Should the U.S. or Europe Make NATO Great Again?
(Doug Bandow, April 13, 2023)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.
Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. He holds a JD from Stanford University.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today we are very pleased to welcome a new guest to the Westminster Institute for a discussion, and that is Doug Bandow, who is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. I will just share a slight anecdote concerning our relationship, because in past years we met because through debates on foreign policy where we were taken to summer schools of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and we would debate in front of the students on key foreign policy questions, and that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, so I am delighted to have him here.
Let me tell you some more about Doug Bandow. At Cato, he specializes in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and as editor of the political magazine Inquiry. Doug writes a great deal and very well for such leading publications as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times, and others.
He has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Aside from many articles that Doug has written, he has also written a number of books, and I will just include some of them: Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire, the Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea, Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World, and Perpetuating Poverty: The World Bank, the IMF, and the Developing World.
Today, Doug is going to answer for us the intriguing question: “Should the U.S or Europe Make NATO Great Again?” Doug, welcome to the program.
Well, Bob, thanks for having me on. It is a great pleasure to be here for with you, personally as well as the Westminster Institute, whose work I admire. And these are important times, and this, I think, is a very good topic for us to go over. If you look at the challenges facing the United States, one is we have a very significant international challenge where the U.S. is involved very deeply in Europe, frankly running essentially a proxy war plus against Russia, a nuclear armed power. This is a very dangerous situation.
We are deeply involved in the Middle East. Every President says they want to get out, and lo and behold, we seem to end up even more involved. And we have an extraordinary challenge in Asia, not only North Korea but obviously China. China, which depending on how things go could become a peer competitor to the United States, even if not, it is a very different challenge from the Soviet Union.
And the problem is we are in a world in which the expectation appears to be that the U.S has to dominate all of these, and it is almost as if we do not have allies. We talk about allies, but it seems like it is America’s job to do most everything. Now, that comes at a time where we have a fiscal crisis that is coming. I mean, we have trillion dollar deficits without the kind of financial crisis of 2008, without a COVID crisis. This is now the daily routine of Washington.
We are at about 100 percent of GDP in terms of federal debt. We are heading towards the record that was set in 1946, 106 percent, that was coming out of the worst war in world history, and today we are almost at that level in kind of relative peace time. And given growth rates of spending, the Congressional Budget Office figures are going to be at 185 percent by 2050.
Now, Greece, you know, went into its crisis at something like 140 percent. It is hard to imagine how we could ever make it to 185 percent. And the problem on the spending is there is really only [a few places to cut from]. You know, people talk about domestic discretionary spending, but there are five big piles to go after, and no one wants to touch them.
One is interest, which you cannot go after unless you repudiate the debt, and interest rates, of course, are rising, and that means ever more money is going to go to interest. I mean, the CBO tells us by the end of the decade we could have $800 billion dollars in interest payments. Now, that is almost as much as we spend on the military today. That comes off the top.
Then there are Social Security and Medicare. Those are the programs that are greatly affected by an aging population. Nobody wants to go out and tell Americans, retirees, that guess what, we are going to cut these benefits that you have been paying for. And then there is Medicaid, which is the health care program for the poor. And you know, we want to make promises but do not want to pay for them. It is a badly managed program. It is hard to imagine how you are going to cut that spending.
And then there is military spending, so it is hard to imagine you know, 20, 30, 40 years from now how you are going to convince Americans that the programs we should cut are Medicare, Medicaid, [and] Social Security while we are helping defend lots of allies who we keep wondering why are they not paying more themselves. And I think this is going to start driving American military spending.
And if you are going to look at military spending, it is far better to look at your foreign policy first. I tell people the military budget is the price of your foreign policy. The more you promise, then the more force structure you have got to have. My nephew is a SEAL. I mean, this is kind of the carbon fiber tip, right, of the spear. My reaction is you do not send him somewhere overseas in harm’s way unless you have the men and materiel to back him up, so we need to start now thinking about what America is going to be doing in the world today, next year, 10 years from now.
I think that is why we have got to start looking at Europe, that it is hard to see how almost 80 years after the end of World War II, where Europe has more than three times the population of Russia, something like 10 times the economic strength of Russia (it already spends around three times as much on the military; it does not spend it well, but it spends a relative lot compared to Russia), why it cannot defend itself.
We need to start looking at Europe as a place where it is up to the Europeans in the future to kind of care for their own security, and yet what has happened since last year is the Biden Administration has put more than twenty thousand more American troops in Europe. It has promised that the U.S. will defend every inch of NATO territory.
The U.S. has promoted the expansion of NATO, and at the recent NATO meeting, Ukraine came in, demanding yet again that it wants to be part of NATO. But if [Ukraine] want to be part of NATO, that means it wants us to be prepared for a war to defend them, which no one has wanted. So I think this is a good moment for us to step back and say how do we ensure that the Europeans do what they have been promising to do, which is do more, because frankly they have been stepping back from those promises.
There was a lot of rhetoric last year. Even the British, even the Germans have been stepping back. We have got to find a way to push that forward as opposed to leave Americans on the hook forever, essentially for the European welfare state. I do not care how the Europeans spend their money, but we should not have to subsidize their choices by basically providing them defense welfare when they can be doing that on their own.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, Doug, let us take a look at what the war between Ukraine and Russia has exposed about NATO, so to speak. In other words, what has it shown about NATO that we did not really fully appreciate before this war broke out and all of this support was given to Ukraine?
Well, what we have seen is that at some level, the European countries are hollow shells when it comes to the military, that, you know, the United Kingdom has – I think the number is 227 Challenger tanks, of which they offered something like 14 to the Ukrainians. I mean, that is extraordinary. I mean, Germany, we have kind of been aware, but you know, there have been parliamentary reports, for example, that came out of Germany, looking at readiness levels, looking at the number of submarines and planes that actually function, looking at the lack of very basic gear, winter gear and other things for their troops.
At one point some of the training was being conducted with wooden sticks as opposed to rifles, and all of that has been brought into very sharp relief in terms of who is helping the Ukrainians. The U.S., of course, have provided vastly more than anyone else. The U.S. has provided more than Europe collectively, and what the Europeans are finding is they go into their storage rooms, and their equipment has rusted away, it is not functional, it is not working.
