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The progressive case against NATO is weird

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School

Initial reports out of Brussels suggest that, in the words of NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “Joe Biden came here today and got everything he wanted out of the NATO meeting so far.” Among other things, NATO backed the Biden administration’s plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. This is all part and parcel of Biden’s intent to signal to allies that the United States is back. This message is clearly playing well with citizens in allied nations. It also seems to be working on allied leaders:

Biden’s message is playing less well within certain quarters of the restraint school in the United States.

On Monday, Stephen Wertheim published an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Sorry, Liberals. But You Really Shouldn’t Love NATO.” His thesis is provocative: Liberals have “ceded criticism of NATO to the right” and should remedy that defect. “It’s time for Americans to recover their critical faculties when they hear ‘NATO,’ a military alliance that cements European division, bombs the Middle East, burdens the United States and risks great-power war — of which Americans should want no part.”

So … yeah, sorry, but this is nuts. NATO is far from perfect but if this is the progressive critique of it, then we can safely ignore progressives on this subject for a good long while.

Wertheim’s strongest argument is the disastrous fallout from NATO’s 2008 Bucharest declaration, which stated that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO” without any viable plan of action. U.S. policymakers intended it as a sop, but the Russians took it seriously. Plenty of Russian national security experts point to that declaration as the beginning of the end for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West. It is not a coincidence that Russia invaded both countries.

Of course, the flip side of that argument is that these same Russian security experts do not reference earlier rounds of NATO expansion as triggering, well, anything. This contradicts Wertheim’s theory that the original sin was NATO expansion in the ’90s.

Wertheim’s claim that NATO cements European division is, well, odd. In contrast to the early 1990s, when Europe truly was split, most of Europe is now part of NATO. The parts that are not are divided between those who seem awfully keen to join, those who are flirting with the idea, and Russia. At the same time that NATO has expanded, so has the European Union and the euro zone. This is not a picture of Europe divided.

The Middle East argument is even stranger. NATO operations in Afghanistan were carried out at the behest of the United States. I am not exactly sure why Wertheim thinks progressives should be mad at NATO for, you know, invoking Article V in support of the United States. Wertheim implies that NATO allies dragged the United States into the Libya operation, but this is weak beer. The Libya intervention had the support of the U.N. Security Council as well as key policymakers in the Obama administration. Wertheim wants to paint this as an example of NATO being an entangling alliance at risk of dragging the United States into war. The evidence for this phenomenon more generally is rather weak.

Wertheim’s most provocative argument is that NATO might precipitate a great-power war. To do this requires eliding a rather important portion of NATO’s history, which was its role in the peaceful reunification of Germany and end of the Cold War. A critical moment in those negotiations came when Mikhail Gorbachev realized that he preferred a reunified Germany within the confines of NATO rather than an independent country in the middle of Europe. Keeping Germany within NATO also reassured France and the United Kingdom. Without NATO, German reunification does not happen without blood being spilled, and a revanchist Hungary might have started at least one war to expand its territory.

Wertheim thinks that Ukraine could trigger a great-power war. Meh. In 2021 we have already had one round of Putin brandishing the sword on Ukraine, Biden standing firm, and the situation de-escalating. NATO’s deterrent power seems important to the region. To be honest I would be more worried about flash points in the Pacific Rim.

It is undeniably true that the Trumpist right wing has monopolized the U.S. critique of NATO. Wertheim wants progressives to compete in this criticism. I would suggest that progressives look at some public opinion polling on NATO and stay on the sidelines. Two years ago, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that “all-time high percentages among Democrats (86%), Independents (68%), and Republicans (62%) believe that NATO is still essential to US security. And 78 percent of Americans overall say that the United States should maintain or increase its current commitment to NATO.” Democratic support for NATO has persisted into 2021.

I may be just a small-town political scientist, but if the other side criticizes an institution that is broadly considered popular by voters, the savvy political move is to defend that institution.

I admire the restraint school being intellectually consistent in its disdain for overseas alliances. But Wertheim’s critique of NATO seems wildly off-base.

This piece was republished from The Washington Post.

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