Before the United States President Donald Trump attempts real diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki on July 16, he’ll first be subjected to another summit. That first summit is a gathering of leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These leaders continually assure the United States they are America’s best allies, even as most contribute little to America’s defense and rack up huge trade surpluses with the United States. Trump will insist on a better deal but should go farther and wind down U.S. membership in NATO.
After the alliance was established in 1949, its first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, summed up its purpose concisely: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The unofficial mission matched the time well: Western Europe’s postwar future was clouded by the prospect of a Soviet invasion, American insularity, or German militarism—all possible given the preceding decades of history.
Nearly seventy years later, none of these concerns still exist. Furthermore, NATO’s opposing alliance during the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact, quit the Soviet Bloc in 1989, and the Soviet Union itself passed into history in 1991—twenty-seven years ago.
Despite endless searches for a new mission to justify its massive burden on U.S. taxpayers, NATO has failed to be of much use since then. As its boosters like to remind us, after 9/11, the alliance invoked its Article 5 mutual-defense provision on our behalf. But action from America’s allies did not follow the grandiose gesture—the NATO mission in Afghanistan relied mostly on U.S. forces and effectively failed.
Today, the alliance’s bureaucrats and some member states spotlight a threat from Russia as a reason for keeping the organization alive, along with a laundry list of “train and equip” missions.