Germany’s military today is in worse shape than last year because it has not replaced anything that it gave the Ukrainians. We have seen, I think, very dramatically how much the Europeans really did rely on the U.S. Even when they spent money to try to hit some target, they did not spend it well, and now that has been exposed as, you know, what are they doing? I mean, the expectation is the U.S. will step in. That has always been the expectation.
Robert R. Reilly:
There are recent reports that the Ukrainian military forces are in trouble because they are running short, of course, on artillery rounds. But as significant, they are running short on missile anti-aircraft defenses, which should they run out of those, then Russia gets to dominate the skies and they are in really serious trouble.
And the problem with this is, of course, they want more from us, and they want more from the Europeans, is that frankly we and the Europeans cannot provide them. I mean, we do not have the production capacity for artillery shells. One of the problems for the Ukrainians, of course, is they have a lot of older, Soviet models. That is not the kind of artillery we make, but even if we were making shells, we do not make nearly enough. That is the fear of, in terms of, you know, Stinger missiles and other things that we have been providing, is that we have run down the U.S. arsenal.
What happens if actually we ended up in a real war today? That production capacity, you know, simply is not there.
Now, the Europeans came together and decided they were going to come up with a collective mechanism to build artillery shells. A couple of weeks ago, they announced with great fanfare that they had agreed to this, yet we find that they are still hung up on the issue of are they only going to rely on European Union producers or not, so now suddenly this has become an economic issue.
Everyone says the Ukrainians are in dire need of artillery shells, and the Europeans are arguing over, okay, now which producers get to make them, you know, do we go outside the European Union? So you get that sense that they are simply not treating this seriously, yet their cupboards were relatively bare to begin with. That which they have given to the Ukrainians has drawn all of that down. No one knows when it is going to be filled up, yet they are arguing over issues like this, and it is a very real problem.
Trying to understand what is going on in the war, of course, is not easy because everything is seen through kind of a Ukrainian prism. Now, I think the Russians behaved awfully. I mean, there should be no doubt that this was wretched aggression and that the Russians are at fault. Nevertheless, it is critical for the United States and Europe to have an understanding of what is going on, which requires kind of looking at both sides and trying to get a more objective look.
I am afraid that our information sources have been somewhat tainted, so it is hard to get the information in terms of, well, what is the status of manpower for the Ukrainians artillery’ and other sorts of things. We need that for our planning.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, we know in terms of the U.S. industrial base that the munitions which were drawn down to a dangerous extent, that replenishing the cruise missiles, replenishing the anti-aircraft weapons is not a matter of six months, it is a matter of years, like three years. Simply, there are not enough production lines to replace these or keep up this pace of disbursement, so my question to you regarding NATO countries is do they have the industrial base to do this, or has that likewise been eroded by moving so many things to China?
Well, I mean, their industrial base has also, you know, kind of dropped dramatically on the military side. Part of that, of course, is the U.S. presses them to buy U.S. weapons. We understand, that is understandable from the standpoint of wanting that money to come to the U.S., but it also means the Europeans produce fewer weapons themselves, so they do not have the capacity. I mean, that really is the scary thing.
I mean, the Germans have spent virtually nothing of the supposed €100 billion fund that was set up. I mean, it is a very convoluted process. You have to get the contract. Somebody has to start building them, etc. None of the weapons that have gone last year have been replaced.
You know, the other countries are frankly in no better shape here, and a lot of what we see out of Europe are promises for the future. You know, the French have come up with a new plan. They said by 2030, do not worry, we are going to be spending a third more than today. Well, you can promise anything you want in 2030.
We have seen that, you know, the Europeans back in 2014 said by 2024 everybody is supposed to have two percent of GDP [spent] on the military. Seven countries do that, that includes the U.S. and Greece, and Greece is arming against Turkey, not Russia. It is down one from last year. Now, lots of countries plan to get to two percent, but we have seen how that works. It never seems to get there.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, one of the reactions, because of the shock into which Europe went with the Russian invasion, is that now, finally, they will take their defense spending obligations to NATO seriously. And of course, Germany was making very determined statements that they were going to do that, the United Kingdom and so forth [did too]. But as you point out, what has happened subsequent to that is that they have backed off those commitments.
That is right. At one point, London said three percent of GDP. Oh, no, now suddenly they have discovered they have financial trouble. Well, we do too, you know? So now, you know, the new prime minister says there is kind of an aspirational desire to get to 2.5 percent. Okay, that is very nice, but are they actually going to get there? I mean, on the Germans, the way they have interpreted this €100 billion fund and spread it out, the current numbers suggest that by 2026 they will be spending less than they spent last year.
And the Social Democrats – the Chancellor is a Social Democrat – are not happy at the idea of this major spending increase. They have got a three-party coalition. It is a very complicated political situation, and I suspect that if the war would end next year, the question is how many of those promises would then be fulfilled. The moment you pull off that impetus, it is the incentive there that, you know, if the wolf is not at the door, I think you go back to doing what you have done in the past.
If we see the Europeans backing away over this past year when the war is still raging, that tells us we should not expect an awful lot in the future unless we add some incentive to it. As long as we do it, we rush troops in, we provide most of the aid, you know, we constantly reassure the Europeans, do not worry, we are there, we will do everything for you, why would a rational European policy maker want to spend their money on defense when they know they can rely on the U.S.?
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, we know that to a certain extent membership in NATO has meant a decline in the defense spending of the nations that have acceded to membership, with this attitude that we are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the largest military in NATO, and they will take care of us. And the trade-off for the United States is that allows us to more or less control policy.
That is right. The U.S. has long been horrified at the thought the Europeans would have an independent military foreign policy/international approach. And you know, from our standpoint we want them to do more, but only as we tell them. We want them to do more in a way that we want them to do it, and it just does not work that way, that in the end if you demand that, then you are going to end up paying for most of it.
And now I think that may be good for people in Washington, that if we control them – now, we actually do not, of course. I mean, it turns out it is very hard to make other countries do anything. For the most part what happens is they simply do less, so the U.S. plays a larger role. That is the form of control. It is not so much bringing them along in a major way, but rather they do not resist the U.S.
