Opinion: NATO wise investment for security

Carrie Booth Walling
Walling writes: "The truth is that Article 5 has only been invoked once: in defense of the United States following the terrorist attacks of 9/11."

Almost 70 years ago in Washington, the United States hosted governments from Europe and North America for the signing of the Washington Treaty which gave birth to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With fresh memories of the devastation caused by WWII, NATO’s founding members agreed to share the risks, responsibilities, and benefits of collective defense.

The political and military alliance was designed to protect our democratic values and maintain security in Europe and North America. For 50 years, NATO successfully deterred Soviet military aggression and prevented the Soviet Union from imposing its Communist ideology and military might on Europe. Almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, NATO continues to be a wise investment for U.S. national security.

The centerpiece of NATO is the collective defense promise contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an attack on any NATO member is considered an attack on all, prompting an immediate, robust, collective military response. There has been much debate lately about whether the United States should risk being pulled into an unwanted military confrontation to protect a smaller European member. But the truth is that Article 5 has only been invoked once: in defense of the United States following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all NATO members condemned the attacks and pledged their full political and military support for the United States. Our NATO allies made good on their promise and sent their military forces to fight terrorism alongside us in Afghanistan. Indeed, approximately 1,000 non-American NATO personnel made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, laying down their lives in defense of American freedom and our shared democratic values. Our NATO partners deserve our respect and reciprocity, not disdain.

While the United States shoulders a larger financial burden than most of our allies, our investment is well worth the cost. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has expanded its operations beyond collective defense to include crisis management, conflict prevention, and cooperative security. NATO played a crucial role in preventing a wider Balkans conflict by stopping an ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo that saved thousands of lives. When piracy in the Gulf of Aden threatened ships traveling through one of the busiest merchant routes in the world, NATO successfully deterred and disrupted the pirate attacks and increased security in the region. NATO is part of the Global Coalition to fight ISIS, fights terrorism in the Mediterranean Sea, supports capacity-building with NATO partners, and provides air and sea lift support to peacekeeping missions that promote peace and disrupt conflict in Africa. It is far better to address security threats abroad than here at home—and NATO helps us do that.

Finally, we must not forget that NATO continues to serve its original purpose. The Cold War may be over, but a resurgent and revisionist Russia continues to threaten American and European interests. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea remains a grave challenge to European order and the principle of state sovereignty. Russia flouts the rule of law by bombing hospitals and schools in Syria, attempting to assassinate its enemies on foreign soil, and killing innocent civilians through its reckless use of force, including the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine which killed all aboard: 298 innocent civilians from 17 countries. Russia has violated our own sovereignty by interfering in our democratic elections. Russia does not share our commitment to freedom and routinely violates the human rights of its own population.

In short, the United States is strongest and safest when we stand alongside our allies. Investing in NATO and our collective defense prevents more cost and danger later. In a time of diverse challenges, the United States is right to encourage our allies to spend more on defense, but we must not confuse our friends with our enemies. Historical bonds, shared values, and a common vision bind us to our NATO allies. NATO is a force multiplier for the United States, and our investment in the alliance to date has already secured us a peace dividend. In the aftermath of last week’s NATO summit, the United States must act immediately to reaffirm American support for NATO and our unwavering commitment to our Article 5 responsibilities. It is our duty and in the American interest to do so.

 Carrie Booth Walling is a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project and an associate professor of political science at Albion College.