattle at a Shavano Institute for National Leadership seminar for two hundred leaders from around the country. Our thanks to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust for making this program possible.


In January of 1988, the New York Times carried an article entitled “Navy Secretary Suggests Forces in Europe be Cut” quoting the then Secretary James Webb. According to the article, Webb called “for a thorough review of United States commitments to foreign nations and a re-examination of the deployment of American forces around the world, especially in Europe.” The Navy Secretary noted that “national resources, changes in the world economic structure, recent political changes and the improved capabilities of many of our allies dictate that we must, perhaps for the first time since the late 1940s, seriously debate the posture of U.S. military forces around the world.”

Webb went on to suggest that a national debate over this issue would be in order. The United States, he argued, has commitments to sixty nations through treaties or other arrangements which require extensive military involvement. As a result, we have become “set in static defensive positions that have drained both our economic and military resources” In the Secretary’s own words:

It can fairly be argued that the economic recovery of other nations has not uniformly been met with the complete resumption of their obligation to join us in protecting the way of life and the values that we share. While American allies in NATO should do more for their own defense, another element must be the responsibility of the Japanese as a friend, ally and world power, to assume a greater portion of the regional military responsibility in Asia.

Now, we must remember that Secretary Webb was speaking on his own behalf and not that of the Navy Department or the Reagan administration. But the Secretary’s remarks were significant, for here was a senior military official, a highly-respected expert on defense, speaking out in favor of reassessing our strategic commitments to our allies. It is within this context that I wish to discuss some of the prevalent myths about NATO.

Myth #1

Time and time again, one hears that NATO “has kept the peace for forty years” But this is not an argument, for correlation doesn’t prove cause and effect. Simply because U.S. troops have been stationed in Western Europe for the past forty years, and there has been peace for forty years, does not mean the former has caused the latter. Many other factors have played a role. In particular, the Western Europeans have chosen a policy of appeasement when it comes to facing down their greatest enemy—the Soviet Union. They offer subsidized trade, easy credit and political support to the very nation which threatens them most.

For example, what happens when the United States attempts to contain communist aggression in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia or even in Europe? Our Western European allies become alarmed at such “American imperialism.” The Soviets have no need to launch a military invasion of Europe—the status quo works just fine for them. We’ve had peace for forty years, but it has come at a very high price. Ironically, the Soviet enemy has benefited substantially—too much in my view—from the collective security arrangements the West has devised for itself.

Myth #2

Myth number two is that NATO ensures the U.S. of a “forward defense” in Europe against the Soviets. The reasoning goes that, in the event of a conventional Soviet attack, it is better for the U.S. to engage the enemy in Europe, not on Broadway. That is, of course, “beggar my neighbor” in the worst sense of the term. By underwriting NATO to the tune of $134 billion per year, we are, in effect, paying Western Europe to serve as a buffer and a potential battleground for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. That’s what the pro-NATO crowd believes and, one must admit, there is some truth to this argument.

But most experts concede that any conventional attack launched by the Warsaw Pact nations would quickly escalate to a nuclear confrontation. This is the problem of the so-called “low-nuclear threshold,” acknowledged by such NATO officials as former Supreme Commander Bernard Rogers and by Senator Sam Nunn. Let’s imagine a ground attack in Western Europe. Within hours or days, we would have to make the decision whether to go nuclear and launch a first strike against the Soviets (after all, no one, not even NATO’s staunchest supporters, claim that NATO can fight a conventional war longer than a week or two with any hope of success)—or whether we would simply throw up our hands and say “Okay, Europe is yours” Where then, may I ask, is our forward defense? The truth is that there is none!

Myth #3

We may like to think that NATO provides a conventional deterrent to war in Western Europe, but, like forward defense, this is another myth. We do have a system of conventional defense, but what is its deterrent value when our defense is so inadequate? The reason for this inadequacy is that while the Russians and the Americans have steadily built up their conventional armed forces in the past few decades, the Western Europeans have built up their welfare states.

After World War II, Western Europe was devastated and its people demoralized. If we hadn’t stepped in to render assistance, Western Europe surely would have shared the fate of Eastern Europe and fallen within the communist orbit. Our newly developed nuclear power could extend a guarantee of safety to our allies abroad, and our greater financial resources could help the European economic recovery without shortchanging our own economic progress. NATO, in 1949, made perfect sense, because of the economic gap that existed at that time between the U.S. and Western Europe, and the nuclear gap that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

But the intention of NATO, like the Marshall Plan, was only to help Western Europeans regain their footing. Once recovered, it was assumed they would take primary responsibility for their own defense affairs. Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s first Supreme Commander, insisted that if U.S. troops were still in Europe ten years after its founding, “the whole enterprise will have failed.” Forty years later, Eisenhower’s worst fears have indeed come true. The Western Europeans are no longer poor, but they have successfully resisted building up their own military forces. “After all,” the shrewd Europeans will say, “Why spend on our defense when we have the Americans to defend us? What we need to do is concentrate all our efforts upon our education, our health, our environment, our economy…” Thus, liberalism alone is not responsible for the rise of the welfare state in Western Europe. Had it not been for the willingness of the U.S. to pay for the defense of those who could then plow billions of dollars into their social welfare states, liberalism would have been a vain—and unfinanced—aspiration in Western Europe.

The INF Treaty: An Aside

Unfortunately for the West, while Europe ignored its defense needs, the U.S.S.R. was busy building its conventional and nuclear forces. We are now at a crossroads when the Soviets’ conventional superiority may be especially critical, because of the pending denuclearization of Europe as a consequence of the INF treaty. The function of our Pershing II missiles in Europe was not only to cancel out Soviet SS20s but to neutralize the conventional superiority that the Soviets enjoy.