But I think if you look at the world we are in, we are going to have to start making priorities, and to my mind, if you are looking around the world and saying where is the most serious challenge, it is not Russia. I mean, Russia in my view is a declining power, and it has shown that by its inability to defeat Ukraine. You know, the rhetoric of, ‘oh my, you know, Ukraine is defending Europe, if Ukraine loses, the Russians will be marching down the streets of Paris,’ I mean, this is just silly, that is not going to happen.
Robert R. Reilly:
Doug, you mentioned the wolf, right, your allusion to Russia, and you began your remarks by saying that the first thing to look at is foreign policy and put everything in the context of that. We know in the history of NATO that it was obviously created to protect, at that time Western Europe, from further Soviet expansion, as they had a very powerful Warsaw Pact facing a relatively weak NATO, and therefore the U.S. nuclear umbrella was all the more important. One could see how that made sense, because the Soviet Union was the great geopolitical challenge we were facing. But then after ‘91, when the Soviet Union collapses, NATO takes a huge leap in membership to the point now that if Sweden accedes to NATO, there will be 33 countries as against the original 12 from 1949.
That is right.
Robert R. Reilly:
Now let me give a counterpoising opinion from quite a respected foreign policy writer, Robert Kaplan, which he had in the Wall Street Journal about a week and a half ago. He is very much for the expansion of NATO.
He said this: “Had the West not expanded NATO and the EU to the east, we would now be fighting for Poland instead of for Ukraine and Belarus, as Mr. Putin surely would be breathing down the neck of every country between Berlin and Moscow… Germany would have drifted further toward neutralism, requiring a close relationship with Russia not only for natural gas but to manage its borders with Poland and the Czech Republic, etc.
“We are now fighting,” (It is interesting, we are now fighting), “We are now fighting to complete the Intermarium, Latin for, “between the seas.” That is the Baltic and Black Seas—a belt of democratic states from Estonia in the north to Ukraine in the south, to protect against Russian imperialism.”
So, Mr. Kaplan here makes very clear who the wolf is, and he is describing the nature of the threat from Russia very differently from what you just have, and he has observed the very same things in the Ukraine-Russia war that we have, so what is your reaction to Kaplan’s statement?
Well, my first reaction is that he views alliances differently. I view alliances as something that are supposed to enhance American security. I think he views an alliance as something that is supposed to promote democracy. At some level his view of an alliance is international welfare, that is you protect countries that might be weaker.
I mean, that is kind of a nice thing to do. The question is are we prepared to go to war for that? I mean, if you look at the expansion of NATO, the U.S. has brought on countries that are security black holes. I mean, Montenegro does not add to American security. The Baltic states did not add to American security. If what you are doing is bringing on obligations rather than strengths, you are enhancing America’s weaknesses, quite frankly. You are putting the U.S. at greater risk, making promises to go to war for countries that are not essential for America’s defense.
The original NATO kind of came out of World War II in the sense that you go to war between the Nazis and the Communists to ensure that neither side is able to dominate Eurasia. That is something the U.S. did not want to have happen. That is why the U.S. wanted to ensure the protection of Western Europe after the war, but nobody during the Cold War imagined that if the U.S. was not protecting Ukraine, that the U.S. would be extra vulnerable.
I mean, there was a sense of what the fundamental American interest was, Western Europe, and you protect that. And so I think that is the first point, that to make claims like that – well, the question is what is the relevance of some of those countries to American Security? Do we imagine in the world that he is imagining, America is under greater threat? I do not really see that.
The second is I think he is simply wrong in the sense of Putin’s motivations. Now, Vladimir Putin is not a nice guy. I mean, we should have no illusions about him being some, you know, pro-family whatever conservative, you know, some of the stuff that we have seen out there. I mean, this is a ruthless guy, former KGB. Nevertheless, there was no evidence that he was particularly anti-American.
You know, the KGB were the cynics. I mean, he had been in what? He had been in Eastern Germany. You know, they had a higher standard of living than the Soviet Union. He did not appear to be particularly hostile to the U.S. when he took power. He was the first president who called George W. Bush after 9/11 to offer assistance.
And I tell people, it is very interesting – you read his speech in 2001 to the German Bundestag. He really wanted a relationship with the West. He talked about how he recognized that there is a relationship between Europe and the United States, and you got a very different kind of tone from him.
And then in 2007, when he gave a speech before the Munich Security Conference, [it was not a friendly tone]. I think we underestimated how important it was not only to him but to the Russian public. They perceived aggressiveness from the West, that is lots of assurances, and we have those assurances all over the documents that have been declassified at the end of the Cold War, that the U.S. and allies made promises that NATO would not expand, and it did.
You know, when the Baltic states came in, the border of NATO is about 100 miles from St. Petersburg, you know, the old Leningrad during World War II. The opinion of both elite Russians and the public turned very negative when the U.S. dismembered Kosovo, you know, I mean, without U.N approval. I mean, you know, so the talk about NATO being a defensive alliance, well, when it went out of area, it became offensive.
They saw the same in Libya. I mean, the idea of the Color Revolutions in both Tbilisi and Kiev, as well as 2014, essentially a street putsch against an elected president, a corrupt one without question, but elected in what was widely considered essentially free elections, generally pro-Russian in his approach, so [there is] all of that.
The West just kind of sweeps that away, and I think the Russians saw that in a much more provocative light, so that gave them a very different vision of what was going on. And Putin has always been very concerned about Ukraine in a way that he has not talked about any of this. I have seen nothing to suggest that the Russians have any interest in war with Poland.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, it is interesting, Kaplan’s very strong statement in this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. You could simply substitute the Soviet Union for the word Russia, and it would read as a powerful Cold War document, so the question is, really, concerning the wolf, is what kind of nation is Russia?
Now, David Satter, who has been on this program a number of times, I personally consider the most brilliant and insightful American writer, as he was for many years, on the Soviet Union and on Russia. His many books are simply brilliant. From his experiences there he makes the strong case that Russia is not a normal country. It has not recovered from the massive distortions imposed from, you know, 70 years of Marxist-Leninists.
