This April is the month for notable milestones in two major U.S. security commitments. NATO marks its seventieth anniversary on April 4, and the Taiwan Relations Act turns forty on April 12. Predictably, there will be much celebrating among supporters of the two measures. But these anniversaries should be occasions for reflection and reconsideration, not mindless endorsements. The strategic environments in both Europe and East Asia have changed dramatically since Washington made those commitments. In both cases, the most important and worrisome change is that the risk level to America from both commitments has risen sharply, even as the strategic justification for them has eroded.
When the United States joined NATO in 1949, the strategic rationale was straightforward and logical. The Soviet Union had emerged from World War II as a global power second only to the United States in its economic strength and military clout. It soon established an empire of Communist political satellites in Central and Eastern Europe, and U.S. officials had no way to be certain just how far the Kremlin’s geographic ambitions extended. The USSR gave every indication of being a messianic, totalitarian power with massive, perhaps unlimited, expansionist goals.
Conversely, the democratic nations of Western Europe emerged from World War II economically weak, militarily exhausted and psychologically traumatized. They did not seem capable of defending themselves from an aggressive Soviet Union without U.S. assistance and leadership. NATO was born in that ominous strategic environment.
The situation has changed beyond recognition in the seventy years since NATO’s formation. The European Union (with or without Britain) is a powerful global economic player. Indeed, the EU collectively has a larger population and a larger economy than does the United States. The nations of democratic Europe are prosperous, capable entities, not demoralized, war-ravaged waifs. Although military spending by NATO’s European members (especially Germany) could and probably should increase, they collectively spend more than three times as much as Russia.