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The World

NATO Has Outlived Its Usefulness

In many ways, NATO was wildly successful in its time. But that time is over, and now it should be dismantled.

US President Harry S. Truman signing the North Atlantic Treaty in the Oval Office, surrounded by several foreign dignitaries, on August 24, 1949
US President Harry S. Truman signing the North Atlantic Treaty in the Oval Office, surrounded by several foreign dignitaries, on August 24, 1949.
US National Archives and Records Administration

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In 1949, the United States led the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which united Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom into a defensive security alliance. As Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, pithily put it, the group’s primary goal was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Doing so, NATO advocates hoped, would end the endemic wars that had plagued Western and Central Europe from time immemorial.

But NATO was never just about maintaining a European peace; it was also about US hegemony. As President Harry S. Truman remarked upon the North Atlantic Treaty’s signing, he anticipated that NATO’s “influence will be felt not only in the area it specifically covers but throughout the world.” According to Truman, the alliance was in part designed to demonstrate to “peace-loving peoples everywhere” that the United States was ready and willing to assume the mantle of global leadership. In the president’s words, the treaty’s signing “does not mean a narrowing of the interests of its members.” Rather, it indicated the opposite.

As intended, NATO rapidly became the poster child for the post-World War II US-led international order. It prefigured several other formations—the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Treaty (ANZUS, 1951); the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO, 1954); and the Baghdad Pact (BP, 1955)—that formalized US martial dominance over the “free” and “developing” worlds.1 If the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (1944), International Monetary Fund (1944), and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1948) structured the US-dominated capitalist order, NATO, ANZUS, SEATO, and BP structured the US-dominated security order.

In many ways, NATO was wildly successful. (The same could not be said for SEATO or BP, which dissolved in 1977 and 1979 respectively.) After 1945, no major wars were fought in Western and Central Europe. Despite some close calls in divided Germany, and even though France withdrew from NATO’s military command structure in 1966 (it rejoined in 2009), the alliance helped pacify a region that had been one of the most violent in the world. This was a genuinely epochal achievement whose importance is difficult to overstate.

Yet NATO also had two critical drawbacks. First, its founding prevented the establishment of a global alliance system that included the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. Now, it was unlikely that a Joseph-Stalin-led Soviet Union would have ever agreed to ally with the United States; after 1946, this was basically an impossibility. But if NATO had never been created, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, might have been willing to try to reach some sort of détente with the western powers. Instead, five days after the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955, Khrushchev formally established the Warsaw Pact, which the French newspaper Le Monde rightfully termed “the NATO of the East.” The formation of these two opposing alliances entrenched the Cold War.

Second, the decision to keep NATO operating after the Cold War ensured that it functioned as support for the US hegemon. During the Cold War, as NATO’s website proudly affirms, the organization’s “forces were not involved in a single military engagement.” Instead, to borrow the historian Walter LaFeber’s phrasing, NATO was mainly used “as a means to deal with more immediate problems [than a Soviet invasion]—the integration of the Federal Republic of Germany into the West, the easing of Franco-German hatreds, the anchoring of a Great Britain tossed between continental and Atlantic-Commonwealth interests,” and other intra-North Atlantic concerns. It was primarily a tool of integration.

But once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO rapidly became an arm of the US Empire. Or as NATO’s website benignly puts it, with “changing conditions came new responsibilities. From being an exclusively defensive alliance for nearly half a century, NATO began to assume an increasingly proactive role within the international community.” It participated in the Gulf War; the conflicts that rent the former Yugoslavia; the War on Terror; the Afghanistan War; and the Iraq War, to name only a few of its contributions. Indeed, by early 2021, NATO was partaking in operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Africa, and elsewhere.

The alliance has also grown to thirty members, and now includes many nations that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence, like Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Unsurprisingly, the organization’s wanton expansion into Eastern Europe has provoked Russia—imagine how US decision-makers would have felt had Canada or Mexico joined the Warsaw Pact—and NATO has been a useful foil for Russian President Vladimir Putin, helping him justify his revanchist foreign policy.

As this all suggests, there are significant drawbacks to NATO’s continuing existence. For this reason, one of the major goals of the anti-imperialist left should be to dismantle NATO. Though one could have reasonably argued in 1949 that NATO was needed to pacify the North Atlantic and deter Stalin, there is no longer any reason for the United States to remain primus inter pares in Europe, spending more than any other country on NATO and deploying thousands of troops to the continent. Europe is safe, rich, and better able than the United States to determine what its security needs are.

Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, the Biden Administration is dedicated to keeping NATO humming along. As Joe Biden himself said at a recent press conference held at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the United States is dedicated to keeping the “sacred commitment” it made to defend its NATO allies into the foreseeable future.

But NATO is not a “good” alliance. It is a function of North Atlantic dominance that protects and enables an unequal world order that, for humanity’s sake, can no longer be allowed to continue.

The question for the anti-imperialist left is how to persuade the American people and the Washington foreign policy establishment that dismantling NATO is the correct path forward.

1: The United States was instrumental in organizing the Baghdad Pact and eventually joined its military council, but never became a full member.