I mean, I am sure you were there at some point, and I made several trips to the Soviet Union in the last years of its existence, and it was bizarre. It was a completely bizarre place. It had a tremendous amount of not just material damage but spiritual damage, and so David Satter does not expect Russia to behave normally because they are not normal. What do you take of that perspective?
Well, I guess part of the question is what is normal? I mean, countries going to war and seizing territory is hardly abnormal given the human experience. To me, Russia looks like a pre-1914 great power, their old Russian Empire. It would take advantage of circumstances, it could be aggressive if it suited it, but it was not something that had kind of a vision of ideological conquest.
And I think that is to my mind the very great difference from the Soviet Union. I mean, Joseph Stalin demonstrated in the aftermath of World War II, the expansion of Soviet troops, that wherever the Soviet troops ended up, almost anywhere (I mean, in Austria they pulled out, but for the most part) where Soviet troops went, the Soviet Union ended up in terms of influence. Part of it is that Russia’s kind of resources and abilities are substantially less than the Soviet Union.
And I do not get a sense that Putin is ideologically driven in any way the same way. So I would certainly say, number one, expecting this to become a democracy [is unrealistic], we should not [expect that]. That does not mean it cannot [become a democracy] at some point. I mean, in essence the Soviet Union was the Russian empire in certain ways just reimagined with a new ideology. You know, we have not had a democratic Russia in history.
And I think you are absolutely right that what that has done to a national character, civil society, the spiritual – I mean, the underpinnings of a society, the ability to work together, I mean, all of these things are clearly affected by that, so I would assume this is going to be a difficult problematic neighbor. It does not mean, however, that it is bent on military aggression, especially, I think, now that it has shown, frankly, it is not very competent at that.
To me, that is the real issue here then: however we imagine Russia, can the Europeans defend themselves? And 80 years after World War II, I would say yes, they can, but we have got to make it clear to them that is going to be their obligation, that we should not assume just because Russia is a malign actor, the U.S. has to defend them. It has to be a new approach of defense, and I think the idea of the U.S., to the extent it can become an arsenal of democracy, it can be certainly an arsenal, it can help, you know, the Europeans if there was in fact a conflict, but that does not mean the U.S. has to be on the front lines, guarding the Europeans in the future.
Robert R. Reilly:
You mentioned the Baltic states entering NATO was not a plus in terms of security.
I was reading the Cato Institute’s paper Why U.S. Efforts at Defense Burdensharing Fail. It is a very well-done presentation. One of the striking remarks in it is that while the Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, NATO did not have a plan to defend them until 2010. This is not serious. I mean, this means NATO itself did not think Russia was much of a wolf, or certainly they would have – or that they regarded NATO as something other than this defense alliance.
Well, I think that what happened in those years, especially, you know, kind of the Clinton administration into the George W. Bush years, was that the view was Russia had lost, or the Soviet Union had lost, so they could be pushed around, and that there was not a threat, so you could bring countries in. It became almost kind of like a gentleman’s club, right, everybody wants to be part of the club, so of course you bring them in.
I mean, if you look at the Baltic states, the question is how do you defend them from Russia? And I do not think anyone simply bothered to ask: is it serious for us to make that promise? If we make that promise, how do we act on it? If we act on it, do we win? Those are all questions that should have been asked. And I think the problem is to some degree NATO gave a false promise to the Baltic states, which is, well, of course, NATO will take care of us.
Now, they are small. I mean, it is at one level they cannot defend themselves, but even now they spend, you know, two percent, a little more than two percent, of GDP on the military. My reaction would be if you are next door to this Russia, and you are weak, and you are worried about your defense, you need a strong territorial defense. Well, that means five percent of GDP. Maybe it is ten percent. I mean, what you do is you decide you are seriously worried about the Russians, you have got to make it very clear to the Russians they will pay a price, that you are not going to be this is not something where you just kind of stroll on in and they take it.
And I think that then again, it is not our obligation to do that. They should be at least a starting point. And my reaction at this is, you know, we have made the promise to defend them, they are part of NATO, and that is our promise. But they should do more and should not expect everyone else to do more just for them. They need to do more as well, and I would like to see that because [if] you look at a map, [you see that] they are not particularly defensible.
Now, they are helped to some degree with Finland in that it helps change the geography a bit. Nevertheless, it would still be difficult to defend them. Again, I have not seen anything to suggest that Putin has any particular interest in conquering them, and he does not view them in some way as integral to Russia, but you know they should be on their guard. If they are very concerned, and I think they are, they need to do more themselves.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well as you know, those three countries do spend two percent of their GDP, but the question is two percent of what? Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic countries, has 23,000 troops, by far the largest. How large is the pie for which this is two percent? For the United States, that means a lot, that we spend a good deal more than two percent.
This really does seem to boil down, Doug, to a perspective on the nature of Russia today. Is it the same kind of thing? Is there something imperial in the Russian blood that will lead it to take advantage of any weakness to the nations to its west so that someday it would threaten Poland again? That seems to be the big divide.
I mean, I look at us at look at it as Putin has been president for more than 23 years or about that long. I guess it was in December of 1999, I think, when he took over as president. He is no Adolf Hitler. He is no Joseph Stalin. I mean, his conquests, if you want to call them that, to the extent you count kind of indirect control over territory, would be South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Donbas, and Crimea. That is frankly not much of a record of conquest, so I look at that.
I mean, everything I think we have seen in his behavior; you know, he is a predator but a rational and controlled one. Everyone was shocked by the invasion of Ukraine. I think that that kind of shows the judgment there, that his past behavior did not suggest that this is part of some massive attempt to overrun Europe. And I think the notion that if he defeated the Ukrainians, that he would immediately line up the troops and off they would go again, I think you look at Ukraine in the map and you understand the security concerns there, that – and again, he is absolutely wrong in what he did, but it is worth recognizing [the Russian perspective].
I have always been thought strategic empathy is worth playing, that is if you flip things around and if you imagine Russia doing essentially what the U.S. did, that is imagine that Russia expands the Warsaw Pact to South America, that Russia helped stage a coup d’état in Mexico City against an elected Mexican President friendly to the United States, that Russian officials are then on the loose around Mexico City, found on their phones talking about who they want in the Mexican government, and that Russia invites Mexico to join the Warsaw Pact.
