NATO REMAINS INDISPENSABLE
IN A ANARCHIC WORLD
The history of international relations has taught us three important lessons. First, the international system is fundamentally anarchic because there is no hierarchically superior power capable of imposing order and resolving disputes between sovereign states. Second, rising powers, regardless of their regime type, are revisionist in that they want to shape the regional order (or the international system, if they’re ambitious enough) to serve their interests. Third, military power is indispensable for maintaining the regional or international order and preventing revisionist states from altering the status quo unilaterally. To prevent great power revisionism, NATO remains indispensable.
Historically, the most powerful states in the international system were compelled to intervene in the late stages of great power conflicts out of sheer necessity, when the human costs were higher. In the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain was crucial for maintaining the balance of power in Europe and preventing France from dominating the regional order. In World War I, U.S. involvement tipped the balance of power in favor of the Allies and prevented Imperial Germany from altering the status quo unilaterally. In World War II, U.S. intervention was indispensable in preventing Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from shaping their respective regional orders in their image.
After World War II, the United States accounted for more than 50 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and was, by far, the most powerful state in the international system. In typical revisionist fashion, the United States built the rules-based international order to serve its interests. However, contrary to the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars and the Allies after World War I, the United States had the foresight to pursue a foreign policy that balanced its interests with its values.
Instead of kicking Germany and Japan while they were down, the United States financed their reconstruction and reintegrated them into the international system. Japan was democratized, demilitarized, and eventually became the second-largest economy in the world. Peace in western Europe—and particularly between Germany and France—was institutionalized through NATO and the European Union (EU) after centuries of war. Seventy-seven years after the last great power conflict ended, the security architecture established by the United States has stood the test of time and neither Japan nor any NATO member state has since been invaded.
Today, a U.S.-led NATO is responsible for the collective defense of more than 1 billion people living in North America and Eurasia. Among other collective goods, the alliance’s responsibilities include preserving the rules-based international order, protecting submarine cables that make the internet and global lines of communication possible, maintaining shipping lanes that global supply chains rely on, and securing other privileges that we take for granted in the West.
NATO’s effectiveness pales in comparison to the helplessness of the United Nations (UN). For example, the abuse of the veto in the Security Council renders the UN incapable of making decisions and resolving disputes. Thus, a revisionist state like the Russian Federation can paralyze the UN and prevent it from fulfilling the purpose it was created for. Conversely, consultations take place until a decision that is acceptable to all thirty member states is reached at NATO. Given the enormous economic and political leverage held by the member states with domestic arms industries, compromises are usually attainable.
NATO’s effectiveness is complemented by the military power it possesses to perform crisis management operations when diplomacy fails. Since its inception seventy-three years ago, NATO’s defensive military posture in North America and Eurasia has successfully deterred revisionist states from altering the status quo unilaterally. As demonstrated by the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Russian occupations of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia, and Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus, the same cannot be said of non-NATO member states in Eurasia.
Despite institutionalizing peace between historic rivals in Europe and its sovereignty-respecting decision-making processes, extremist groups continue to revise history and distort reality with their ideological obsessions. While the far-left hides its anti-NATO sentiment behind a distorted sense of moral superiority, the radical right masks it behind isolationism. Somehow, both extremist schools of thought are miraculously united in their hate for “U.S. imperialism.”
At one point, these extremists were merely voices in our institutions of higher education. Then, they were elected to public office. Now, their historical revisionism undermines NATO’s indispensability to the rules-based international system in the legislatures of every member state. These extremists do not take the burden of leadership seriously and belong as far away from the corridors of power as possible.
To be clear: NATO is the most powerful and effective military alliance in history. Given the threat posed by revisionists like Russian president Vladimir Putin, NATO’s number one salesman, the alliance will continue expanding indefinitely. NATO is more important today than at any other point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Whether the next great power conflict erupts in Asia or Europe, NATO intervention will be indispensable for preventing the revisionist state in question from altering the status quo unilaterally. After all, there is no other state or multilateral organization that possesses the military power required to maintain order in the international context of anarchy. Moving forward, members of the alliance must do a better job explaining this history and the contingencies associated with it to their citizens.
Originally published by The National Interest on October 18, 2022.