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NATO: Foreign Entanglement or Effective Alliance? Berny Belvedere and Shikha Dalmia Debate

NATO: Foreign Entanglement or Effective Alliance? Berny Belvedere and Shikha Dalmia Debate

The UnPopulist editors assess whether this Cold War alliance is still helping buttress liberal democracy

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It’s official: NATO has officially grown yet again. The international alliance now boasts 32 member states following the most recent additions of Finland and, as of this week, Sweden. But what are these Nordic neighbors getting into?

Today I have the pleasure of bringing you a conversation between our Editor in Chief Shikha Dalmia and Senior Editor Berny Belvedere. While they have different positions on the benefits of NATO, this episode is less of a heated debate and more an enlivening conversation discussing the merits and drawbacks of the U.S. continuing its participation in the Cold War era alliance. With historical grounding and moral reasoning, they tease out nuanced and complex reasons for both positions, often with one another’s help. I came out of the discussion with a new appreciation for both sides, and I think you’ll find it equally fascinating. Enjoy.

—Landry Ayres, Senior Producer

A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been edited for flow and clarity.

Berny: Hey, Shikha, great to be with you.

Shikha: Hi, Berny. Hi, Landry.

Landry: Hey y’all, how’s it going?

Shikha: Thank you for doing this. Landry is in Finland, a country that just recently became a member of NATO, what we are going to discuss today.

Landry: Yes, I am. I’ve been living in Finland for the past few years. I actually moved here just two or three months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Between that and joining NATO, it's been tumultuous time because you've seen the evolution of people's perceptions of NATO change so rapidly and reevaluate the need for it. There used to be a lot of people who would say “to hell with NATO” completely. Now, suddenly, there is a pretty substantial base of support for it. It’s been an interesting time.

Berny: Can we expect you to slant the conversation in a pro-NATO direction, then? I had to ask.

Landry: I think we'll get into the nuances as you two discuss this. If there was a country to join NATO, I think Finland is probably the one that makes the most sense, considering how much we spend on our military compared to most other European nations.

Shikha: I noticed that dig to Sweden that you just took. Finland is more worthy than Sweden.

Berny: Shots fired.

Shikha: Did I just hear you say that? Let me just point out two things here. (a) I think Landry is a little bit more on my side, (b) I think given what you have just described about the evolving views of Finnish people on the question of NATO, it just shows whatever Putin's motive in attacking Ukraine, it has backfired because it has caused an expansion of NATO rather than contraction of NATO.

Berny: Great point.

Landry: I don't think I would be doing my job and trying to assimilate into Finnish culture if I didn't take a dig at Sweden. It's just par for the course at this point. I'm really interested and excited to get into both of your opinions on both options here about whether to NATO or NATOn't.

Berny: Oh wow. We just lost every listener. 

Landry: I’m proud of that one. That was Landry's last time ever on the podcast.

Landry: Ok, let’s get started.

Berny: First, some background on what NATO is, and then I'll give my argument for why we should continue to see it as a truly indispensable institution. NATO, which stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a 75-year-old— that's three-quarters of a century—transnational alliance made up of 31, mostly European, member states whose overarching rationale for much of its history was to serve as a counter measure to the Soviet Union.

It initially had 12 members, but it's grown nearly three times in size since its formation in 1949. Finland joined last year and Sweden is expected to become its 32nd member in short order. I think it's inarguable that historically and presently its most significant member is the United States. Another thing worth noting here at the outset is that no member state has ever left the alliance. I think the component to NATO that draws the most attention is Article 5 of the treaty, which basically holds that NATO member states will consider an attack against any one of them to constitute an attack against them all. Now, this has only been invoked once, in response to 9/11, but it's the part of the treaty, part of the organization, that gets the most coverage.

