When NATO marks its 60th birthday on April 4, there will be much celebration.  Proponents will hail not only the alliance’s longevity and past successes but its goals in the coming decades.  Their optimism is based, in part, on statements by the new government in NATO’s leading power, the United States.  While the administration of George W. Bush sometimes seemed to favor a unilateral approach to foreign affairs, and occasionally exhibited barely concealed disdain for some of Washington’s European allies (an attitude that was most evident regarding policy toward Iraq), President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy team immediately emphasized its commitment to multilateralism, in general, and NATO, in particular.  During her confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that Washington wanted to strengthen all of its alliances, especially NATO.

In other circles, however, there is a growing uneasiness about NATO’s relevance to the policy challenges of the 21st century and, indeed, about the organization’s long-term viability.  That uneasiness is entirely justified.  The organization is, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.”  For, while NATO superficially remains an impressive organization, its ability to be an effective security mechanism is increasingly in doubt.

Expanding NATO to include new members on Russia’s western frontier has both poisoned relations with Moscow and revealed major divisions in the ranks of the alliance about how to deal with Moscow.  U.S. and Western European officials took advantage of Russia’s economic and military disarray during the 1990’s to establish a dominant position in Central and Eastern Europe.  NATO proponents not only preserved a military institution whose primary purpose was to wage the Cold War against the Soviet Union in Europe but sought to expand the alliance eastward into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.  That move violated a promise that the administration of President George H.W. Bush had made to Moscow in exchange for Kremlin acceptance of Germany’s reunification and admission into NATO.  The first round of NATO expansion (1998) involved the addition of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, over the Yeltsin government’s objections.  That expansion was relatively benign, though, compared with the second round (2004), which incorporated Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania—all former Soviet states.

Given the weakness of the country, a furious Russian political elite could do little except issue complaints.  But that situation has changed, and Moscow has begun to push back.  In particular, the Kremlin has emphasized that attempts to grant NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia will not be tolerated.

Disagreement over Russia has created noticeable fissures within NATO.  The NATO summit in Bucharest in spring 2008 produced a tepid decision on expanding the alliance.  Opposition from Germany, France, and other key members thwarted Washington’s goal of offering a Membership Action Plan (the first stage of preparing a country for admission to NATO) to Georgia and Ukraine.  Several leading NATO powers argued that adding those countries to the alliance would needlessly provoke Russia and further damage the West’s already tense relationship with Moscow.  The summit communiqué offered only the vacuous promise that membership in the alliance remained open to all qualified democratic countries.

Intra-alliance divisions became even more evident in response to the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008.  The Central and Eastern European members of NATO were alarmed at Russia’s willingness to use force against a small neighbor, and they pressed their alliance partners to take a hard line toward Moscow.  Most Western European members, though, favored a far more cautious approach, reminding their colleagues that the West needed Russia’s cooperation on a variety of issues, including attempts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Germany, France, and other countries also were aware of Moscow’s ability to exploit Europe’s dependence on Russian natural-gas supplies for diplomatic and political leverage.  (Any doubts on that score evaporated in February 2009, when Russia’s quarrel with Ukraine over the pricing of natural gas led to a virtual shutdown of the pipeline leading to Central and Western Europe.)

Washington’s policy preferences were closer to the hardline position advocated by NATO’s newer (Eastern European) members than they were to the views of America’s traditional alliance partners.  But the Western European governments, especially those in Germany and France, dug in their heels and refused to endorse confrontational proposals.  In the end, NATO’s response to Russia’s coercion of Georgia amounted to little more than feeble diplomatic protests and a temporary suspension of meetings between NATO and Kremlin officials.  We may anticipate further, and increasingly pointed, disagreements among alliance members regarding policy toward Russia.

While the leading European members of NATO prevented the offer of a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia, eventual membership for two other countries, Croatia and Albania, did get a green light.  A third Balkan country, Macedonia, would have received an invitation if not for an unresolved esoteric dispute between that country and Greece over the use of the name “Macedonia.”

The proposed addition of Croatia and Albania highlights another example of NATO’s waning relevance and increasingly dubious attributes in the post-Cold War era.  That development is especially pertinent from the standpoint of America’s security interests, given this country’s obligations as leader of the alliance.  Adding such members will do nothing to augment the vast military power of the United States or enhance the security of the American people.  All a new round of enlargement will do is create another set of potential headaches for Washington.

NATO was once a serious alliance with a serious purpose.  Throughout the Cold War, it prevented the Soviet Union from intimidating or attacking democratic Western Europe, a region of considerable strategic and economic importance.  True, the United States was always the dominant player in the alliance, but Washington could count on credible secondary military powers, most notably Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.

But the new members the alliance has admitted since the end of the Cold War are weak client states that expect the United States to defend them.  That was largely true of the first round of expansion, and it was even more evident in the second round.  Such “allies” are security consumers, not security producers.  From the standpoint of American interests, they are not assets but liabilities—and potentially very dangerous liabilities.

