The Biden Administration is preparing to sell F-16 fighters to Turkey, according to the Wall Street Journal, to induce Turkish President Erdogan to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO. This apparent payoff to an anti-democrat for NATO’s sake raises a question about NATO itself. If this moral compromise is necessary, how closely does NATO align with America’s core interests?
Sweden and Finland are the kinds of allies we want – liberal democracies where people have secure rights to live by their own lights. We share values that will keep us on the same side in any conceivable international dispute or contest. Is NATO an alliance for those values, or something else?
NATO was created to defend Europe from the Soviets. That goal served our deepest interests coherently and comprehensively. The USSR was ideologically committed to destroy our system of government, and under Stalin had actively subjugated independent nations for geopolitical purposes. Containment of their influence met our needs and NATO served that strategy. Turkey fit that strategy in its geopolitical position, and its secular, modernizing state, however overseen by its military, also fit our opposition to the Soviets.
Today, is NATO anything more than a geopolitical barrier against Russia? After the Cold War, the eastern European nations flocked to join NATO, and seemed to do so for protection against Russia. Defense melds with offense in geopolitics, so the orientation against Russia and the interest in adding Ukraine and the Baltics could plausibly have been taken as a threat by any Russian leader.
Many new members did democratize, at least formally. Was this out of admiration for the NATO community, a mark of revulsion against Communism, or a box to check to gain NATO protection? Given the democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, as well as of Turkey under Erdogan, the answers are legitimately open to question. And the last answer feeds a narrative of political expansion rather than military defense.
NATO now strains even to hold together against Russia. The F-16 deal had to be balanced by a deal sending F-35s to Greece. Greece itself has shown hints of Russophilia, perhaps fed by their Orthodox heritage. Further, populists in Germany, France, and Italy object to the sacrifice of energy resources stemming from the West’s sanctions against Russia. Much diplomatic effort has been needed – and may not always work – to keep the alliance unified, even to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Is NATO, as a pure geopolitical barrier, necessary for our values? Russia under Putin should be opposed, and defeated and penalized, for its unilateral aggression in Ukraine. But is that policing a core American interest, or an auxiliary function for something greater? Put another way, does it carry what strategist Ali Wyne would call an “affirmative” American purpose?
America exists as a vessel for unalienable personal rights and government by consent of the governed. Stopping the Soviets protected our system of government, and many nations flowered into sound liberal democracies behind NATO’s shield. We still have an interest in promoting mutual defense among the “firmly free” nations. But while many of those are in NATO, some are not, and NATO includes a number that are not so free.
Is it time to create another collective security arrangement, of those firmly free nations, dedicated strictly to their protection for that freedom? Whether as replacement or supplement to NATO, such a grouping would fit an affirmative American purpose of protecting the spaces for freedom. It could unite not only a number of NATO nations, but also the ANZAC nations, Japan, and South Korea – and Sweden and Finland. It would not answer to the Erdogans and Orbans. And this community could further its purpose even more, in progressively closer ties with nations that are growing in their commitments to electoral government and secure personal rights.
This community would only need to oppose another nation if that nation poses a threat to freedom. So yes, the community would join, and lead, efforts to repel Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; freedom cannot grow if unprovoked force is allowed as a tool to pursue interests. Yes, it would oppose a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, for the sake of Taiwan’s own advanced democracy and against the use of force. A lot of policy would look like what we do today. But this group would not exist to contain those two nations otherwise. It would treat freedom as its purpose and not use it as a competitive tool. Non-membership need not automatically connote hostility. Rather, mutual protection among free nations should attract others to outgrow regimes of repression at home and menace abroad.
NATO, and the old structure of US alliances in the Pacific, oppose two nations without naming an affirmative purpose, and nudge them to oppose the values that those alliances fail to carry. We live for freedom and should commit ourselves to validating, nurturing, and protecting it as it grows. Our alliances should exist to secure the spaces that carry it. We should ensure that commitments for armed defense fit tightly to those spaces, explicitly for the sake of the freedom that they house.