NATO is very much a product of Cold War concerns, but over time, when the Berlin Wall fell, and the Warsaw Pact disintegrated, and the Soviet Union dissolved, and former Soviet satellite states turned democratic, rather than NATO calling it curtains, in a manner of speaking, it reconstituted itself in light of the Cold War's end. That is, it pivoted away from mainly being a U.S.-led European bulwark against Soviet belligerence and reconfigured itself as a peacetime trans-Atlantic institution whose ongoing existence was to help ensure that the shared values of its member states would be preserved and even expanded across the continent and beyond.

NATO is conceived of as a military alliance, as a collective security system. It's that, but it's also something else, something more. That something else or something more is ultimately what enabled it to persist even after the Soviet Union's collapse. It's also what makes it, in my mind, such an indispensable institution. I want to get into my case for the importance of NATO moving forward. Here's that “something else” that I referred to.

NATO was and is a community of values. That's the layer, I think, that makes all the difference. Though it's correct to say that the member states have never had identical government systems, nor have they always embodied those values to the same degree and with the same vigor, but a values framework of liberal democracy and rule of law has underpinned the project from the start. That's, I think, the difference maker. That's in my view what enabled NATO to seamlessly persist beyond the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The values NATO stands for didn't instantaneously become unimportant the moment the Berlin Wall fell. On the contrary, to have dissolved NATO at such a time might have been utterly disastrous as some of these Warsaw Pact nations were embracing democracy and inquiring about joining NATO. Think about how amazing it is that former Warsaw Pact nations like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were able to be brought into the fold into a pro-democracy European military alliance only a decade after the Berlin Wall fell. That kind of integration is not possible if NATO is out of the picture.

"The moral hazard the U.S. has created by deciding to be the world superpower and be the big guy in NATO ... has not served NATO itself well or the European countries themselves and their defenses well. ... [Also], even a liberal country, when it gets too powerful, [it] becomes a threat to world security." — Shikha Dalmia

In addition to NATO's ongoing importance in Europe's ability to secure a continent broadly, if imperfectly, committed to a shared set of values, it's also important for another reason. It's important as a collective security apparatus. As we saw in 2014 and in 2022 with Russia's revanchist encroachment into a sovereign European country coming just a couple decades after the Soviet project ended, and as the continent saw a century ago with the rise of the German threat on two separate occasions in very short order, just because a threat to collective security is defeated doesn't mean it goes away forever.

NATO's ongoing existence then is important not just because it's a vehicle for consolidating and solidifying liberal democratic norms in Europe and beyond, but because it's also a collective security measure that remains in place to counteract not just current authoritarian threats to European peace, but future ones too.

Shikha: There's a lot to chew on over there in what you just said. I take your point about NATO reinventing itself after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union from a defensive alliance or security alliance to one where all its members share certain broad liberal democratic values. In fact, one of the criteria for entering the NATO alliance, becoming a member of the NATO alliance, is embracing some kind of liberal democracy. If you look at the formal criteria, it includes elections, it includes protection of minority rights, and it includes civilian control of the military. It gives aspiring members something to shoot for and become more liberal democratic. I take all that. But I am still on balance somewhat opposed to NATO because I think precisely from the standpoint of defending liberal values, an alliance that was primarily conceived as a military alliance and a security alliance prevents us from doing that effectively.

Now, I've become less opposed to NATO over the years. I was, to just rewind a little bit to when I started off as an editorial writer at The Detroit News back in 1995, the Dayton Accords had just been signed and the former Yugoslavia had collapsed. All the countries that constituted Yugoslavia were fighting with each other. Dayton Accords were forged and Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia formed an alliance. Then, shortly after that, the Serbian side started attacking Croatia and Bosnia under Slobodan Milosevic and threatened their existence.

At that point, the U.S. decided to join the NATO forces in bombing Serbia and defending Kosovo. I wrote a lot of columns at that time opposing U.S. involvement. Now when I look back, I just didn't think it was going to work out well. It was going to involve the U.S. in a far-off war where there wasn't any real vital national interest at stake; U.S. blood and treasure were going to be used up for something that didn't quite affect us. I thought it was European responsibility and I didn't want the U.S. to get involved and I didn't think it would succeed.