What would the reaction in Washington be? It would not be friendly.
And again, it does not justify what he did, but I think it helps us understand at least a little bit more of what was going on. And I do not think that we see that kind of an attitude towards Poland, that you know, they fought Poland before, they fought Poland after World War I ended, and they did not do well. And the idea that they would want to rule Poles, I think that is just very [fanciful]. You know, they took all the territory they wanted after World War II, they grabbed the eastern part of Poland, so it is hard for me to imagine what that agenda would be. It looks to me like this is not an effort [to conquer Europe]. They want essentially what the U.S. has, which is a sphere of influence, and unfortunately, he chose war as a way to get it. But it is hard for me to see that notion that he actually thinks he could conquer Europe and would make an effort. And I just do not think it is possible.
Robert R. Reilly:
As certain military analysts have pointed out, Doug, the number of troops he used to invade Ukraine was way below what would have been needed to occupy a country of that size, so it did not look like the plan was to occupy it. On the other hand, because of faulty intelligence or whatever other reason, because he thinks they are his Slavic brothers and would welcome the Russian troops, [Putin may have thought] they could simply replace Zelenskyy, install a friendly government, and it would be over.
Well, it turned out quite the opposite.
It is interesting with this extraordinarily courageous defense by the Ukrainians – and people who wonder is Ukraine a nation, well, the Ukrainians have now spoken by the sacrifices they have been willing to make, and the answer is a resounding oh yes, we are. Then, of course, [Russia] has undergone several mobilization calls to try to get more Russians under arms simply to keep the part of Ukraine it conquered, and NATO’s response was to create this 300,000 sort of rapid reaction force, which it is very far from achieving now.
Let us say the war comes to some kind of negotiated settlement. How likely do you find it that NATO would keep its commitment to create this 300,000 quickly mobilized army to face any future threat from Russia? I find it hard to think now that they could mobilize 300,000 troops.
Yeah, the irony of all of this is that Vladimir Putin essentially created, or I mean intensified, Ukrainian nationalism, and that started in 2014. Yanukovych, the man who was thrown out in 2014, was elected [with] very heavy support in the east. Galicia and all of these old territories of Austro-Hungary and everything were joined with Ukraine after World War I. And if you look at a map of voting patterns, [you see that] the further east you got, the stronger the support for candidates seen as relatively pro-Russian.
I mean, none of them wanted to be ruled from Moscow, but a question of friendliness and economic connections, as well as whether you want to be part of NATO or whatever, varied dramatically. And after 2014, I mean what you found was in terms of public polls and whatnot, support for Russia dropped dramatically even in those areas where in the past people perceive them as being pro-Russian, and at this stage there is virtually nothing left. I mean, the polls all indicate, I think, that the Donbas, after the Russians and the separatists backed by Russia took over, support for Russia dropped, you know, dramatically.
In Crimea, I mean, they may still have a majority of people who genuinely want to stay with Russia, though, you know, Tartars have been pushed out and there is a lot of stuff that has happened. It is hard to understand exactly. I mean, even after the takeover in 2014, there has been some [effort to Russify the area], so trying to figure out the sentiment of people there is a little more complicated. But Crimea was always a special case, having historically been Russian for a long time, so Putin has created the Ukrainian nation that he did not want.
And I think to me one of the telling points as you indicated is that I believe he thought he could go in and just decapitate the government, put in a pro-Russian one, and get what he wanted without an occupation, without running the country, which suggests to me that he knows that would not happen elsewhere in Europe, that his intentions in Ukraine were more limited in form. And if those were his intentions there, it is hard to imagine he would have this expansive form elsewhere.
But the problem for the Europeans is they will act only if they have to act, so I am not even convinced this 300,000-person force is serious now. Again, look at what they are doing on spending, looking at backing away on things just a year into the war. We are seeing that kind of oh, we have economic problems. I mean, well doesn’t the U.S.? When they all look to America, well, do we not have problems as well?
Robert R. Reilly:
I just throw in another statistic, Doug, from this Cato Institute publication which tracks the percentage of the defense burdens the United States vis-á-vis the other NATO members, and the United States contribution is above 60 percent, and the other NATO countries are below 40 percent, and it appears that they have never risen to above that. They have never broken 40 percent.
And they have never had to.
Robert R. Reilly:
And they never had to. Well, the thing is do they think they have to now?
No. To me, that seems pretty clear.
And I think, again, the problem is if you rush in extra U.S. troops, you promise to defend every part of territory, and you welcome the expansion of NATO, you are communicating to the Europeans that NATO remains a central American security concern.
Robert R. Reilly:
Sacred, as President Biden said.
That is right. I mean, I was always struck by presidents – I mean, Robert Gates, Defense Secretary, and others. You have these scorching speeches about the Europeans not doing what they should be doing, and then the vice president was one, and others would go over, and we would be told they are on a reassurance mission to reassure the Europeans. In fact, Congress passed what they called the Reassurance Initiative, a multi-billion dollar spending program, rotating more troops through. But what did that communicate? You know, we want you to do more, but do not worry, we are always going to be there for you.
I think an interesting comparison is Japan. And in fact, the paper by Justin Logan, one of Cato’s foreign policy scholars, mentions this, and it is a very telling one in my view. If you look at what is happening in Japan today, [there is] a very serious talk of doubling spending as a percentage of GDP, and while it may not get all the way there, again, they have their own political processes to go through, etc., that you get a sense that what Japan is being animated by is, number one, by the perception of a greater threat with China and North Korea, and second, by a certain nervousness about whether the U.S. will always be there and whether we are really serious about extended deterrence. Are we prepared to sacrifice American cities to protect their cities? Their response then is to do more, that they recognize that is the circumstance. They do not want to be totally reliant on the U.S., so to my mind that is what is lacking in Europe.
