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Center for American Progress

In Defense of NATO: Why the Trans-Atlantic Alliance Matters
Article • Last updated on Mar 26, 2024

In Defense of NATO: Why the Trans-Atlantic Alliance Matters

As NATO approaches its 75th anniversary, the Center for American Progress reflects on the enormity of its successes and the challenges the alliance faces in the years ahead.

The national flags of NATO member countries are seen in Brussels, Belgium, on February 16, 2024. (Getty/Dursun Aydemir)

This article contains an update.

As its 75th anniversary approaches, NATO stands as a bulwark of global peace and security. The United States must continue to support Ukraine and to strengthen NATO, not out of charity or moral obligation, but because it makes Americans safer at home. NATO is an effective deterrent, a prudent investment, and an engine of post-war peace without equal. These arguments might not be novel, but their importance cannot be overstated. Amid calls from a small but vocal minority for U.S. disengagement, a counternarrative emerges: NATO matters profoundly, and it merits the United States’ full support.

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NATO is a proven deterrent

At its core, NATO represents a remarkable triumph of mutual security. Established by the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, NATO began with 12 members. The alliance has proved so effective that its membership recently swelled to 32 with the additions of Finland and Sweden. The principle of collective defense serves as the cornerstone of an alliance whose aim was to create a durable security pact in the heart of Europe. Article 5 of the treaty stipulates that an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all, thereby deterring potential aggressors––whether the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, or any other external aggressor. Supporting NATO reduces the risk of a costly, broader war that would involve the United States.

Yet a small but vocal minority views the alliance as a relic of the past, an albatross, or a distraction––all this in a world where imperial ambition has once again threatened international peace and security. The notion of NATO as some hapless charity that depletes American resources is a damaging myth. NATO has decisively stepped up its defense posture, marking a significant ramp-up in spending and military readiness since the start of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Alliance members have increased NATO’s military budget by 12 percent for 2024, totaling $2.03 billion. NATO allies have escalated their manufacturing output, producing more battlefield tanks, artillery, and drones to backfill their arsenals. In Germany, weapons manufacturer Rheinmetall has announced a steep rise in production, aiming to churn out up to 500,000 shells this year alone, marking a sevenfold increase in levels since before the 2022 invasion. Last month, Rheinmetall announced plans to open an artillery factory in Ukraine. European Union and NATO weapons procurements are overwhelmingly destined for Ukraine, and these contributions are decisive in the absence of U.S. security assistance. NATO is also strategically positioning more troops along Russia’s border, and member states are investing billions of dollars to support Ukraine’s defense capabilities, directly challenging Russian aggression.

Beyond addressing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this investment also supports the overall goal of deterrence. Some NATO member states warn that if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign in Ukraine were to succeed, it would likely embolden him to directly challenge NATO’s resolve by attacking an alliance member within the next three to five years. Russia’s nuclear capability alone compels NATO to maintain a credible deterrence posture, ensuring that the balance of power remain stable and the cost of aggression be prohibitively high.

Despite chatter on the political fringes claiming that NATO provoked Russia by expanding eastward, the simple fact remains: NATO is a voluntary organization. Countries actively seek to join this defensive alliance, and every accession is by unanimous consent. The alliance does not expand out as much as it welcomes in––a clear distinction.

European NATO allies rise to the challenge

NATO has repeatedly demonstrated its strategic importance to Euro-Atlantic security and, by extension, to American security interests. The significant increase in defense spending by European NATO allies stands as a powerful testament to the alliance’s collective defense commitments. Eighteen of NATO’s 32 member nations are now expected to meet the 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) defense threshold agreed to by NATO member states.* This achievement, having gained pace under the Biden administration—10 members achieved the spending target under the Trump administration—has yielded formidable results: Germany has declared a Zeitenwende, or new era in its foreign policy, and Poland has reached nearly 4 percent of GDP in defense spending––the highest in the alliance.

Financially, European institutions and member states have taken a lead role in supporting Ukraine. They have collectively surpassed the United States in total contributions, committing more than $101 billion in aid. This aid encompasses financial, humanitarian, and military support, including the provision of advanced weaponry and defense systems. The Baltic republics, for example, with a collective population no larger than the state of Missouri, have each contributed between 1.5 percent and 1.8 percent of their entire national GDP to Ukraine––a remarkable display of solidarity that, in relative terms, dwarfs U.S. contributions. This year, in a concrete move to strengthen collective defense capabilities, NATO has facilitated the bulk purchase of 220,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition––a critical supply for Ukraine’s defense efforts.

Beyond these data points, it is important to remember the profound dedication and sacrifice that NATO partners and allies have shown. They mobilized in support of the United States following the 9/11 attacks, invoking the alliance’s Article 5 for the first and only time, and fought and died alongside American troops in Afghanistan. More than 1,000 troops from non-U.S. NATO members made the ultimate sacrifice there. Luis Moreno, former senior U.S. diplomat in Madrid, shared his experiences of visiting the families of Spanish soldiers who had fallen in Afghanistan “to offer them my country’s condolences and our thanks.” This shared history of sacrifice underscores the deep bonds that define the alliance.

NATO is an engine of post-war peace

NATO has helped to avert the enormous costs—both human and economic—of a large-scale war by fostering a climate of security and predictability. Indeed, Europe has enjoyed an era of peace and stability unprecedented in its history in the decades following World War II. Much of this success owes to NATO’s effective strategy of collective defense, which deters potential aggressors and fosters cooperation among nations that once viewed each other with suspicion and hostility.

The illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine serves as a stark reminder that the threat of large-scale aggression in Europe still exists, and that the principles of collective defense are as crucial now as they have ever been—a point German Chancellor Olaf Scholz drove home at the Munich Security Conference last year, where he asserted with uncharacteristic emphasis that the alliance would defend all of its territory “without any ifs or buts.”