I was actually wrong about that because I think, actually, it did succeed, and we have had peace in the Balkans since then. Still, on balance, I do think NATO is probably not conducive to the spread of liberal democratic values. Let me back up again a little bit and say what I think are really bad arguments against NATO. One of the arguments that has resurfaced in the light of Russia's attack on Ukraine is that NATO is a provocative alliance. It has provoked Russia and made it feel it faces an existential threat from Western powers, Western Europe and the United States. I actually don't believe that. I don't think Putin attacked Ukraine because he was threatened by NATO.

Yes, I know in 2008, Bush said something at the Bucharest summit about Ukraine. The triggering event for Putin when he annexed Crimea was not really any NATO aspirations of Ukraine, but there was a revolution in Ukraine, the Orange Revolution, where Yanukovych, wanted to be closer to Russia; was considered something of a Russian puppet when the Ukrainian people wanted to be part of NATO and Europe. Putin attacked Crimea in early 2014 and took a bite of it. That was clearly part of his, what you said, revanchist, expansionist aspiration. I don't think the Ukrainian aggression was caused by NATO expansion. In fact, I think the U.S. should have been doing what it can for Ukraine, regardless of whether it was part of the NATO alliance. In my view, it might have done more for Ukraine if it were not part of NATO. NATO has become such a lightning rod and a hot-button issue on the right that every president now who acts has to contend with this argument about NATO.

I think if the U.S. had not been part of NATO, it would have been perhaps able to do more for Ukraine because so much of its defense funding wouldn't be going to shore up this alliance with NATO. It would have had more flexibility, both political and financial, to send more resources to Ukraine.

I'm not sure on balance Ukraine is being helped by the United States' involvement in NATO. The argument against NATO that I do take seriously is the George Washington entanglements argument. George Washington didn't want the U.S. to have permanent allies and permanent enemies. There was a very good reason for that. He did feel that countries change, and you can see that now. This goes to something I would push back against, Berny, in what you said. Europe today is very different from the Europe at the end of World War II.

At the end of World War II, Europe was decimated, it was poor. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was bigger, had more resources. At that point, the U.S. defending and picking up part of the tab for this alliance and giving Europe a security umbrella made a lot of sense. Now, collective GDP of Europe is something 11 times that of Russia. It has four times as many people and it spends a great deal more on its military, even though it doesn't spend enough than Russia does.

At this point, the U.S. really does subsidize Europe. U.S. picks up two-thirds of the tab of European countries and European countries pick up one-third of the tab, even though their GDPs are roughly equal. At this point, I think that entanglement argument that Washington articulated is preventing us from forming new alliances and coming to the defense of countries that really do want liberal democracy and would want to defend liberal democracy.

I don't think United States did enough to help Hong Kong, for instance, against China. Partly because it's bogged down in these old Cold War alliances and it can't really pivot and be flexible as fast as it can.

Berny: I think you made an excellent distinction between the purely realist perspective, which blames Russia's actions on NATO's expansion—You distinguish that from a very reasonable concern with an over-interventionist posture that in the end would hamstring us and keep us from being able to be as flexible as possible in responding to situations that come up in the world on a case-by-case basis. That's well done.

I do want to stress, I want to emphasize this, that those two positions, the [John] Mearsheimer realist perspective and the articulation of a modern Washingtonian non-entanglement posture, those are importantly different. We do need to rule out the manifestly silly idea that NATO's enlargement humiliated Russia and was the driver of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It's important for me to emphasize that because it actually shows why NATO is important.

