COMMENTARY: Memo to all naysayers: NATO is still needed

The following is a response to the July 20 Commentary by Reid K. Beveridge “Is NATO really relevant in these times?”

The controversy over the effectiveness and future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is so much hot air. NATO — otherwise called the North Atlantic Alliance — is alive and well and will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2019.

Since its founding amid the fledging Cold War, NATO has performed its most important function: a defensive alliance designed to deescalate military crises. Though the alliance prevented the need for direct military intervention over its first four decades of existence, it has been active in this area over the last 30 years, a consequence of German unification, breakup of the Soviet Union, the rise of international terrorism, and increase in ethnic-based conflicts. For instance, NATO forces assisted the American-led coalition which opposed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

During the 1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO enforced a no-fly zone and launched air strikes against Bosnian Serbs when they violated provisions. In 1999, NATO conducted a months-long bombing campaign to displace Bosnia from Kosovo. Like in 1995, NATO subsequently sent a peacekeeping force to the area. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, NATO members were among 42 different nations which assisted with the operation to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. More recent activities by NATO include sending warships to the Gulf of Aden in 2009 to combat piracy and enforcing an arms embargo and no fly zone in Libya in 2011.

NATO’s other functions are often ignored, but are critical to its overall mission. One primary responsibility for NATO members is to pursue non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Along these lines, NATO has a centre dedicated to that purpose and administers an annual conference on WMDs. Additionally, NATO structure includes divisions concerned with topics such as counter-terrorism, civil emergency planning, meteorology, electronic warfare, and even space policy.

NATO’s membership now stands at 29 nations, with the most recent member having been added in 2017. While all but two of NATO members are located in Europe, NATO’s affiliated linkages stretch throughout the globe. For instance, NATO created the Mediterranean Dialogue group in 1994 so as to have communication with Israel and countries in North Africa.

In 2000, contact countries like Australia and New Zealand were identified. In 2004, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative sought dialogue with four Middle East nations. Currently, NATO has a partnership with Columbia, demonstrating that its interests reach to Latin America.

Based on a formula which relies on gross national income — total domestic and foreign output — the United States presently contributes about 22 percent of the common defense budget of NATO, or about $685 million of an overall $2.8 billion annual budget. Since NATO established rules in 2006 and 2014 calling for each member to spend a minimum of 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, the United States has averaged 3.7 percent of GDP on its defense, while other NATO nations averaged just 1.18 percent.

However, non-American NATO members have increased defense spending for four consecutive years and collectively increased defense spending by $33 billion in 2017. Further, NATO members are increasingly aware of the need to balance operational budget and multinational projects spending, both of which America pays a greater share of than others.

While NATO’s relevance and value are unquestioned, its overall record as a defense alliance is not perfect. For one, France withdrew from the military command part of NATO for 40 years, rejoining that sector in 2009. Further, NATO’s decisions on intervention have seemingly been inconsistent, as recent actions concerning conflicts in Libya and Syria has demonstrated.

Finally, there is always room for improving bureaucratic efficiency so as to prevent redundancy and increase effectiveness.

Perhaps the best indicator of NATO’s success is the support of its members, none of which have left the alliance once joined. Or it could be how despised the organization is by its targeted troublemaker, the Russian Federation. Either way, NATO is still needed and wanted, a bastion of strength and bulwark of stability in an uncertain world.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He teaches and publishes extensively on military, national security, and foreign policy issues.

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