Military photo
© Reuters/Ognen
NATO photo op at the end of Decisive Strike exercise in North Macedonia, June 17, 2019.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper argues that NATO members should pay up because there can't be "free riders," but then goes on to say US alliances are all about "mutual respect and common values." It can't be both, so which is it?

"There can't be any free riders. There can't be any discount plans. We're all in this together," Esper said on Friday at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to nineteen NATO members who are still failing to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on "defense."

In reality, however, free-riding on the massive US military apparatus is precisely what NATO is about. Its first secretary-general articulated the alliance's purpose as keeping "the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down," and by golly that's precisely what NATO has done throughout the Cold War.

Trouble is, even after the Soviet Union dissolved and robbed it of every reason for continued existence in 1989, NATO kept going, seeking reasons to stick around in "humanitarian interventions" and regime-change operations. There was to be no "peace dividend," only endless increases in military spending that delivered ever diminishing returns.

Even though the US spends 3.5 percent of its GDP on "defense," the Pentagon does not actually "defend" the country. Instead, it maintains a network of bases around the globe in an attempt to coerce rather than persuade the rest of the world to bend the knee. Esper claimed on Friday:
"Much of the world looks to the United States as the global security partner of choice. Not only because of our superior military capabilities and equipment, but also because of our values."
Yet just in the past several months, NATO ally Turkey has been doing its own thing, without so much as consulting others - and France caught flak for daring to point that out as dysfunctional.

Ironically, France and Turkey are two NATO countries that still maintain militaries capable of independent operations, while everyone else has pretty much left theirs to atrophy. At best, they can muster a few squadrons of airplanes, a tank regiment, signal company or a logistics train here and there - but everyone expects the Americans to do all of the actual fighting if and when that becomes necessary. Not that it ever will be, but that's where much of that "defense" budget actually goes: so that various "centers for excellence" can churn out propaganda hyping the phantom menace of Russia or China.

The official Washington doesn't actually mind this state of affairs, as it keeps "allies" safely dependent on the US and both unable and unwilling to go off the metaphorical reservation. Ideally, Germany and other "delinquent" NATO members wouldn't really spend the required 2 percent at home, but buying weapons and maintenance plans from the US, or at least paying for the privilege of hosting US troops on their soil.

Besides, the Pentagon's problem is not the lack of funding - its 2020 budget approved by Congress is close to $730 billion, for crying out loud - but the way that money is spent. The US has a fascination with complicated and expensive weapons systems, whose makers deliberately spread production across US territory to make them cancellation-proof.

Needless to say, this is hardly cost-efficient, and results in such epic fiascos as the F-35. The much-hyped stealth fighter has eaten up all other aircraft designs, delivers subpar performance across the board, and will only cost $1.5 trillion over the program's lifetime.

Then there is more mundane stuff, like special coffee mugs that cost $1,200 apiece because nobody bothered to get the copyright for 3D-printing replacement handles. Seriously.

This is why Esper - who used to be an executive at missile-maker Raytheon before taking over at the Pentagon - and his boss President Donald Trump need "allies" to pony up more cash. The military-industrial complex must be fed. What amounts to a demand for tribute from vassals is then disguised in politically correct phrasing, however.

"Our alliances are not transactional ones. Rather, they are rooted in mutual respect, common values and a shared willingness to fight for them," Esper said in the same speech on Friday in which he berated "free riders."

What values might those be, he did not specify. Perhaps we could ask the Kurds, who were used as cannon fodder against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists, only for Esper to say that the US "nowhere, at no point in time" promised them statehood, or even protection from fellow NATO ally Turkey.

On paper, NATO is an alliance of equals, with decisions being reached by consensus. In practice, the word of the US carries far more weight than that of, say, a thousand times smaller Montenegro - which became a member not for its minuscule military, but because that guaranteed NATO ownership of the Adriatic.

Far worse than Esper's hypocrisy is the fact that NATO is neither about values nor the money, but all about "entangling alliances" and the idea of global hegemony that America's founders cautioned against, and would recoil from in horror were they to witness it today.
About the Author:
Nebojsa Malic is a senior writer at RT