Far from humiliating Russia, the U.S. tried time and again across multiple different presidencies to include Russia, to consult it, to cooperate with it, and to involve it in European collective security and development, but Russia did not want to play ball. It's important to specify why. It didn't want to play ball because Putin was the one carrying the ball. He had a historical vision of a powerful Russian state whose borders and influence extended beyond its current configuration. What do you do when a powerful nation-state is ruled and led by someone like that? You do the best you can.

Again, the fact that we signaled an openness to Georgia and Ukraine one day joining NATO was a statement that we could take back and craft more carefully, but it cannot be seen as the driver or even a major catalyst of Russia's invasion. Putin's demented historical vision was responsible there. Fully on board, fully agree with you there. I do have a few issues, though, with using Washington's-

Shikha: Let me just add to your point there, Berny, which was that—I mentioned the Kosovo initiative that the U.S. participated in. Russia at that time was on the side of Serbia and the U.S. was on the side of Kosovo. The fact that the U.S. intervened on Kosovo's behalf, at that time Russia was irritated about that. Clinton in 1997 went out of his way to reach out to Russia to placate it and tell it—he wanted to consult Russia in the future. They actually founded something called the NATO-Russia Founding Pact where NATO and Russia started deliberating with each other about their common concerns.

"NATO's ongoing existence ... is important not just because it's a vehicle for consolidating and solidifying liberal democratic norms in Europe and beyond, but because it's also a collective security measure that remains in place to counteract not just current authoritarian threats to European peace, but future ones too." — Berny Belvedere

According to, what was his name, George Robertson, who was the secretary general of NATO at that time, Putin reached out to him and said that he did not see NATO as necessarily a threatening alliance and wanted to be part of NATO. Quite far from NATO being threatening to Russia, at one point at least, Putin was favorably inclined towards NATO and didn't quite take the view that he does now. I think his change of mind has got something to do with he's gotten older, he's in some kind of echo chamber of his own making now. Some kind of revanchist sentiment and mentality he thinks it’s best to keep himself in power in Russia. I think that's what's changed on his side. It's not NATO that has changed, it's really Putin who has changed.

Berny: Excellent point. I do want to articulate the couple of issues that I have with using Washington's farewell address to suggest NATO is a problem today. Washington's stress on non-entanglement is excellent advice when it comes to historical episodes like the tightly wound alliance system that helped bring about World War I. If that's the historical episode that's in view, Washington's advice would be spot on. Here you had a chaotic mess of alliances all over the place, including people like Wilhelm granting Austria-Hungary a “blank check” that they would support their actions no matter what. That's just a recipe for disaster. Prudence would dictate that we not enter into alliances that could lead to a situation that is as explosive as the Great War was.

I think maybe the ideal Washingtonian agreement or alliance was the non-aggression pact that the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to in order to fight Hitler. That one had all the marks of what Washington sort of constitutionally and temperamentally would have been interested in. That one was tenuous, it was targeted, and it didn't commit either party to anything beyond the successful carrying out of that narrow goal. Let me give a reason or two as to why I nevertheless have an issue with using Washington's non-entanglement argument against NATO today.

In 1796, just for a little bit of historical perspective, the U.S. had 16 states, rather than the 50 we have today. The country had 4 million inhabitants, roughly the same amount of people as Los Angeles does today. The U.S. wasn't yet even a party system. In fact, Washington spent the other half of that address warning against the formation of political parties in his address. How quaint is that? The idea that, oh, please don't assemble into political parties. We're neck-deep in it now. Our world today is so different from what he even had in his context.

My point is the U.S. was a fragile, fledgling democratic project. In that context and in the context of Britain and France warring in the Old World with folks like Hamilton siding with Britain and Jefferson siding with France, it made sense for Washington to preach about the importance of the U.S. not being inflexibly committed to a single nation over against the other.

Here's an interesting point I'd make. Just like we have a mechanism today to adjust for aspects of the Constitution—which again was delivered to us just like Washington's address was in his day. Just like we have a mechanism there that if we think something needs updating, we can do that, if we could do the same for Washington's farewell address and contextualize it today, I think even he would note that NATO is a different proposition altogether. One that doesn't necessarily conflict with the U.S.'s interests in its more mature phase.

