The Twilight of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Photograph Source: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P098967 – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

It is time for the United States to debate the downsizing, if not the dissolution, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  U.S. national security would be strengthened by the demise of NATO because Washington would no longer have to guarantee the security of 14 Central and East European nations, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  European defense coordination and integration would be more manageable without the participation of authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary.  Key West European nations presumably would favor getting out from under the use of U.S. military power in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia, which has made them feel as if they were “tins of shoe polish for American boots.”

Russia would obviously be a geopolitical winner in any weakening—let alone the demise—of NATO, but the fears of Russian military intervention outside of the Slavic community are exaggerated.  The East European and Baltic states would protest any weakening of NATO, but it would be an incentive for them to increase their own security cooperation.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created seven decades ago as a political and military alliance to “keep the United States in Europe; the Soviet Union out of Europe; and Germany down in Europe.”  The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989; the Warsaw Pact and the East European communist governments in 1990; and the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the high water mark for the alliance.

For the past three decades, however, the United States has weakened NATO by forcing a hurried and awkward expansion on the alliance.  Most recently in 2020, North Macedonia was admitted as its 30th member, further weakening the integrity of the alliance. Did President Donald Trump actually believe that the presence of North Macedonia as well as 13 other Central European states would strengthen U.S. security?

The enlargement of NATO demonstrated the strategic mishandling of Russia, which now finds the United States and Russia in a rivalry reminiscent of the Cold War.  President Bill Clinton was responsible for bringing former members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO, starting in the late-1990s; President George W. Bush introduced former republics of the Soviet Union in his first term.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves credit for dissuading Bush from seeking membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

The United States justified the expansion of NATO as a way to create more liberal, democratic members, but this has not been the case for the East European members.  Russia, moreover, views the expansion as a return to containment and a threat to its national security. Russia was angered by the expansion from the outset, particularly since President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker assured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that the United States wouldn’t “leap frog” over Germany if the Soviets pulled their 380,000 troops out of East Germany.

NATO’s success from 1949 to 1991 was marked by a common perception of the Soviet threat, which is the key to solidarity in any alliance framework.  In 2020, however, the 30 members of NATO no longer share a common perception of the Russian threat in Europe.  The United States has one view of Russia; the key nations of West Europe have a more benign view; and the East Europeans perceive a dire threat that the others do not share.  The United States has always expressed some dissatisfaction with the asymmetric burden sharing and risk sharing within the alliance, and the Trump administration has threatened to withdraw from NATO over the burden sharing issue.

Turkey has rapidly become the outlier within NATO, and there have been a series of confrontations in the eastern Mediterranean that threaten the integrity of the alliance.  Greek and Turkish warships collided in August, creating the first such confrontation between the two navies since 1996, when the Clinton administration mediated the problem.  The United States no longer acts in such diplomatic capacities, so French President Emmanuel Macron has stepped into the breach by sending jet aircraft to the Greek island of Crete as well as warships to exercise with the antiquated Greek navy.  Greece and Turkey, which joined NATO together in 1952, are rivals over economic zones in the Mediterranean where there are important deposits of oil and natural gas.  Greece and Turkey have squabbled since 1974 over the divided island of Cyprus.

Turkey and France have additional differences over Turkey’s violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya.  The two NATO allies had a confrontation in the Mediterranean when a French warship tried to inspect a Turkish vessel.  Last week, France joined military exercises with Greece and Italy in the eastern Mediterranean following a Turkish maritime violation of contested waters.  Paris backs Athens in the conflicting claims with Ankara over rights to potential hydrocarbon resources on the continental shelf in the Mediterranean.

President Macron took a particularly tough line in stating that he was setting “red lines” in the Mediterranean because the “Turks only consider and respect…a red-line policy,” adding that he “did it in Syria” as well.  Macron’s tough stance is somewhat surprising in view of the concern of France and other European NATO countries regarding Turkey’s ability to turn on the refugee spigot, which would cause economic problems in southern Europe.  Turkey has been using the refugee issue as leverage since 2015, when huge numbers of refugees in West Europe led to a rightward shift in European politics.

There is also the problem of Turkey’s purchase of the most sophisticated Russian air defense system, the S-400, which was developed to counter the world’s most sophisticated jet fighter, the U.S. F-35.  As a result of the purchase of the S-400 system, the United States reneged on the sale of eight F-35s to Turkey at a loss of $862 million, creating additional problems between Trump and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey had planned to buy 100 F-35s over the next several years, and had begun pilot training in the United States.

Trump’s constant harangues about burden sharing have created more friction within NATO.  Trump falsely takes credit for increased European defense spending, but it was the Obama administration that successfully arranged greater Canadian and European defense spending in 2014 in the wake of Russia’s seizure of Crimea. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg panders regularly to Trump on the issue of increased defense spending, ignoring Trump’s false claims that NATO spending will increase by $400 billion annually.  The $400 billion is in fact the increased spending over an eight-year period.

With Trump’s drift toward isolationism and unilateralism (“America First”), there is incentive for the European Community to take control of its own “autonomous” defense policy.  The Europeans have reason to believe that a second presidential term for Trump could lead to a sudden U.S. withdrawal from NATO.  The unilateralist character of U.S. foreign and defense policy strengthens the case for building European defense cooperation along side of an undetermined transatlantic relationship with the United States.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for