Suddenly this vital strategy is supposed to be less important, we are told. According to INF proponents, including Ronald Reagan and George Schultz, who have become surprisingly unsuspicious of our enemies as of late, the Soviets are committed to withdrawing even more missiles than we are, and we are assured this is a great victory.

An example illustrates how wrong even the best of leaders can be. Suppose a very big, powerful man and a short, scrawny fellow live in the same house. In such a situation, we wouldn’t find it surprising if the bigger of the two began to dominate. He might intimidate the little guy and get him to do a lot of favors for him. He wouldn’t even have to ask after awhile; the little guy knows the situation. The big guy says, “Gee, it’s cold in here” and the other jumps up to close the window.

But one day, the little guy gets fed up. He buys a revolver, which suddenly changes the pair’s whole relationship. Now the big guy closes the window himself. But what if the big guy decides to buy two guns? With the escalation of the “arms race” who dominates whom does not depend on physical strength. It depends on: Who’s quicker on the draw? Who’s got more nerve? Who’s got more firepower?

And who’s got more money to spend on arms?

Then along comes a do-gooder who says “Look, gentlemen, guns are dangerous. We can’t have guns in the world because guns kill people. Let’s disarm. Let’s have peace.” The little guy has only to give up one gun, but the big guy has to hand over two. If George Schultz were there to comment, he’d claim it was a great deal for the little guy, forgetting all about his initial dilemma.

The de-nuclearization of Europe, begun with the INF treaty, makes the imbalance between conventional forces a critical factor. The big guy—the Soviet Union—has only to say, “Gee, it’s cold outside,” and the little guy—Western Europe—will leap to do his bidding.

Myth #4

Myth number four is that anyone who approves of withdrawing from or downscaling our commitment to NATO is isolationist. It is true, of course, that there are isolationists within this broad group, but the majority believes that reality dictates an internationalist position—namely that America cannot survive without strong allies. That is precisely why they oppose the current state of affairs. NATO has created and encouraged weak allies. When you subsidize someone, you make them dependent and corrupt their own sense of responsibility. Ronald Reagan should understand this better than most.

The new internationalism represented by the anti-NATO advocates is an internationalism based on a strong network of allies, not relying upon the United States as the sole policeman of the world. We are spending $134 billion a year on NATO. Is that creating or encouraging strong allies? Is NATO the best defense we can get for that kind of money?

Myth #5

Leaving NATO, according to its supporters, would be deserting our friends. We ought to be loyal and stick by Western Europe. We should honor our commitments. This is undeniably the strongest argument the pro-NATO ranks can advance. Most Americans have been brought up to revere loyalty, honor, commitment. NATO was one of the first bastions against communism, making this argument even more potent.

But to withdraw from NATO would not put an end to our commitment. Only a morally correct defense policy can help our allies—and subsidization through NATO is not the answer. Making Europeans face up to their own responsibilities, making them self-reliant and ready to defend their own nations is a better one. To argue that we would be honoring our commitment by doing any less simply is not correct.

Myth #6

We are told by various media pundits, intellectuals and foreign policy experts that the Soviet Union wants us out of NATO. Of course, this triggers a conditioned response: We can’t leave because, if we left, the Soviets would be delighted. But the Soviets have made no concerted effort to get the troops out of Europe, comparable, for example, to their effort to get the U.S. Pershing missiles out or to short-circuit the Strategic Defense Initiative. The reason is that the NATO link, by making the allies weak, has worked very much to the Soviet advantage. Adam B. Ulam of Harvard University, one of our leading Sovietologists, has written:

Although the Soviets want to encourage tensions between Western Europe and the United States, they may not want to see the United States withdraw or greatly reduce its land forces in Europe. Such a shock might make Western European leaders decide they have no choice but to unite politically. Or it might cause West Germany to reconsider its decision not to acquire nuclear weapons. Moreover, the present uneasy state of U.S.-Western European relations provides certain benefits to the U.S.S.R. America’s European allies usually act as a moderating influence on Washington’s anti-Soviet attitudes and initiatives.

Myth #7

Impressive though the foregoing arguments may be, they may not add up to much in the world of domestic politics. Whether or not our troops are withdrawn from Western Europe depends on whether we can break free of one last myth: That America can afford the status quo.

Let’s look at “affording” it in the literal sense. Without even taking our enormous federal deficit into account, we ought to be alarmed that we are annually spending $134 billion on NATO. That alarm should be magnified by the dramatic decline in the value of our currency. Most of our NATO troops are stationed in Germany, where in the last two years the dollar has depreciated by fifty percent.

Now that has a devastating impact on the U.S. federal budget, and one part of the devastation is being visited upon our service personnel because they are being paid in dollars. Of course, they can buy some items from the PX, but what we have done to the men and women who are protecting our country and Western Europe is a disgrace.

Our soldiers in Europe are indeed hostages to prove that the U.S. will fight to save Western Europe. The tripwire strategy goes something like this: No American president could sit idly by and watch American soldiers being killed in an attack on Western Europe. This guarantees U.S. engagement in Europe’s defense. But to force our soldiers to live in jeopardy, and to be so miserly about compensating them for their service, is certainly outrageous. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer qualified people enlist under such conditions?

Notwithstanding our soldiers’ plight and the huge financial drain on our resources created by NATO, we can’t afford the status quo in another sense. NATO prevents us from facing up to the very real dangers we face. We blithely sign agreements with our enemies, hoping that NATO will still protect us. Nothing could be further from the truth.