That is, he might have remained committed to the view that, in its earliest days, the U.S. did well not to enter into a permanent alliance. Maybe he wouldn't have changed that perspective, but I think he would have recognized, and other Founders would have as well, that the special relationship, for example, that we had with England was good. That's got a permanent flavor to it. Or maybe that stewarding the NATO mega alliance in the Cold War era and beyond would be good. Here's why: Because this is an alliance tailor-made to uphold the very American ideals that prop up our own liberal democracy. Also because it honors Washington's exhortation to strive to be on good terms with all nations.

Since the Cold War's end, the U.S. and NATO nations did everything they could to foster alignment with Russia. The fact that they weren't able to is not a mark against NATO, but a reminder that there are some figures who, unfortunately, sit atop empires and world history that are just too difficult to bring into a peaceful alliance, collective security arrangement. Putin proved to be just such a figure.

Shikha: One thing is clear; Washington was no isolationist. I have his farewell address here in front of me, and he goes out of his way, as you noted, to talk about how the U.S., should trade with other countries and deal with other countries. He did think that the U.S. was different from Europe in that it had oceans on two sides and friendly countries. Mexico, not always friendly, but at least one friendly neighbor on the north. Europe was a very different animal at that time. Various European countries, they were still vying with each other to be great imperial power. His address was in 1796, and then you had the rise of Napoleon in France doing exactly the kind of thing like promoting liberal democracy or some form of egalitarian liberalism at the point of a gun. Exactly the kind of thing Washington didn't want the United States to do.

Not just that, European countries were constantly at each other's throats and trying to get the slightest advantage. Different alliances were forming all the time. One minute Russia and Germany were together against France, and then France was aligned with Russia to go after another country. There was this constant internecine intrigue, and Washington didn't want to have any part of that. He wanted the United States to stay at arm's-length and enjoy the peace that the two big oceans gave it.

If you look at his address, he says very clearly that he wanted the United States to maintain a very agnostic, dispassionate posture towards Europe and European countries. He did not want the United States to play favorites with any country. He wanted the U.S. to have equitable relationship based on its interests and priorities with every country. Alliances prevent that from happening because they suck you into a certain framework. He’s very, very clear that if you have an alliance, you are just much more inclined to see the country with whom you have an alliance as a friend, even as their political reality changes.

Even when they don't stay as good as they originally were, there is just something that binds you. He didn't want the U.S. to get involved in those kinds of situations where a good country turns bad and a bad country turns good, but by golly, you've just decided to take sides and you're going to stay loyal to your ally, and your friend. He didn't want that. He wanted the U.S. to maintain its dispassionate, its neutral, somewhat above-board stance at all times. But there is nothing he said that would have prevented the U.S. from actually rushing to Ukraine's defense.

I actually have a line from him, after he warns about U.S. getting too entangled in the affairs of Europe and their internal fighting, he says, "If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance. When belligerent nations under the impossibility of making acquisition upon us will not lightly hazard giving us provocation. When we may choose peace or war as our interest guided by justice shall counsel." Guided by justice shall counsel.

If Ukraine is not a just cause, then I don't know what is. That's why I push back against that argument against NATO, but I think you are underselling how averse he was to any permanent alliance with outside nations.

Berny: I think the point is well taken that even if NATO wasn't a thing, not only could we be offering the same amount of help to Ukraine that we are today, but there's an argument that we could be doing more for Ukraine apart from an alliance that takes our resources and focus and says that anything outside of this is just something that we may not have enough left over to help. I'm with you there. I think there isn't just one inference to draw from that. Where I would take that is I would notice the interesting fact that the two places where Putin made incursions happened to be non-NATO member states. Had Ukraine been in NATO, arguably, Putin wouldn't have annexed Crimea and then invaded Ukraine and waged war against them as a whole. I've played up the values layer to NATO. I've given that as my main reason for wanting NATO to continue and for us seeing it as important, but now let me bring in the realist layer and how that interacts with the liberal one.