Yet NATO’s role extends beyond the mere deterrence of military threats; it actively promotes dialogue and collaboration, thereby knitting together a community of nations committed to democratic values. This foundational commitment to democracy, albeit imperfect, will ultimately pave the way for a more secure and peaceful future. In the words of Ben Tallis, senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, NATO works “to make the world safe for democracies.”

Scholars have long emphasized the connection between democracy, international institutions, and a durable peace; NATO brings together all three. Here, security cooperation acts as a force multiplier. In a world increasingly defined by great power whims, peace requires strong and resilient alliances. NATO meets this moment. Moreover, the United States benefits more from participation in international security arrangements than from isolation. The speculative discussions on a U.S. withdrawal from the alliance illustrate this point vividly. European capitals are today crafting contingency plans should the United States no longer be a reliable partner. This undermines American security precisely when Washington needs to forge partnerships around the world for its strategic competition with China.

There are costs to leaving

The potential fragmentation of NATO or an official U.S. withdrawal might require significant military deployments later on should Russia expand its war of aggression beyond Ukraine. Here, the costs associated with reengagement would likely surpass current investments in the alliance, highlighting NATO’s crucial role in the prosperity and security of its member states. At $625.6 million, the U.S. contribution to NATO’s common defense fund for fiscal year 2025 represents just 0.074 percent of the United States’ federal defense budget. Even when accounting for our forward troop deployments in Europe through the European Deterrence Initiative, which boosts allies’ military readiness, U.S. expenditure amounts to just $35 billion over the past decade––with an FY 2025 request of $2.91 billion. These figures, while proportionally modest, are vital to deterrence. Yet assessing the value of membership should go beyond mere dollar metrics. There are existential risks to a U.S. withdrawal.

Consider nuclear weapons: A reduced American presence in NATO might lead U.S. allies to contemplate developing their own nuclear capabilities, a scenario that Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski recently suggested is plausible. Absent American security guarantees, the United States could unintentionally trigger a nuclear arms race––an outcome that would be profoundly destabilizing.

This does not have to be the future; an October 2023 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights strong U.S. public support for NATO, with approximately 8 in 10 Americans advocating for the United States to either maintain or increase its commitment to the alliance, a sentiment that aligns with consistently high support levels over recent years. NATO is popular because it works.

Recommendations

As NATO nears its 75th anniversary summit in Washington this July, the alliance stands united in the face of Russian aggression.However, there are, areas where the United States can strengthen its cooperation with NATO allies and partners. First and foremost, this means passing the urgent security supplemental for Ukraine. NATO has embraced Ukraine as a future member and has determined that it now stands closer to the alliance than ever before. Supporting Ukraine now is a critical investment by the alliance to stop Russian aggression.

The United States should also leverage the alliance’s formidable capabilities to anticipate and prepare for new conflict horizons. Here are three areas where Washington can intensify engagement:

  • Strengthen NATO’s efforts to confront authoritarianism at home and abroad. The alliance should invest in mechanisms that enhance its capacity to identify, monitor, and counteract internal and external threats to democracy:
  • Establish a Center for Democratic Resilience. The United States should advocate for establishing a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO, as proposed by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2019. The center would help modernize the alliance and carry a mandate to enhance NATO’s capacity to anticipate, prepare for, and ultimately respond to external and internal threats to democracy.
  • Maintain alliance cohesion. In preparation for the July summit, the United States should address and mitigate internal political disputes within NATO to help maintain alliance cohesion. The U.S. government should advocate for creating an effective internal conflict resolution mechanism within NATO—a need most recently illustrated by Turkish and Hungarian efforts to delay Swedish accession.
  • Enhance defense against asymmetric threats. NATO’s strategy should prioritize bolstering its defenses against asymmetric threats, which include cyberattacks, misinformation campaigns, and other nontraditional forms of warfare. Finland, having recently joined NATO, sets a commendable example with its Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Inaugurated in 2017, the center aims to mitigate vulnerabilities and strengthen societal resilience to disinformation campaigns. This can be achieved through:
    • Countering information warfare. Developing robust counter-information warfare capabilities that focus on detecting, deterring, and debunking disinformation campaigns that aim to undermine democratic institutions and public trust.
    • Innovating in asymmetric warfare. Encouraging innovation in technologies and strategies—such as using AI-driven threat analysis—that address asymmetric threats.
  • Strengthen partnerships beyond Europe. The United States should work with NATO allies to expand partnerships that enhance interoperability and deter authoritarian aggression globally. In the Pacific, this means building on existing security arrangements with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand––countries that share common democratic values with the alliance. A more outward-looking NATO would help dispel the harmful notion that focusing resources on one part of the world must inevitably detract from another. The sale of North Korean artillery to Russia, China’s rising assertiveness over Taiwan, and the escalating risk of climate-induced crises all underscore the urgency for improved interoperability with NATO’s Pacific partners. By enhancing joint military readiness and coordinated disaster responses, NATO can demonstrate its commitment to security on a truly global scale.

Conclusion

In an era marked by uncertainty and aggression, the rationale for maintaining a robust and united NATO is clearer than ever. First, the alliance operates effectively as a tool of autocratic deterrence; second, collective security is cost-effective; and third, it fosters the conditions for a stable peace. Undermining or exiting the alliance overlooks these advantages. It also risks security and democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, and it brings the United States closer to the brink of a truly catastrophic war.

*Correction, March 26, 2024: This article has been updated to clarify that the 2 percent GDP threshold is an agreement among NATO member states.

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Author

Robert Benson

Senior Policy Analyst

Department

National Security and International Policy

Advancing progressive national security policies that are grounded in respect for democratic values: accountability, rule of law, and human rights.

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