One of the administration officials last year said, yeah, we want them to do more, but we are not prepared to say or else. If you do not say or else, they have no logical reason to behave otherwise. I do not blame them. You know, if the U.S. could get somebody else to pay for our defense, I would say that is wonderful. And during the Cold War, it made sense as they were recovering. There really was the shield behind which they would recover. You know, even Dwight Eisenhower said we failed if U.S. troops are there forever, if we became like Rome in permanent deployments of forces, and that is what we did.
Robert R. Reilly:
Apparently, there is a new phrase circulating in Japan referring to our current time as the new pre-war, so the signs are there, and they greatly appreciate the threat to them. And as you know, the changes in defense policy in Japan, as well as the spending, are historic, considering the kind of nation it has been since 1946.
Let us go back to Europe and the NATO situation and the EU situation. The economic warfare waged against Russia has simply been extraordinary; no or very minimal purchases of Russian natural gas. [It is a] huge thing for Germany to have undertaken that and to have done it in such a way with our help that it did not bring their industry down, so much of which relies on natural gas supplies. [In addition, the economic warfare means] no oil from Russia, the withdrawal from Russia of almost all the major Western corporations.
Now, is that a permanent feature of the landscape? Is that going to remain even after some kind of cessation of this Russia-Ukraine war?
Well, certainly, the Europeans are going to be, I think, reluctant to become so dependent on Russia, whatever the future looks like.
Robert R. Reilly:
So they have learned their lesson [that they cannot depend on Russia]?
That I think they have. I mean, they were very lucky that it was a relatively mild winter. If it had been a much colder winter, they would have had much greater problems, but I think that does not mean they would not go back and start buying some Russian energy. But I suspect that notion that you become so heavily dependent, where they literally can kind of shut you off, they do not want to go [back to that].
And to some degree in the future, I suspect Russia is going to be still providing more [energy] to Asia and others, that a lot of these markets have changed in a way [that] if I was Russia, I would probably prefer to be reliant on Asian customers who are not likely to sanction me and cut me off. So some of that, I think, we are seeing, like the U.S.-China question of supply chains.
I think the European situation is a different kind of issue, but in many ways coming to the same conclusion. I think the real issue of sanctions on financial transactions, technology, and everything else [is] that is going to become a really huge issue, I think, if you want some kind of a solution.
Let us assume that militarily neither side can win, kind of however we want to define win, but for the most part the Russians cannot defeat [Ukrainians] on the battlefield, and take Kiev, and put in a new government. And the Ukrainians are not in a position to fully defeat Russian forces and retake the Donbas and Crimea, so something like the lines of today are [going to be maintained] there next year.
How do you get out of this? It requires a negotiated settlement. Sanctions have to be at least part of the discussion. No one wants to reward aggression. On the other hand, do we really want to have an isolated, angry, revanchist Russia, you know, where in a sense we have got a great big North Korea, just with a lot more nuclear weapons and other tools of destruction? I am not sure we want to be there either.
And frankly, one of the most powerful sanctions on the Russians have been the loss of a technocratic elite, you know, liberal professionals.
Robert R. Reilly:
Their own people leaving.
That is right.
Now on the one hand, we may like that in the theory that we are degrading and weakening Russia. On the other hand, to the extent that the whole system becomes more nationalistic, more limited, more reliant on the worst people – I mean, Putin is a bad guy, but he is not the most radical nationalist there. If he fell, it would not be a Jeffersonian Democrat who took over. It would probably be somebody a good bit worse out of the security services, so I am not sure we want an isolated Russia over the long term either.
We need a discussion in the West of how we would want to approach this, and I think we probably need to have that issue as part of any negotiated settlement, to offer the Russians. Come up with a settlement that Ukraine can live with, and sanctions relief goes as part of that, that one has to [give]. If you tell them they will never get out of sanctions, then you give them another incentive to say, well, fine, I mean, we are going to go our own way, we are going to do what we want in Ukraine, etc.
Give them an opportunity, because I think over the long term what will particularly hurt them is some of the technology controls. They can evade and stuff, buying washing machines and pulling chips out, but over the long term the high-tech, energy industry, there are some of these things they really need that 10, 20 years from now I think that that will [hurt them].
Robert R. Reilly:[It is] highly damaging to them to lose that access to high technology from the West.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, so let us talk for a minute about the Russian perspective. As you know, when Putin took Ukraine back in 2014, it was a wildly popular move in Russia. A few Russians I talked were so puzzled by the reaction in the United States and the West, saying, you know, ‘What is the problem? It is Russian. It has always been Russian.’ This greatly enhanced Vladimir Putin’s a popularity, and with that popularity gives him even more power to maneuver.
Now, it is very hard to judge rightly what is the level of Putin’s popularity now because it is hard to have some kind of free and accurate polling, though there are some indications that his popularity has been maintained, that the Russian people do have a siege mentality after sort of the relentless eastward expansion of NATO, that they have all asked themselves the question, well, what is it defending against? And the obvious answer is us, so we are their enemy, so likewise, we should think of them as the enemy, right? And that instills in a nation a deep, deep sense of grievance.
That is right.
Robert R. Reilly:
Serious powers, which Russia still is, with a deep sense of grievance are more dangerous. We know that China today also has this deep sense of historical grievance. They are a non-status quo power with deep grievances. It makes them exceptionally dangerous, just as was Germany after World War I, which Hitler was able to play into, and that, to say the least, was exceedingly dangerous, so it is hard to see how that damage can be ameliorated, that is one point.
My second point, Doug, is any settlement of the war on Ukraine’s side would certainly from their perspective require some security assurances to Ukraine. Now, you know how repeatedly Ukraine has been told by NATO, and particularly by the United States, you will become a member. Immediately, like the day after the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy said, oh, we will forswear NATO forever. Well, that is a dime short and a day too late, unfortunately. And now, of course, things have changed and will not go back to this status quo ante. What can be reasonably expected in terms of guarantees for Ukraine’s security to help bring this war to an end?
You know, on the first point, I think it is very important not to set as a goal defeating Russia, humiliating Russia, ousting Putin, etc. I mean, all of those sound pretty good in the abstract, but the question is always compared to what? You oust Putin, well then who takes over? We have to accept we are not in a situation where we would expect better, so it is an absolute wild card, so it is one thing to take policy, make policy, and recognize it could happen, it is another thing to set as your goal to make it happen.