I guess just to provide a little bit of background for people … historically, realist views within international relations attribute the actions of nations as being motivated by their interests. And the liberal position, by contrast, is a values-based one. It favors cooperation and collective commitments. You have the values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Those are worth preserving and promoting even at great cost according to the liberal theory of international relations.

"George Washington didn't want the U.S. to have permanent allies and permanent enemies. There was a very good reason for that. ... [Permanent entanglements] prevent us from forming new alliances and coming to the defense of countries that really do want liberal democracy and would want to defend liberal democracy." — Shikha Dalmia

The realist layer to NATO is in the transatlantic bargain that the U.S. and various European nations make with each other. Most European nations are unwilling to devote resources to military buildup and to military development, but the U.S., as a world power and indeed as the world power, has an interest in military dominance. This bargain is therefore perfect for both sides.

Europe being more vulnerable to threats because it's contiguous with all the threats that we identified today like internal ones, as Germany was in the past, for example, or external ones like the Soviet Union, Russia today. Europe has an interest in the military backing of a world power that shares the values that underpin its own social configuration. There are interests that interact with the values-based analysis that I've given.

If Ukraine had been in NATO, arguably, Putin would not have been brazen enough to mess with Ukraine and thereby incur triggering Article 5. That to me is a reason why we should bring Ukraine into NATO given the positive track record since the implementation of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, rather than seeing NATO as the thing to remove in this analysis.

Shikha: A couple of points. First of all, you are, in my view, not fully taking into account the moral hazard we have created by declaring ourselves the world's largest military power and underwriting some of the military expenditure of European countries. It's not a fact of nature that Europe should and has to under spend on its military. I hate to bring in Trump, and Trump wasn't the first one to make this point …The fact that the U.S. was underwriting two-thirds of the cost of NATO meant that European countries were only putting a third of their contribution towards NATO when they could really afford to do a whole lot more. Many of them are not even meeting their NATO obligations and putting 2% of their GDP in military spending as is required under NATO.

The moral hazard the U.S. has created by deciding to be the world superpower and be the big guy in NATO, I think, has not served NATO itself well or the European countries themselves and their defenses well. When Russia attacked Ukraine, they had to count on the U.S. to come to its defense. They couldn't just get together and rally themselves and put up the resources that were needed to defend Ukraine. The other part that you are missing here, Berny, is that the politics of this get extremely complicated. If you have a very large alliance, it gets very hard to have a common understanding of what that alliance is supposed to do, when it is supposed to step in. Every country is going to look at it from its own interest first. At least as an element of that, that every country has its own domestic politics. The more countries you have, there are more domestic politics to contend with.

If you can't get them all together, it becomes very hard to then act. Whereas if Europe could act outside of NATO without having to count on the United States, I think Russia may have been more averse to actually annexing Ukraine because it would've had to contend with a very nimble and a very strong European entity that didn't want him intruding in Ukraine and threatening their security. To me, on balance, NATO has become an impediment to this spread of liberal democracy.

The other problem with what you are saying about U.S. being the one that's going to spread liberalism because it's the big superpower of the world, is that this is where I would bring in the realist school of thought a little bit. Which is that even a liberal country, when it gets too powerful, becomes a threat to world security. I think that came out in Iraq. It has the corruptibility of power. Liberal democracies are somewhat immune from them because they have a domestic check, but they are not completely immune from them. Liberal democracies that are superpowers act just because they are powerful just like any other country. That's where the realist school of thought, I think, has some truth to it.

