Why the United States Needs NATO – 3 Things to Know

A paratrooper with a NATO flag performs during an air show in Radom, Poland, in August 2023. Jakub Porzycki/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump has long made it clear that he deeply resents NATO, a 75-year-old military alliance that is composed of the United States and 30 other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

Trump escalated his criticism of NATO on Feb. 10, 2024, when he said that, if he is elected president again in November 2024, the U.S. would not defend any member country that had not “paid up.”

Trump also said that he would encourage Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, “to do whatever the hell they want” with a NATO member that was “delinquent” in paying for its defense.

NATO is the Western world’s foremost defense organization. It is headquartered in Brussels. The central idea behind NATO’s existence, as explained in Article 5 of NATO’s 1949 treaty, is that all NATO countries agree to defend any other NATO country in case of an attack.

NATO has no standing army and relies on member countries to volunteer their military forces to carry out any operation. So all NATO countries agree to spend 2% of their annual gross domestic product on military defense in order to support NATO.

Some countries, like the U.S., the U.K., Poland, Finland, Greece and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania devote more than 2% of their GDP to military defense. About half of NATO’s members, including Germany, France, Norway, Spain and Turkey, spend less.

NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg said in a written statement on Feb. 11 that Trump’s suggestion “undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.” Other political leaders also criticized Trump’s comments as highly dangerous.

As a scholar of history and international affairs, it is clear to me that Trump does not seem to understand the many advantages the U.S. gets from being part of NATO. Here are three major benefits for the U.S. that come with NATO membership:

Two cookies are seen on a plate - one has frosting designed like the American flag, and the other is blue with a white compass on it.
NATO and American flag cookies are seen at a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Jan. 29, 2024, in Washington. Julia Nikhinson/AFP via Getty Images

1. NATO gives the US reliable allies

Militarily and economically, the U.S. is a hugely formidable power. It has the largest nuclear arsenal on earth and continues to be the largest economy in the world.

Yet, without its allies in Asia, and above all without those in Europe, the U.S would be a much diminished superpower.

NATO provides the U.S. with a leadership position in one of the strongest military alliance networks in the world. This leadership goes well beyond the security realm – it has profound and very positive political and economic ripple effects. For instance, most Western countries purchase their arms and military equipment from the U.S.

Russia counts controversial regimes known for human rights violations such as Iran, North Korea and, to some extent, China, among its most important allies. The U.S. considers economically strong countries like Canada, Germany, France, Italy and many other established democracies as its friends and allies.

NATO has invoked Article 5 only once – immediately after the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. America’s NATO allies were ready to come to the aid of the U.S. – and, for good or for bad, many subsequently participated in the United States’ war in Afghanistan.

2. NATO provides peace and stability

NATO provides a blanket of protection and mutual security for all its members, helping explain why the vast majority of countries in central and eastern Europe clamored to join NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Today, Ukraine continues to push for NATO membership – though its application to join appears unlikely to be granted anytime soon, given the military commitment this would create for the alliance.

Russia fought short wars in recent years with Moldova, Georgia and also with Ukraine prior to 2022, but Putin has not invaded neighboring countries that are NATO members. Invading a NATO country would bring the entire alliance into a war with Russia, which would be a risky gamble for Moscow.

Despite international concern that Russia’s war in Ukraine could spill over into neighboring NATO countries, like Poland and the three Baltic nations, it has not yet happened.

Donald Trump enters a stage with an American flag on it, with blue-lit lighting.
Former President Donald Trump arrives at a news conference during the July 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

3. NATO has helped the US get stronger

The Soviet Union’s military alliance, called the Warsaw Pact, required the USSR and its satellite states in central and eastern Europe, including East Germany, Poland and Hungary, to join. NATO, on the other hand, is a voluntary military alliance, and countries must go through a demanding application process before they are accepted.

The United States’ current presence in Europe – and Asia – has not been imposed by force. Instead, U.S. troops and influence in Europe are generally welcomed by its allies.

By joining NATO and accepting the military leadership of Washington, the other NATO countries give the U.S. unprecedented influence and power. Norwegian scholar Geir Lundestad called this an “empire by invitation.” This informal empire has deeply anchored the U.S. and its influence in Europe.

A split in opinion

President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that under his leadership the U.S. would “defend every inch of NATO territory,” speaking primarily in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Biden has repeatedly warned Putin that he would face the consequences if Russia attacks a NATO member.

For Trump, however, transatlantic solidarity and mutual defense appear to count for nothing. For him, it seems to be all about the money and whether or not NATO countries spend 2% of their GDP on defense. And despite Putin having begun a terrible war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Trump has continued to voice his admiration of the Russian leader.

Trump does not view Putin’s Russia as an existential threat to the U.S.-led global order. And thus he does not seem to realize that the U.S. and its European allies need protection from Putin’s Russia, the kind of protection offered by NATO. NATO’s existence gives the U.S. strong and reliable allies, provides Washington with great influence in Europe and makes sure that most of Europe remains stable and peaceful.The Conversation

Klaus W. Larres, Professor of History and International Affairs, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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