The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them ... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith ... such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.So just what does this mean today? Pretty much nothing. Strictly interpreted, Article 5's provisions are not tripped by an attack on United States' interests outside North America. One must wonder whether an attack by someone against Guam, a non-North American, American territory, would trigger Article 5, but the question is actually moot since there is no imaginable threat to mount such an attack.
So: Who is there to attack either North America or Europe? There are really only two threats reasonably imaginable - Russia and Islamist terrorists. Let's consider them seriatim:
1. Russia. The original threat for which NATO was founded, there's no chance that Russia either would or could invade western Europe now or in the far foreseeable future.
Certainly Russia's invasion of Georgia shows that Russia's militarism is alive and well, but the prospect of Russia invading western Europe is simple nitwittery. Russia, oil flush though it is, is not rich enough, militarily powerful enough, nor populous enough to extend a campaign that far or that long. Western Europe in aggregate is still more powerful than Russia militarily (on its own soil, defending its home territories) and is rich enough to outlast Russia in such a war. But the real bottom line is that Russia needs Europe peaceful and prosperous rather than wrecked and impoverished.
But what of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? Certainly Russia could invade them, and they are NATO members. They are also defensible by NATO to some minimal level because their sea approaches are a short trip from Germany's and Poland's northern ports.
I am trying to remember the good reasons that the Baltics were admitted into NATO, but memory fails me except to remember that there were no good reasons. (Review NATO's own assessment and see whether it's held up.) At the time, even Russia was being talked about as a potential NATO member of some kind, political membership if not part of the military alliance. See here, for example. It was then presumed membership would have a tamping effect on Russian militarism which would help ensure peace in our time. Russia has in fact been a "partner country" with NATO since 1997. (Some “partner.” As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that worked out for us?”)
Ukraine? Not a NATO member, and Russia could easily march in. But Ukraine is hardly defensible by NATO. From the west, NATO forces would have a very long ground journey, across NATO-member Poland, then another 300 miles just to reach Ukraine's capital, Kiev. The logistics problem would be immense, especially for ammunition and spare parts.
Ukraine’s sea approach, from the Black Sea, has a natural choke point at the Bosporus straits. The sea approach to the Bosporus has its own choke points, the Dardanelles strait which empties into the Sea of Mamara, between the Aegean Sea and the Bosporus straits. Fortunately, Turkey is a NATO member whose forces have been focused for decades on keeping the sea lanes open. Of course, Russia has worked the opposite problems for decades, too. So there would almost certainly be a battle royal there between NATO and Russian air and naval forces.
Finally, Ukraine is a big country, almost 800 miles east to west, 233,000 square miles, and NATO's manpower commitment would have to be correspondingly large, probably too large for NATO's existing forces, even under mobilization, since substantial forces would need to be retained in Poland and points west to deter Russian moves in that direction.
As well, western Europe's standing forces are too few to offer substantial, long-lasting reinforcements to deployed units. Many of their regular brigades are permanently staffed by regulars at a fraction of full strength, with the rest (usually one-third or even more) of the troops being reservists whose readiness level is substantially lower. If you use your reserves to man up your regular battalions, who exactly is manning the reserves? In all, since the dissolution of the USSR, Europe's defense planning has been focused on economy rather than war readiness.
Don't count on NATO's new NATO Response Force (NRF), which consists of only 25,000 troops of all arms.
This includes a brigade-size land component with forced-entry capability; a naval task force including a carrier battle group, an amphibious task group and a surface action group; and an air component capable of 200 combat sorties a day.A brigade-size ground force (5,000-6,000 soldiers) is barely speed bump size defending Ukraine or the Baltics. And 200 combat sorties per day would be exhausted before noon in mid-intensity operations.
Sarah Palin said in her Gibson interview that the US should push to admit both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. I have two words: In. Sane. The idea that the United States should (or can) go to war to eject Russian forces therefrom is foolish in the extreme. A return of Russian occupation of Ukraine or the Baltic countries would be dreadful for the people of those countries. But it's hard to see what US national-security interest would make warring with Russia worth it. NATO's relations with Ukraine, very extensive since 1991, are almost exclusively political-commercial rather than military, or even political-military. Even the NATO Handbook admits tacitly that its goal is development of a market economy and human rights in Ukraine, rather than strengthening of NATO as a military alliance.