The U.S. fought the Iraq war purely on a whim, in my view. It was an optional war. It needn't have gone there, but it got too taken up with its own superiority and the evil of all these other regimes in the Middle East, and it acted and it attacked just because it could. Liberalism itself is a little bit of a danger than when you have one country dominating the liberal order. It can destabilize the world rather than actually bring stability to the world.

Berny: I agree. I just want to make clear that when you bring up the problem of European nations not doing their part or not meeting their financial requirements, that's not exclusively at Trumpian concern. Now, he's perhaps voiced it more crudely and combined it with an extra eagerness to maybe see the rolling back of the institutions, NATO included, but the complaint that European nations haven't been doing their part of the agreement has pretty much been a fixture of this alliance since the beginning.

That's a valid critique. The Europeans, for the longest time, have stressed that building up conventional arms and their force powers is not as important to them as it is to the United States and that the very alliance disincentivizes them from meeting those benchmarks. It's an echo of part of the critique that you're giving, and I understand it. I just wanted to make clear this isn't a Trumpian concern—

Shikha: Right.

Berny: This is a longstanding issue with the alliance as a whole.

Shikha: Don't you think, Berny, that it's in the nature of alliances that that would be the case? That's the critique of NATO and alliances, especially when there is one big power that is keeping this alliance together like the United States is. That it creates a moral hazard whereby it will take on the major role, both in terms of providing ammunition and security and underwriting this alliance and creating a moral hazard for the others so that they don't do enough. Would you not say that is a problem with alliances in general?

Berny: I would. I think that is a shortcoming of something like NATO or of a global power structured world where you have a couple of huge and imposing geopolitical beasts. That's a problem in and of itself. I think I would prefer, ideally, a more decentralized and a more mutually resilient approach to the alliance where the Europeans are meeting their benchmarks, rather than the U.S. taking on the overwhelming security posture of the entire alliance. I would prefer that.

That's not the reality that we're in. The reality that we're in asks whether to have the alliance as it is right now or to not have it at all. It would be great if we could get the European states to more closely align with our vision for how NATO should work exactly, I just prefer it to not having NATO at all.

Shikha: I think you and I have hit upon an area where, I guess, we are in some fundamental disagreement. I just think it's in the nature of permanent alliances to succumb to all kinds of these internal pathologies, the moral hazard problem; the one country's politics start dictating what other countries are going to do; the ossification— the inability to respond quickly to new threats just because everybody has to come to an agreement.

I think those are fundamental problems with permanent alliances. I would much prefer a world in which there are no permanent alliances. The alliances emerge and they have, historically over time, in response to a threat. Like-minded countries, liberal democratic countries, when Hong Kong is being threatened by China, come together and send resources to Hong Kong protesters and stand by them. Or they come together if China were to attack Taiwan. Or they come together when Russia attacks Ukraine.

"I take a very different conclusion from the fact that NATO's Article 5 has only been invoked once. ... I think that's actually a marker of its success. The fact that it's only been invoked once suggests it's been a powerful deterrent." — Berny Belvedere

I think those kinds of temporary arrangements that are able to pivot to any particular threat that's brewing in the world is just, in my view, a much better thing to do. One of the standard critiques of NATO is something happens in Kosovo and the alliance comes together, But something happens in Africa, which is threatening as many people, causing as much mayhem and we don't do anything. That's partly because we are stuck in alliances that cause us to prioritize maybe lower threats to liberal democratic values than higher threats to liberal democratic values. That's my problem with NATO.

Berny: I think that's true, but I want to distinguish those kinds of judgments of comparative interest to us with the example of, say, Hong Kong or Taiwan. It's always going to be difficult, NATO or no, to impose our way in or materially assist nations or areas within a rival sphere of influence. It's always going to be difficult to meaningfully assist Hong Kong— just like we warned off people who would get involved in Central and South America because that's in our backyard.