Taking on the obligation to defend the Baltic countries was especially unwise, because NATO now poses a direct geopolitical challenge to Russia right at Moscow’s doorstep.  Relations between Russia and her small Baltic neighbors are testy, to put it mildly.  At the moment, Russia may be too weak to challenge the U.S./NATO security commitment to those countries, but that may not always be true.  I only wish that the European powers who blocked the U.S. drive to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO had shown the same wisdom when Washington pushed membership for the Baltic states.

The military capabilities of Croatia and Albania are minuscule.  According to the 2008 edition of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Croatia’s military budget is a mere $875 million, and her military force consists of 17,660 active-duty personnel.  Albania’s budget is $208 million, and her force is 11,020.  They will augment Estonia’s $386 million and 4,100 troops, Latvia’s $471 million and 5,969 troops, Lithuania’s $470 million and 13,800 troops, and Slovenia’s $750 million and 5,996 troops.  By not offering membership to Macedonia, though, NATO will have to do without Skopje’s $161 million and 10,890 troops.

Collectively, such members spend less on their militaries in one year than the United States spends in Iraq in ten days.  How adding such military pygmies to NATO is supposed to enhance the security of the United States—or even that of the major Western European powers—is a mystery.

In addition to being useless, these new allies are a potential embarrassment to the alliance, if not a danger.  When Vice President Dick Cheney asserted during a visit to the Balkans in 2006 that such members would help “rejuvenate” NATO and rededicate the alliance to the values of freedom and democracy, he showed how out of touch with reality U.S. policy had become.

Croatia is just a few years removed from the fascistic regime of Franjo Tudjman and continues to have frosty relations with neighboring Serbia.  Albania is a close ally of the new, predominantly Albanian state of Kosovo, an entity whose independence both Serbia and Russia do not recognize and vehemently oppose.  In addition, Albania is notorious for being under the influence of organized crime.  Indeed, the Albanian mafia is legendary throughout southeastern Europe, controlling the bulk of gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking.

Efforts to add Ukraine and Georgia to the alliance would be even worse than the previous rounds of expansion.  Ukraine’s relationship with Russia is contentious.  And, of course, last summer’s war offers hints at Georgia’s standing with Moscow.  Rational Americans should have breathed a sigh of relief that Georgia was not a NATO member when that conflict erupted.

Most proponents of NATO’s eastward expansion act as though the alliance is nothing but a political honor society.  Their logic is that, because the nations of Eastern Europe have become capitalist democracies, they deserve to be members of the West’s most prominent club.  And because NATO is now primarily a political body, so the argument goes, Russia has no reason to fear or oppose its expansion—even to Russia’s own border.

But as the Georgia episode should remind us, NATO is much more than a political club.  It is still a military alliance with serious obligations, especially for the United States.  Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty proclaims that an attack on one member is an attack on all.  That means the United States is obligated to defend every member, no matter how small, how militarily and economically insignificant, or how strategically exposed that member might be.

That comes perilously close to being a risky strategic bluff.  The war between Russia and Georgia illustrates the hollow nature of NATO’s ability to protect small, vulnerable members.  True, Georgia was not a member of the alliance, so Article 5 did not apply.  But the country was clearly a client, albeit an informal one, of the United States.  U.S. leaders repeatedly hailed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a friend and symbol of democratic reform in that part of the world.  The conventional wisdom assumed that Russia would never molest such a client.  Yet when Russian troops entered Georgia, the United States and the rest of NATO did little more than fuss and fume and offer postwar reconstruction aid to Tbilisi.  Although some analysts expressed certainty that Russia would have been deterred had Georgia been a NATO member, there is reason to be skeptical about such bravado.

If Washington and its principal NATO partners endeavored to carry out their commitments under Article 5, they would risk an armed clash with a nuclear-armed great power.  That degree of risk should never be incurred except in the defense of the most vital security interests, and the well-being of tiny nations on Russia’s border doesn’t even come close to meeting that requirement.  In all likelihood, a U.S. president faced with the terrible potential consequences of confronting Russia militarily over such stakes would blink.  And if the United States didn’t act, the secondary NATO powers certainly would not.  The alliance’s nonresponse to Russia’s offensive against Georgia suggested that the security expectations of NATO’s new members and wannabe members are nothing more than an illusion.

Another indicator of NATO’s impotence is the fraying and often feckless alliance mission in Afghanistan.  Western leaders have repeatedly stated that Afghanistan is a key test of NATO’s relevance and effectiveness in the 21st century.

Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, NATO governments invoked Article 5 for the first time in the history of the alliance.  U.S. leaders welcomed the European pledges of support, and the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan soon had a key NATO component.

