75 years in, NATO remains as vital as ever to American life

As NATO marks 75 years since its founding, there are serious questions among some Americans who doubt the value of the trans-Atlantic alliance. They argue that it’s anachronistic, full of burden-sharing slackers and insufficiently focused on America’s main adversary, China.

These critiques are to some degree understandable. NATO’s age obscures the reasons why the United States broke with historical tradition in 1949 and entangled itself in an alliance with other countries. As a result, today some Americans, and even some Europeans, take NATO for granted.

This is unfortunate and shortsighted. The NATO alliance continues to form the backbone of not merely trans-Atlantic security but more fundamentally the American way of life. To downplay its importance, undermine it or even cast it aside would threaten the peace and security that Americans have enjoyed since the end of World War II. 

It was in the wake of that last great world-wide conflict that NATO was born. Soon after World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet Union took aggressive action across Central Europe, installing communist regimes, undermining democratically elected governments and dismantling capitalism. Stalin proclaimed his country would maintain a wartime military footing instead of largely demobilizing, as every other country involved in the war had done. The Soviets were quickly filling the power vacuum created by the defeat of Nazi Germany. 

Meanwhile, the UK was militarily and fiscally exhausted, France was desperate for financial and material aid, and the continent was otherwise economically and militarily devasted by the war. British leaders recognized the risk of allowing Moscow’s aggression to run unchecked and made it their goal to convince the U.S. to stay engaged in Europe. 

For their part, American officials wanted to focus on humanitarian and infrastructure assistance in Europe. Washington’s priority was to get European economies back on their feet, enabling them to purchase American exports and avoid a repeat of the post-war recession that followed World War I. For this reason, the Marshall Plan, the centerpiece of American policy toward Europe, included no military assistance. 

Several pivotal events in 1948 shifted U.S. views. The Soviet-backed Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, Moscow’s pressure on Finland and Norway to sign nonaggression pacts, and growing Communist political strength in Greece and Turkey began to turn opinion against the Soviet Union.

Most importantly, the Soviet blockade of Berlin starting in June 1948 — which prompted the U.S. and the UK to initiate an airlift operation to keep food and fuel flowing to West Berlin — irreversibly altered public opinion. American leaders concluded that only through a military alliance with U.S. backing would Western Europe get the stability and security it needed to recover economically. 

By the end of 1948, U.S. leaders accepted the invitation to join in negotiations with Western Europeans and Canada to create what would become NATO. Negotiations on the North Atlantic Treaty — NATO’s founding document — proceeded quickly, and by April 1949, the text was ready for signature.

Stability and security in Europe is no less vital to America’s economic well-being now than it was then. In 2022, two-way trade in goods and services between the U.S. and Europe amounted to $1.3 trillion (by comparison, U.S.-China trade in goods and services that same year was $758 billion). In 2020, American companies earned $180 billion in Europe (compared to $7.1 billion in China). Total U.S. investment in Europe is four times greater than its investment in the Asia-Pacific region, and European foreign direct investment in the U.S. is around 10 times European investment in India and China put together. And in 2019, European companies operating in the U.S. directly supported 5 million American jobs (in contrast, Chinese companies directly supported 160,000 American jobs that year).

It’s no exaggeration to say that trade and investment with Europe is vital to the American economy and hence to the American way of life. 

Russia has been and is likely to remain the greatest threat to European stability. Whether led by czars, Politburo chairmen or authoritarians like Putin, Moscow has long conflated territory with security, practically compelling it to seek the political and economic domination of its neighbors. A Russian military attack into the heart of Europe would shatter European security, send European economies into a downward spiral, devastate trans-Atlantic trade and investment, and generate massive waves of refugees — throttling the American economy as a result. 

But it wouldn’t even take a massive Russian attack into Europe to generate similar effects — a purportedly localized conflict affecting one or two countries or mere intimidation would suffice, leading to insecurity and then instability across the continent. A version of this has unfolded as a result of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, with negative economic impacts on companies as well as investors across Europe, as well as nearly 6 million refugees. 

For all these reasons, Russia is not merely an “acute” threat as labeled in American national defense strategy; it’s a persistent, unpredictable and risk-tolerant one. Over time, it’s possible the West might reduce the virulence of that threat — through long-term sanctions designed to stifle development, and by reducing reliance on Moscow’s only major exports, fossil fuels — but that goal appears a distant one for now.

Beyond economic ties, the values, culture and traditions America shares with Europe are important and, in many ways, form the foundation of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Additionally, NATO allies share the burdens of defending common interests — today, Europeans have committed more financial, military, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine than the United States. Yet these other factors alone don’t justify U.S. membership in NATO and the American commitment to European security. The well-being of the American economy does. Perhaps it’s ironic that the alliance’s founding treaty has very little mention of economic factors. But there’s no escaping the role that NATO plays in safeguarding stability and security across Europe — and hence the necessity of the alliance in facilitating trans-Atlantic trade and investment.

There’s no better time than the alliance’s 75th anniversary to remind ourselves why our grandparents had the wisdom to sign up for NATO, and why we should hope our leaders today maintain the same insight and common sense.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and an associate fellow at the NATO Defense College. He is the author of the book “NATO and Article 5.” His views are not necessarily those of any organization mentioned above.

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