Recent commentary in the U.S. presidential election campaign on Washington’s commitment to the North Atlantic alliance has largely been a waste of time and effort. The United States and its allies face many important issues as they attempt to navigate challenges to transatlantic security and assess how NATO can best serve common interests. However, the facile debate over whether alliance membership and its responsibilities remain in U.S. interests has superseded more serious discussion of the alliance and its future.

The presidential campaign notwithstanding, there has been and remains a broad bipartisan consensus in the United States over the importance of NATO. In fact, the alliance is so important to U.S. interests that even if the allies contributed less to common defense, it would be difficult to argue against U.S. membership.

There is a broad bipartisan consensus in the US over the importance of #NATO.
 
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The U.S. presidential debate on September 26 touched only briefly on foreign policy, including NATO, and so it served primarily to foreshadow what is to come—specifically, the second presidential debate on October 9, which will focus largely on security, defense, and foreign affairs. That debate is likely to pay far more attention to some of the most critical defense and security issues facing Washington today.

Unfortunately, at least part of the discussion on October 9 can be expected to dwell on what is truly a useless exercise—namely, debating the utility of U.S. membership in and commitment to NATO. This past spring and summer, questions were raised in the presidential campaign over whether NATO membership was still in U.S. interests and whether the United States would defend its treaty-based allies in Europe.

Much of the debate focused on the notion that European and other allies are not a good return on Washington’s investment, because they fail to reimburse the United States for the costs of collective defense. In truth, available data indicate that European allies like Germany and Italy, which host U.S. military forces, have offset roughly 30–40 percent of the costs to U.S. taxpayers through a combination of direct and indirect support. Land leased at no cost, waived taxes and customs duties, and free access to host nations’ military training grounds add up to hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursement.

Nonetheless, immeasurable amounts of intellectual energy, op-ed column inches, and blog bytes were expended on a rather pointless effort to justify what clear majorities of sensible leaders on the right and left as well as the broader public have long known—that U.S. membership in NATO is obviously in U.S. interests. According to one survey, some 78 percent of Americans favor maintaining or increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO. Indeed, the only segments of the American polity that have ever questioned this consensus are on the fringes of the political spectrum. They do not represent even a plurality of opinion in the U.S. legislature or executive.

Certainly, U.S. leaders in both of those branches of government have complained—sometimes very publicly and very vocally—about a perceived lack of equitable allied burden sharing, the use of caveats in allied military operations, and insufficient levels of defense spending. But those same leaders have generally acknowledged what former British prime minister Winston Churchill reportedly noted: the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.

This long-standing bipartisan consensus isn’t a by-product of some mindless obedience to accepted foreign policy dogma. Rather, it reflects a particularly compelling conceptualization of U.S. interests today centered on prosperity. This conceptualization dates to NATO’s founding—indeed, it led to NATO’s founding. The North Atlantic alliance was formed largely to prevent Western Europe from falling under Soviet domination and hence becoming closed off from the global system of relatively open trade and investment—a system on which U.S. prosperity depended.

Today, that dependence is greater than ever. And although Soviet domination is no longer a threat, U.S. economic interests are still at the core of why the United States maintains a treaty commitment to the stability and security of Europe. Asia is becoming increasingly important to America’s economy, but the available data still reinforce the vital significance of Europe to the U.S. way of life. The economic relationship between the United States and the EU generated trade flows in goods and services of roughly $2.7 billion per day in 2012 and yielded some 6.8 million U.S. jobs in 2010. To put this relationship in context, in 2015 total U.S. trade (imports and exports) in goods and services with EU member states amounted to 20 percent of all U.S. trade. This was more than with Canada (13 percent), China (13 percent), Mexico (12 percent), and Japan (5 percent).

European stability and #security remains vitally important to the US.
 
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It’s possible that the trade relationship between Europe and the United States will somehow dwindle and become less vital to American well-being than it is today. If that occurs, then perhaps a long-term strategic reappraisal may be necessary. But for now, it’s crystal clear that European stability and security remains vitally important to the United States, mostly because the European economy figures so highly in U.S. prosperity.

Even if allies like Germany and Italy contributed less than they do to offsetting U.S. basing and training costs, or spent less than they do on their own defense, it’s arguable that NATO would still be a good deal for U.S. taxpayers. The stability and security of Washington’s major trading partners—particularly those that generally play by the same trading rules Americans do and have a similar commitment to transparency and level playing fields—is a necessity for the United States. Americans have been so fortunate and successful in this regard for the last several decades that some evidently forget the lessons learned by their grandparents regarding the flight of capital from uncertainty and the dangers of protective, discriminatory markets to U.S. trade and jobs.

In sum, there are many important, contentious issues confronting U.S. policymakers vis-à-vis NATO today, but whether the United States remains a fully committed part of the alliance is not one of them. This is not seriously up for debate within American society, the West Wing, or the halls of Congress. Hopefully, the October 9 presidential debate will acknowledge this.

 

John R. Deni is a research professor of security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed here are his alone.