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Since its establishment during the Cold War, N.A.T.O. has served as a transatlantic allegiance for peace; serving post-World War II to unite European countries and the U.S. as well as deter Soviet expansion. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, N.A.T.O. has focused on promoting its values — of democracy and mutual defense — while providing a resolution of disputes in international affairs.

However, to the Middle East, Africa, South America, India and several other regions, N.A.T.O.’s mission represents a completely different dogma than the one it prides itself on. From the invasion of Afghanistan to the bombing of Yugoslavia, N.A.T.O. was not an alliance for peace as much as it was an effort to establish a unipolar global union erected on imperialist pillars. And while these decisions are agreed on unanimously by all member nations, the U.S. plays a much more integral role in N.A.T.O.’s political strategy than the bulk of the European countries in N.A.T.O.

Just last year, N.A.T.O. spent over $1 trillion on defense, with the American funds making up around 70% of that figure. Such high spending gives the United States a natural leading role in the alliance and some influence over the actions of fellow N.A.T.O. members. For instance, President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of roughly 12,000 troops from Germany in 2020, due to Germany’s failure to meet the terms of the 2014 Wales Pledge, a declaration that N.A.T.O. members spend a minimum 2% of their GDP on defense. Trump employed this tactic to pressure allies into providing more monetary support to the alliance or face a decline in America’s military commitments to Europe, something that European countries strongly fear.

The power that the U.S. maintains over N.A.T.O. is especially problematic because the U.S. is not bound by many basic international human rights treaties. For instance, the U.S. did not ratify the Conventions on the Rights of a Child, which focuses on basic human rights for children, due to Republican pushback in the Senate. Moreover, though the U.S. played a pivotal role in writing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which focuses on prosecuting individuals that commit serious war crimes, it refuses to sign it. This means that U.S. personnel cannot be prosecuted on the international level for instances of genocide, mass rape, enforced sterilization or crimes against humanity, depriving said personnel of any moral authority to lead global efforts to resolve humanitarian crimes.

So, why did the U.S. refuse to sign such a cornerstone treaty? Christopher Fariss, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan who focuses on an empirical investigation of human rights, pointed out that membership in N.A.T.O. does not entail ratification of these treaties since they are proposed by the United Nations. The refusal to sign these treaties essentially exempts U.S. military and government personnel from the international court’s jurisdiction. Remember: other European nations have had no trouble signing these human rights treaties.

It does not just stop there. The American Service-Members’ Protection Act or so called “Hague Invasion Act,” for instance, has since 2002 provided that the U.S. government may use “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release of any U.S. or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court.” This is not the behavior of a country that is fully investing in the rules based order.

To draw on a current-day example, we can assess the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to the University of Chicago’s John Mearshimer, one of the most prominent modern international relations scholars of the realist school, has been a notable proponent of the view that The U.S. played an integral role in the provocation of Russia, ultimately perpetuating the Ukrainian struggle we see today. For instance, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. placed significant pressure on countries from the European Union to place sanctions on Russia. As a result, European countries such as Germany, which has long relied on Russian gas, must endure the economic struggle borne by the EU’s decision to place sanctions on Russia and the U.S.’ failure to send adequate aid. Though not the same organization, the EU and N.A.T.O. share many members. French President Emmanuel Macron stated in a recent conference, “in a spirit of great friendship, we will say to our American and Norwegian friends … ‘you supply us with energy and gas, but one thing that can’t go on for too long is us paying four times more than the price you sell to your industry.’” 

Energy is only one example of the intricate webs that bind Europe to the U.S.. Not only does the U.S. maintain this power dynamic quite subtly, but it has also prepared for any challenge to this dominance from the European Union by encouraging Brexit, an agenda for the United Kingdom to leave the EU. The U.K. was a major player in the economic structure of the EU. Its departure from the EU compromises the overall geo-political stability of the EU itself. As the far-right gains more momentum in Europe, we are seeing more Euroscepticism and risk that the EU might be further weakened — and weaker European unity could translate to increased American domination. 

For too long the U.S. has exploited its influence over N.A.T.O. to push its imperial agenda overseas. The U.S. cannot continue to leverage its militaristic influence when it comes to these European countries. Again, considering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a diplomatic relationship between western European countries and Russian President Vladimir Putin is impossible to implement when we consider the American desire to undermine Russian power. As shocking as this may sound, Trump had exactly the right thing to say about this earlier this month: “We must demand the immediate negotiation of a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine or we will end up in World War Three.”

Decisions that have direct humanitarian impacts should not be guided by a country that has consistently failed to sign and ratify international cornerstone treaties for peace. Before adopting the global police role, the U.S. should first meet the minimal ethical standard that it holds its allies to. Without greater, independent European pressure, that may never be the case. 

Ammar Ahmad is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at ammarz@umich.edu.

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