But early on, doubts began to arise concerning just how serious the European allies were about their military commitments.  Indeed, most of the NATO governments seemed to view their troop deployments as personnel for humanitarian relief and nation-building missions rather than for combat operations.  By and large, the military heavy lifting was left to U.S. forces and those of Canada, Britain, and a few other alliance members.  In August 2003, NATO formally took command of the International Security Assistance Force, which the U.N. Security Council had authorized under a peace-enforcement mandate.  As Cato Institute research fellow Stanley Kober notes, “ISAF has never seen itself as a war-fighting force.”  Rather, its goal was to “facilitate the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

In fact, with the exception of British, Canadian, and Dutch units, most of the NATO troop contributions amount to little more than military symbolism.  The NATO governments can argue that they are contributing to the U.S.-led mission, but in reality most of the deployments are militarily useless—even with NATO troop levels in Afghanistan climbing over 30,000.

Most NATO members have placed a variety of restrictions on the use of their military personnel.  Some forbid them from engaging in night operations, which are inherently more dangerous.  Others prohibit their forces from being deployed in certain areas of the country—specifically, those areas where significant combat is taking place and where additional troops might actually prove useful.

Germany is one of the worst offenders in that regard.  Berlin has kept its troops in the northern regions of Afghanistan, where hardly any fighting is taking place.  Despite Washington’s repeated requests, the German government has refused to lift that restriction.  That might be just as well.  A December 2008 German parliamentary report concluded that the country’s troops in Afghanistan spent most of their time lounging around and drinking beer, and that many were now too fat and out of condition to be of any use in combat operations against the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

As America’s NATO allies have postured and dithered in Afghanistan, the mission in that country has been badly frayed.  Over the past three to four years, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regained strength and launched ever more lethal attacks against U.S. and Afghan-government forces.  If the mission in Afghanistan is truly a test of NATO’s relevance and effectiveness, the alliance’s performance deserves a failing grade.

NATO’s feckless military performance in Afghanistan highlights a broader problem.  Not only are most of the alliance’s newer members marginal military players at best, but even our traditional European allies have allowed their defense establishments to decay.  The gap between America’s military capabilities and those of her European partners has grown into a chasm.  U.S. military leaders warn that significant joint military operations with other NATO members have become increasingly difficult, and may soon become impossible.

That is not surprising.  Besides those of Britain and France, the military budgets—to say nothing of crucial spending on force modernization—of the principal Western European powers have been in virtual free fall since the end of the Cold War.  The spending and force levels of Germany, Italy, and Spain illustrate the problem.  Spain devoted 1.85 percent of her gross domestic product to defense in 1989 and deployed more than 274,000 troops and 244 combat aircraft.  By 2007, those figures were down to 0.73 percent of GDP, a mere 149,000 troops, and 197 aircraft.  The plunge in spending and military capabilities for Italy has been equally dramatic.  In 1989, the percentage of GDP spent on the military was 1.94, and Italy had nearly 390,000 troops and 425 combat aircraft.  In 2007, the figures were 0.80 percent, 186,000 troops, and 267 aircraft.

Berlin’s decline in military spending and force levels is perhaps the most disheartening.  Throughout the Cold War, West Germany was the front-line state and a crucial military partner in the containment of the Soviet Union.  Berlin’s military spending in 1989 was 2.27 percent of GDP, and the Bundeswehr had 469,000 military personnel and 621 combat aircraft.  By 2007, spending had shrunk to 1.17 percent of GDP, and the active-duty force was down to fewer than 246,000 troops and 310 combat aircraft.

The slippage in Britain and France is also worrisome, although spending levels were higher to begin with and remain at marginally more respectable levels than those of Italy, Spain, and Germany.  Yet Paris, which devoted a modest 2.98 percent of GDP to the military in 1989, and fielded 461,000 troops and 697 combat aircraft, is now spending only 1.94 percent of GDP, while force levels are only 255,000 troops and 316 aircraft.  For Britain, the figures in 1989 were 3.98 percent, 306,000 troops, and 583 aircraft.  In 2007, the figures were 2.17 percent, fewer than 181,000 troops, and only 354 aircraft.  Even the vaunted British navy had shrunk from 206 vessels to 113.

In short, the principal European members of NATO have gone from countries that somewhat underinvested in defense during the Cold War to countries whose defense-spending levels now fail to meet even the straight-face test.  It is no wonder that U.S. military leaders no longer consider most NATO allies to be credible partners for joint war-fighting scenarios.

All of these developments confirm that NATO is little more than a political fraternity.  Its outward appearance is one of an impressive organization—with an abundance of perks for the military brass of member states.  It generates numerous conferences, papers, and studies for a vast network of policymakers and outside experts who benefit from the perpetuation of its venerable bureaucracy.  But as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, “there is no there there.”  NATO is no longer an effective, or in most instances even a credible, security alliance.  Certainly, NATO in its current form does not advance the security and well-being of the American republic.  Someone should take the merciful step and put the alliance out of its misery.