Can we talk about NATO?

By Connor Echols, Jun 18 2021

Last year, a wave of young people got caught up in a new self-help trend: “manifesting.” The basic idea, according to Vox, is to think “aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real.” TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are full of Gen Zers and Millennials insisting that you can manifest a sudden influx of wealth or a response from a crush who won’t text you back.

Even young world leaders have joined the craze, judging by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent attempt to manifest Ukraine joining NATO: “Commend @NATO partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face,” Zelensky tweeted Monday. “NATO leaders confirmed that [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance.”

The tweet fooled some people, including PBS journalist Yamiche Alcindor, who relayed Zelensky’s claim uncritically. But in reality, all NATO had done was reiterate its prior promise that Ukraine will eventually join the alliance, as long as Kiev meets admission standards. And, as Joe Biden pointed out in a news conference later in the day, Ukraine falls short of NATO standards when it comes to corruption. Asked whether there was news about Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance, Secretary of State Tony Blinken was clear: “Nothing has changed.”

Meanwhile, as Zelensky’s attempt to expand the Overton Window on NATO’s future failed, an attempt to expand it in the opposite direction was more successful. Also on Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Stephen Wertheim that raised fundamental questions about NATO’s value and purpose—a debate that has long been pushed to the margins.


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Wertheim is among those who believe that the post-Cold War expansion of NATO—which has seen its membership grow from 16 to 30—has created a sense of encirclement in Moscow. He argues that Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, both of which had expressed interest in NATO membership, reflect how threatened the Kremlin feels by the alliance’s relentless march east.

Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US continues to play a leading role in an ever-expanding NATO. Wertheim contends that this arrangement no longer serves American interests. He also sees NATO reform as a key litmus test for efforts to reverse the militarization of US foreign policy. After all, Europe’s economic and military might both far outstrip Russia’s, and European leaders have indicated a willingness to take on more responsibility for their defense. “If American leaders cannot countenance pulling US forces back from Europe, then from where would they be willing to pull back, ever?” His argument becomes more urgent when you consider that America’s troop deployments in Europe cost taxpayers over $10 billion per year.

The simple fact that Wertheim got this piece published in America’s most prominent newspaper is testament to how much the influence of “restrainers” has grown in recent years. NATO is considered sacrosanct by many in the the foreign policy establishment, and the alliance earned a #resistance fandom when Trump called its value into question.

Surprisingly and encouragingly, Wertheim’s piece was greeted respectfully by many in the Blob. “Obviously I disagree but I welcome Stephen’s clarity,” tweeted Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. Casey Michel of the right-wing Hudson Institute tweeted that, while there was “[p]lenty to disagree with” in the piece, “there should absolutely be more discussion on NATO policy in the US.” Maybe more importantly, the piece forced prominent figures in the foreign policy establishment like Ian Bremmer and Nick Burns to defend America’s role as the protector of Europe.

This expansion of the NATO Overton Window is timely. Perhaps aware that Russia’s threat to Europe is no longer a self-evident reason for NATO’s existence, Biden and his team are seeking to refashion the military alliance to counter China. It’s critical that this prospective move get more careful consideration than NATO expansion did. Meanwhile, I’ll do my part by manifesting a victory over the Blob.

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.


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