Those are just problems that arise no matter what, whether you have NATO or not. Like how much help we can give to Hong Kong, I don't think NATO necessarily was an active inhibitor there. I do take your point, though, that the alliance hamstrings us, it boxes us in. But not all of those cases are like that. If we just did a case-by-case basis, it's not clear to me that we'd be able to better respond to a Hong Kong situation than with NATO in place.

I do want to give, I guess, some kind of articulation to why I think NATO is effective. There's this view that bureaucracy always slows things down and that's true in many respects, but NATO leaders meet at least once a week and they convene for more intensive examination of NATO principles and prerogatives a couple of times per year. They modify and adjust the strategic concept. In the NATO hierarchy, you have the treaty, which is above everything else, and right below it is the strategic concept.

In 1991, they had to come out with a new strategic concept because the Cold War was ending. This ongoing recalibration gives NATO a flexibility that maybe it wouldn't have if the alliance was written up once for all and then it can't be changed. There's a flexibility to it. The effect of all this is to readily and effectively mobilize the resources for the implementation of our values. You're absolutely right that a single power being able to dictate to the degree that we've been able to and say we're going into Iraq because we believe there are weapons of mass destruction, even when the evidence is flimsy. There have to be better safeguards in place to keep that from happening.

I'm not giving up that NATO can't be restructured to even better constrain episodes like that. NATO kicked into gear in the far more reputable of the two incursions that we had, the Afghanistan one, so there's that. NATO sets goals that it meets or makes a good effort to meet, and without this, I think there'd be a less effective collective security mechanism in place.

Shikha: Article 5 has been invoked only one time in the entire history of NATO, and it was after 9/11 on behalf of the United States. I'm not sure what the big security upside of NATO has been. What exactly has it succeeded in preventing? What wars has it won that couldn't have been won without NATO? I mentioned the Kosovo engagement. I think that was one time, even though Article 5 wasn't invoked because it was an internal conflict, it was a civil war situation.

I think NATO did relatively well over there and did manage to bring about peace with the help of the United States. On the other hand, I'm not sure that same result could not have been accomplished without NATO. If all the European countries that were more directly affected by the Balkans conflict, they could have come together and controlled the situation too.

I guess I'm just not convinced by the stellar record of NATO preventing major conflagrations and helping keep the peace in the world in a way that a NATO-free world may not have accomplished.

Berny: I won't be able to adduce proof here to show how effective NATO is, because the absence of hostilities doesn’t allow me to show the counterfactual of how the world might have gone without NATO in place. I take a very different conclusion from the fact that NATO's Article 5 has only been invoked once than you do, I think. I think that's actually a marker of its success. The fact that it's only been invoked once suggests it's been a powerful deterrent. I'll use a clumsy analogy here, but one that people into sports will understand. In football, the position of cornerback, which tries to keep receivers from catching the ball, when you're young and you hear stats, you think that a cornerback getting a lot of interceptions is a marker of success. That player got 20 interceptions, they're a good cornerback. When the reality is much more subtle. If you have few interceptions, that actually could mean that you're such a good cornerback that the quarterback never throws it to that receiver because you're just too good at possibly intercepting it.

The very lack of interceptions is a marker of your success. It speaks to the fact that the quarterback doesn't want to challenge or test you because you're that good. I think there's a similar dynamic with NATO here. Article 5 never really had to be triggered and it's interesting to me that the one time that it was, it was a sub-national group that were the perpetrators. Yes, aided and abetted by Afghanistan, but interestingly, it was a bunch of rogue jihadists who perpetrated the attack. Meaning nation states very rarely want to incur a triggering of Article 5.

Shikha: Since I don't have a good sports analogy to make a comeback, Berny, I'll just let you have the last word. All I will say is if you claim all the counterfactuals on your side, you could make the claim that NATO has succeeded by what it has prevented rather than what it has won. It's a respectable argument. I'm just a little bit dubious that we wouldn't have just as much peace in the world without NATO than with NATO.

Landry Ayres: Thank you for listening to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. For more like this, make sure to subscribe for free at Until next time.

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