It may be argued that for the US to withdraw its NATO military membership would in fact invite Russian moves against Ukraine or the Baltics. I think Putin's government is more calculating than that. Putin, et. al., surely realize that moving against Ukraine would not evoke military counter-moves from NATO, whether Ukraine is a NATO member or not. The reason is very simple: NATO nations simply do not have the military forces, nor strategic "throw," to make the counter. Simply getting tactically significant forces to the right places in Ukraine, then supplying them, would be an enormous challenge that could well be insurmountable. Only recently have Canada and the UK begun to fly strategic-range airlift, C-17s manufactured by the US. Ironically Canada also leases strategic airlift capability from Ukraine, which has a fairly extensive collection of late Soviet-era Antonov heavy lifters designed for strategic airlift. Even so, the great majority of such flying would fall to the US Air Force.
In summary: Russia is no military threat to western Europe. And though its threat to the Baltics and Ukraine is more realizable, there is not much NATO can do about it in the event, anyway.
2. Islamist terrorists. Islamo-terrorists have already attacked both North America and Europe, it hardly bears pointing out. And what was NATO's response? Except for Canada and Britain, pretty much nothing. Even worse, near surrender: al Qaeda killed 191 Spanish train commuters in March 2004, demanded Spain's withdrawal of its forces from Iraq, and Spain rolled.
We'd also wish to ask just why Islamists would attack Europe in the first place (well, yes, they're terrorists) when if they just bide their time, most of western Europe will become substantially Muslim in just a few decades, and some nations majority Muslim (Holland may be majority Muslim by 2020).
What NATO has not done, even under Article 5, is actually fight al Qaeda or the Taliban (again, except for Britain and Canada). For example, Germany sent an entire special-forces detachment to Afghanistan. They literally never left their base camp for a whole year, then Germany brought them home. Except for Canada and Britain, this is typical of the NATO troops, paltry as they are, in Afghanistan. (NATO, qua NATO, had no involvement in Iraq.)
But let us imagine that al Qaeda mounts a truly devastating attack against a NATO capital city, killing thousands. Just how can NATO respond? It can't, certainly not for any response that would require self-lifting across strategic distances. The strategic transportation of NATO has always been oriented one way: US and Canadian forces flowing into Europe to defend it from the USSR, not forces flowing out of Europe to somewhere else in the world. NATO forces cannot go anywhere in the world in substantial force without the US Air Force or Navy carrying them.
Let us then ask the pointed question: Just how does continued NATO membership actually benefit that United States? I can think of only one way - forward stationing of US forces as a deployment point to locales farther east or toward the Middle East.
That's it. Is that worth the cost of national treasure and aggravation we have with the alliance, and which show no sign of abating?
There is another point that Mark Steyn touched on when discussing Sarah Palin's bright idea to bring Georgia into NATO. I can't find a link now, but Steyn pointed out that Georgia's birth rate has tanked more than practically any other country in the world. In fact, by 2050 there will be only 100,000 Georgian women of childbearing age, if current trends continue. So, he said, if Georgians won't have children to grow up to defend Georgia, why should Americans have children to grow up to defend Georgia? I can't think of any good reason.
And the same question can be asked of every other European NATO member, except perhaps Britain and France. The birth rates of Germany, Spain, Italy and every other NATO country except Turkey are below the stable replacement rate of 2.1 average births per woman, most far below. Italy’s rate is 1.23 births per woman , for example, meaning that Italy’s population could shrink by one-third by mid-century. (Turkey’s birth rate is about twice as high as Italy's.)
Again the question for NATO’s countries: if you will not have enough children to preserve your country, why should the US make up your deficit?
I think the United States should reassess whether the NATO alliance really is serving American interests. I don't think it is, and I don't think it will do better in years to come. Though we must stay politically engaged, I think we'd be better off withdrawing from the military alliance, and work toward building an Anglosphere military alliance in its stead.
Endnote: Yes, I titled the post having in mind Monty Pythons sketch from Life of Brian, in which some ancient Judeans ask, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Unlike them, however, we have no important, affirmative answers to the question of my post.