Leadership: Disproportionate Dependence


July 24, 2023: Since the end of World War II in 1945, the United States has been the largest and most capable military force in what came to be known as the Western alliance. This group consisted of the industrialized nations of Europe and North America. The United States has always had the largest military and the one with many specialist capabilities European nations lacked. For example, the U.S. had the largest fleet of military air transports and these were backed up by large numbers of cargo and passenger aircraft owned by American airlines and available to the military in an emergency. The American army, navy and air force possessed special aviation capabilities no other NATO nation could muster. For example, when NATO nations were called on to operate in some distant area they depend on the large American fleet of aerial refueling aircraft and specialized aerial surveillance and electronic warfare aircraft. English has become the common language between the air forces of nearly every nation. When a NATO member requires specialized aircraft support; a French, Italian or German pilot can talk to the American aerial tanker or air traffic control aircraft in English and quickly get what they need. This capability has enabled European nations to send aircraft of ground forces long distances on short notice because the specialized American support aircraft are always available. Some European nations have a few of these support aircraft that handle most peacetime needs. But in a military crisis, like supporting Ukraine against the invading Russians, the Americans not only supply most of the military aid, but also make U.S. transportation and communications capabilities available to their NATO allies. Unless there is some major political dispute between the U.S. and European nations, this support is made available quickly and in whatever quantities are required. This makes the military forces of the entire NATO alliance more flexible and effective. In military terms these American logistic and specialist capabilities are a “force multiplier” for the troops, ships and aircraft of NATO allies.

This dependence on American resources has been criticized since NATO was founded, but none of the nation’s depending on that support have come up with an alternative. There were some efforts in that direction. NATO nations have a joint force of AWACS (air traffic control) aircraft and a pool arrangement for medium range air transports. European nations can gather a larger number of commercial ships for an emergency than the United States itself can. All this complements similar American support and is considered an example of how beneficial NATO cooperation is. Ukraine has benefited from this since 2022 and that is one reason Ukraine wants to join NATO as soon as the war with Russia is over. NATO policy does not allow a new member to join if they are currently involved in a war.

Russia claims it invaded Ukraine to prevent the expansion of NATO rather than seeking to rebuild the Russian Empire. The lost empire was a common complaint made by Russian leaders. Ukraine realized NATO membership would keep the Russians out. By invading Ukraine, Russia triggered substantial economic sanctions on Russia and huge NATO support for the Ukrainian military. Russian leader Vladimir Putin insists that Russian forces will keep fighting even if the Ukrainians push all the Russians out of Ukraine. Putin believes NATO countries will soon tire of spending all this money on Ukraine and reduce support. At that point Putin believes Russia will have a better chance of taking Ukraine. This is an endurance contest. Can Russia keep fighting while its economy is starved for resources by the sanctions? Can Putin survive long enough to keep Russia fighting? Will NATO nations keep spending a lot of money on military support for Ukraine? The Ukrainians have made it clear that they will keep fighting because to surrender means the end of Ukraine as an independent country and the return of Russian rule.

While NATO remains dependent on the Americans when large amounts of military and economic support are needed, the NATO members adjacent to Ukraine or Russia are not without resources and are spending a lot more on weapons and military equipment since the Russians invaded Ukraine. This invasion was a clear example of why NATO was needed. The Russians admit that they don’t want to fight NATO directly and are dismayed at how enormous NATO contributions of military material, but not troops, to Ukraine caused the Russian invasion to fail, with huge military and economic losses for Russia. The NATO alliance worked and Russian aggression was halted without triggering a nuclear war.

The NATO alliance worked because its members, collectively, constitute the largest economic and military capabilities on the planet. Russia, especially leader Vladimir Putin, feared that NATO would somehow become a military threat. That was never NATO’s intention and the coalition has lasted so long because it stuck to its role as a defensive alliance. Some Russians, like Putin, see NATO’s ability to constrain Russian attack options as a form of coercion and hostility towards Russia. Similar misconceptions are common throughout history and often a cause of war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Russian justification for that is one such example of this perverse logic. The expansion of NATO membership after the Cold War ended was seen as essential for nations near Russia to survive and that assessment proved correct. That’s why long-time neutrals like Sweden and Finland suddenly sought to join NATO. Collectively, NATO is a huge organization in terms of population and military capabilities and becomes more useful the larger it becomes. As a defensive organization it reduces military spending for members and increases national security. The cost of running NATO is miniscule, as is the annual cost to members. Efforts to establish a similar defensive organization in East Asia have increased as the Chinese military threat grows. China is not seen as unstable and prone to aggression as Russia, but neighbors of China detect ominous changing attitudes inside China that warrant considering an Asian version of NATO.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close