I think particularly [with] the isolation of Russia, that what I fear is exactly you get yourself [into an interwar situation]. You know, we do not want another Versailles Treaty, where you have a post-World War I Germany, which basically is consumed with the injustice that they perceived and wanting recompense. We do not want a Russia that does [what Nazi Germany did], so I mean that is one reason why for all of the talk [that] we must defeat them, we must all these things, and maybe they will fall apart, etc., my reaction is do we want another Yugoslavia only bigger and with 5000 nuclear weapons? Do we want multiple civil wars across [the Russian Federation]?
I mean, again, to my mind this is extraordinarily dangerous, be very careful what you wish for, so that is why I think we have to bring into any negotiating process [thinking about] how we figure out to get Russia back into a family of nations. We have to recognize that much of the world does not really care about Ukraine, that there are an awful lot of countries out there [that do not care]. You look by population, I mean the majority, I mean Pakistan and Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa.
I mean, all these countries that from their standpoint they look and say you guys blew up Iraq, you had an illegal war, you committed aggression, you killed people, and now you are [complaining about Russia invading Ukraine]? And they look at themselves and say, you know, millions of people died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. You did not come and save them, and you have had your other wars and whatnot.
So, Russia has clearly kind of staked this sense that it has an alternative to the West, that it can write the West off. I do not think we want that, so it is going to be difficult. The question of Ukraine, part of it is we cannot tell Ukraine what its objectives are, but the U.S. should calibrate its support. We need to make clear to the Ukrainians that they cannot demand everything and expect that we are going to provide the weapons to do that.
I mean, I joke what if the Ukrainians announced they wanted to seize Moscow, you know, and hold it until they got the settlement they want? Well, we would have to say that is not happening, right? I mean, we are not, so to my mind is part of this is going to have to be a discussion where the Ukrainians understand that they can set whatever objectives they want, [but] that does not mean it is in America’s interest to give them everything they want.
My view in terms of our security interest is ensuring the independence of Ukraine. That does not mean the U.S. has a particular objective in terms of what territory they control, the status of Crimea, or anything else. Those are things that matter a lot to Ukraine. They do not matter much to the United States.
The question of security assurances is going to be very difficult. The reality is NATO spent 14 years lying to the Ukrainians. In 2008, [NATO said] yes, we love you, we are going to bring you in. And for 14 years NATO said yes, we love you, we are going to bring you in. But no one in NATO wanted to bring them in because no one in NATO wanted to defend them.
I mean, that is why we are not defending them now, directly,
I mean, Zelenskyy would love to have the U.S. in that war. When the Ukrainian missile hit in Poland, he tried to lie us into the war. I mean, let us face it. If the American military and Polish military knew that missile was Ukrainian, surely the Ukrainian military knew that. He was trying to use that to get the allies in. I do not blame him. I mean, if I was him, I would do the same.
If the Europeans and Americans really do not want to have to defend Ukraine, then the question is can you construct something, essentially say you get what you have now, that is we will continue to arm you, train your forces, help you build a military, which the Russians will realize if they stalemated us before, it would happen again, that rather than a direct military commitment to come in, it would be a commitment to ensure that you have the means to defend yourself, but any war would be fought by you.
I am not convinced. I mean, at the recent NATO Summit, the Ukrainians were there and very insistent, saying we do not just want assurances, we want [a commitment to Ukrainian accession into NATO], and nobody would give it to them. [Jens] Stoltenberg, the Secretary General, and all the others said, well, that is something to talk about in the future, we want to focus on defense now. What that means is they do not want to talk about it because they are not prepared to make that commitment. That is going to be a real sticking point.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, you know shortly after the war began and it was evident that the Russian version of Blitzkrieg was a disaster, a Ukrainian said about Russia, they are seven years too late. And of course, what he alluded to was the heavy Western presence in Ukraine, to upgrade their military, to train them, and make them a more capable fighting force, to arm them. And the fruit of that is, of course, how well they have fought.
I mean, the joke on that was they were not able to get into NATO, but NATO was able to get into Ukraine, and that had a huge impact.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yeah. I remember reading Vladimir Putin’s eight-thousand-word essay in the summer before the war, saying the way Russia or at least Putin views Ukraine, as [having] historical ties to Russia that are unbreakable, and Ukraine can live with whatever kind of government it so chooses, but it cannot be hostile to Russia.
A number of people said his history is way off base, and one could see it as part of information warfare, or Putin could actually have meant it. Someone we both know who is a Russian, who worked closely with Putin for years, said yeah, he does mean it. He is serious about this kind of thing.
Well, now, Doug, because of what has happened, it does not seem that there is any way in the world that that sine qua non requirement of Putin, that Ukraine not be a nation hostile to Russia, that is not achievable now because the Ukrainians are not going to forget this and the terrible devastation that the Russian military forces have delivered upon their country.
Yeah, I mean, all I can see of Russia achieving would be some sort of a modus vivendi in which Ukraine agrees not to be part of NATO, which would then sever at least the theoretical ability to be some kind of an offensive force against Russia, and that Putin could present that as a success in having reached an outcome in which Kiev has agreed it will not join with this organization, which Putin and other Russians view as kind of an aggressive threat.
I mean, look, from a Russian standpoint this has been an utter disaster.
Robert R. Reilly:
It has been an utter disaster militarily, and with the number of resources that sucked out of Russia, and of course, as you pointed out, the economic retaliation that Western powers have taken. But there is still this big difference. Ukraine was never a vital national security interest to the United States. It has always been a vital national security interest to Russia, and that is why Putin repeatedly has said no, that is a red line, that we will never accept that.
Of course, he was not listened to. He was not taken seriously. Not that he was justified in his views mind you, but you listen to the leader of one of the world powers, and he said that is a red line over which we will go to war. And then he goes to war, and you should not be surprised at least, right? This is why I think so many people are worried about escalation, Doug, because no matter the damage the Russian forces have received, he shows no signs of backing off, and there have been threats of escalation.
