It's Time NATO Changes to Reflect Modern Realities | Opinion

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said that NATO was good for the United States. The reasons, he said, were because "we face so many challenges" such as the rise of China, Russia's conflict with Ukraine, terrorism and global cyberattacks. Instead of convincing Americans that maintaining NATO in its current form is in our interests, however, he unwittingly made the case for the need to restructure—or retire—NATO.

The secretary general's characterization of the strategic environment in which NATO currently exists and that which existed at its birth could not be more stark. In 1949, the United States was the sole Western superpower because it suffered no territorial destruction as a result of World War II. All the European members of the Atlantic alliance had suffered egregiously from the war and their economies were still in rough shape.

Communism was not just a problem of the Soviet Union, but was gaining power and influence throughout even Western Europe, Asia and Latin America. American leaders who led the country through the Second World War were gravely concerned by the threat they believed communism's expansion would pose for U.S. security.

In a speech that established the interventionist Truman Doctrine, President Harry S. Truman laid out before a joint session of Congress in 1947 the threat to the U.S. if Greece and Turkey fell to communist influence. "The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will," Truman said. "Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East."

Seven years later, Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, established the "domino theory," which postulated that if one or several countries fell to communism, then others would also fall. Today it is clear the theory was an overreaction and ascribed more power to communism than it ever deserved, but so close to the aftermath of the global devastation of World War II, the fear seemed justifiable.

At an April 1954 press conference, the president was asked how important Indochina was to U.S. security (Indochina later split into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). If one country fell to communism, Eisenhower said, "you could have a beginning of a disintegration," like one domino falling into another. "Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship," he continued.

A NATO flag
A NATO flag is pictured next to a statue on June 13, 2021, at Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

Under those conditions, when American families were still feeling the grief caused by the loss of 400,000 U.S. troops to a war, when the USSR had the ability to launch a conventional attack including 50,000 tanks or firing enough nuclear weapons to wipe out America, supporting NATO was a good idea. Today's global conditions are dramatically different.

First and foremost, today's Russia is a shadow of what the USSR and Warsaw Pact could bring to the table in either conventional military might or economic power. Its conventional military is substantially weaker than that of the combined Western European states today. Though Russia could theoretically field a strong enough force to take a small region (like Crimea), they have virtually no capacity to even contemplate a drive to take Western Europe.

Secondly, communism was exposed as a failed system of government in Europe and there is no valid fear of it being spread to democratic states. Russia itself is governed by an authoritarian figure—Vladimir Putin—and has no governing ideology that Moscow could ever export. What sense does it make, therefore, to perpetuate NATO today, when the conditions have dramatically changed, as it has been for the past several decades?

It is not necessarily the case that NATO needs to be mothballed, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the significant changes that have taken place (since at least the USSR's demise 30 years ago) and blindly argue for the perpetuation of the status quo. The Biden administration should conduct a comprehensive and thorough analysis of today's global security environment to ascertain what changes might be appropriate for America's role in NATO.

Key factors must be evaluated, such as the size, capability and operational capacity of the Russian armed forces, the cumulative size and capabilities of our Western European allies and other potentially affected European states. We must then identify what conventional threats Russia could pose to American national security and how best to counter those threats, while looking for ways to maintain nuclear stability between Moscow and Washington.

Following the completion of such an assessment, it may become apparent that real and substantial changes to NATO are required. It may even be that at some future date NATO should either be replaced by a primarily European-led military alliance—or that it should come to an end. What doesn'tmake any sense, however, is that the alliance should persist forever, effectively unchanged, even when the circumstances that necessitated its birth have radically changed.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of "The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America." Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.