Opinion |  NATO Is Not About Defense, and Never Was

When the population of Europe proved too stubborn, or unwelcomely affected by socialist or nationalist sentiments, Atlantic integration went ahead. The Czech Republic is a telling case. Facing the possibility of voting “no” in the referendum joined the alliance in 1997, the secretary general and top NATO officials ensured that the government in Prague ignored the exercise; the state joined two years later. The new century brings more of the same, with the right emphasis. Coinciding with the global war on terrorism, the 2004 “big bang” expansion – to which seven countries agreed – saw counterterrorism replace democracy and human rights in the alliance's rhetoric. The emphasis on the need for public sector liberalization and reform has remained constant.

On the defense front, the alliance was nothing like advertised. For decades, the United States has been a major supplier of weapons, logistics, air bases and battle plans. The war in Ukraine, for all the talk of European improvement, has left that asymmetry essentially untouched. Interestingly, the scale of US military assistance — $47 billion during the first year of the conflict — more than double that offered by EU countries combined. European spending promises may also turn out to be less impressive than they seem. More than a year after the German government published the special creation IDR 110 billion in funds for its armed forces, that is most of the credit remains unused. Meanwhile, German military commanders said they lacked enough ammunition for more than two days of high-intensity fighting.

Whatever the level of spending, it is remarkable how little military capability Europeans got for the expenses involved. Lack of coordination, like that of begging, hinders Europe's ability to ensure its own security. By prohibiting duplication of existing capabilities and encouraging allies to accept special roles, NATO has hindered the emergence of a semi-autonomous European power capable of independent action. As for defense procurement, common standards for interoperability, coupled with the size of the US military-industrial sector and bureaucratic hurdles in Brussels, favor American companies at the expense of their European competitors. The alliance, paradoxically, appears to have weakened the allies' ability to defend themselves.

But the paradox is only superficial. In fact, NATO works exactly as designed by it postwar US planners, drew Europe into dependence on American power which reduced its maneuverability. Far from being an expensive charity program, NATO secures American influence in Europe at a low price. US contributions to NATO and other security assistance programs in Europe make up a fraction of the annual Pentagon budget — less than 6 percent with recent estimates. And the war only strengthened America's hand. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, roughly half European military spending goes to American manufacturers. Surging demand has exacerbated this trend as buyers rush to acquire tanks, fighters and other weapons systems, locking up costly multi-year contracts. Europe may remilitarize, but America is reaping the rewards.

In Ukraine, the pattern is clear. Washington would provide military security, and its companies would benefit from a bonanza of European arms orders, while Europeans would shoulder the costs of postwar reconstruction—something Germany would do better than build up its military. The war also serves as a dress rehearsal for a US confrontation with China, in which European support cannot be counted on for granted. Restricting Beijing's access to strategic technology and promoting American industry is not a European priority, and cutting off European and Chinese trade is still hard to imagine. But there are already signs that NATO is making progress in getting Europe to follow its lead in the theater. Ahead of a visit to Washington in late June, the German defense minister duly advertised his awareness of the “European responsibility for the Indo-Pacific” and the importance of a “rules-based international order” in the South China Sea.