And while his conventional military forces have shown to be in a lamentable condition, one reason because of the widespread corruption, I do not think this is true of his strategic forces. And where he has put the real Russian money is in the modernization of the nuclear forces, of hypersonic missiles, of the latest Russian fighter aircraft. Those are serious, and if he thinks that vital national security interest is continuing to be endangered, what do you think of that chance of escalation?
I think you have pointed out really the essential issue here, which is intensity matters, that is [to say] from an American standpoint we have humanitarian interests and a lot of other things in Ukraine, [but] we do not have a fundamental security interest. The U.S. never in its history was concerned about Moscow’s role in Ukraine.[With] the Soviet Union, we were worried about the Soviet Union, but there was no focus on Ukraine, I mean never. So, the U.S. will not fight directly over Ukraine. The president has made that very clear, and I think he believes that very strongly, that he does not see an American interest that warrants direct conflict with Russia.
But as you indicated, for Russia this is a vital interest. I mean, it is why the U.S. won, if you want to put it that way, the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the U.S., having Soviet missiles in Cuba off of America’s coast mattered a lot more to the U.S. than it mattered to the Soviet Union, so the Soviets had to make a decision on what they were willing to risk. The U.S. was willing to risk more, was willing to spend more.
And we have got to take that into account because if you do not take that into account, you miss the essential problem with Putin, which is we can sit here and say it would be crazy for him to use nuclear weapons. Well, that is from our perspective. We are not willing to fight a war over Ukraine, so of course, it would be crazy to use nuclear weapons. He has made the decision that Ukraine is worth a war.
I think especially the issue of Crimea, where it is widely regarded by Russians as part of Russia, it is hard for me to see how he can survive politically to lose Crimea. And I think that is the kind of moment that you suddenly think if you are Russian, you know your conventional forces are inferior to those of the West, but you know that forces you to rely on nuclear weapons, but your hope is you can kind of scare the other side, show a willingness to use these, try to find that step you take that is an escalation, that kind of forces everyone to back away. It is a very dangerous maneuver, but I could see him doing it.
Now, he is trying to use a nuclear threat to scare us, and my guess is there is a certain amount of bluff there. Would he use nukes for the Donbas? I mean, tactical nukes, it is not clear how useful they would be. I mean, all those things are true, but still, we underestimate the interest of Russia, not only him, but also the ruling elite and the population.
And if the perception is Russia is threatened by the West, I think we have to recognize that yes, he could do that, and proposals that have been made in the U.S. that our response should be to destroy all the Russian conventional forces in Ukraine, sink anything in the Black Sea Fleet, to my mind these are genuinely insane.
The notion that you could humiliate Russia, destroy its military capability, and it would not respond [is crazy]. You talk about rolling the dice, and I mean it would just be extraordinary because you are betting the future of the American homeland. You are risking triggering a nuclear war with that kind of behavior, so I think we have to take escalation very seriously. To my mind that is why we need to remember what our interest is. I want Ukraine to maintain its independence and sovereignty. Support them to do that.
But let us recognize that there are certain points you do not want to go past, and you want to make very clear to Ukraine you are not going to help them get past that point because from our standpoint it is a threat to our interests, frankly vital interests, the security of our homeland and our people.
Robert R. Reilly:
One thing about the way the war in Ukraine is currently being fought (we do not know when the Ukrainian counterattack is going to take place or how effective it will be) [is] it is now World War I trench warfare, and the Russians are very well dug in along a very, very wide defensive line. I think, including Crimea, they currently possess about 18 percent of Ukraine.
My other observation is this. It is often the case, and it certainly was the case in World War II, that the Russian military behaves very poorly. After all, the Germans were near Moscow, near Leningrad. They almost did it. Russia has always relied on defense in depth. We helped resupply the Soviet armies, and at tremendous cost to them, they went after the Germans sometimes [employing] human wave attacks against German machine guns, and took huge, huge losses. And of course, they would have their commissars with their pistols behind the troops to shoot anyone who was retreating.
I have supposedly an accurate account from a Russian soldier who was captured or who defected in this war who said something similar is happening anyone turns around or retreats does not go forward will be shot.
And again, it seems to be typical of Russian warfare, we keep thinking, well, what are they going to gain? They have destroyed the places they wish to occupy, but that is the way they fought World War II. Anyone who looks at Berlin in 1945 [would see] it was totally destroyed. Anyone who looks at Grozny [will see that it] looked like Berlin, and that is the way the eastern parts of Ukraine look.
That is their artillery war. They just completely destroyed the place. That is, again, to us unacceptable and kind of crazy, but it is the way Russia has fought its wars. It is certainly the way the Soviet Union fought its wars, and the way it has fought since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Well, Doug, I think we are just about out of time, so I am going to pose this question to you. Have we answered should the U.S. or Europe make NATO great again?
Should the U.S. or Europe make NATO great again?
I think we have. I mean, certainly the answer is Europe. Now, the U.S. may have a role to play in helping push, and urge, and encourage the Europeans. It certainly makes sense to do things in a phased way where, you know, countries that have relied on the U.S. so long now need some time to adapt their own policies, but we are living in a world in which the U.S. has to start setting priorities, and I think that the place to start is Europe. The Europeans are capable. They are able to take over their own defense. It is long overdue, you know. We have to make it happen.
Robert R. Reilly:
And we know, for instance, Finland, the newest member of NATO, has always taken its defense seriously, so in this case they may actually be adding to the security of NATO rather than detracting from it.
Yeah, they always [maintained] their agreement with the Russians. Both sides, you know, maintained it. The Russians, the Soviets, did not try to take them over, but the Finns certainly tried to prepare that if they were attacked, they would give a very good account of themselves, as they did during the Winter War.
Robert R. Reilly:
When they bloodied them very seriously.
Doug, thank you very much. I would like to particularly thank Doug Bandow, who is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, for joining me to discuss this question about NATO, Europe, and the United States, in light, of course, of the current Russia-Ukraine war.
I invite our audience to please go to the Westminster Institute website or to our YouTube channel to see our other offerings, quite a number on the Russia-Ukraine war, but also many on the question of the threat that the CCP presents in China, China and Japan, China and Taiwan, and other foreign policy questions, and even some domestic ones, like what are the origins of the inflation from which we are currently suffering, so thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.