Bernie Sanders on NATO


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed after World War II as a way to get the militaries of various countries to agree on mutual defense strategies. Bernie believes the United States should remain in NATO. He thinks that other members of the alliance should meet their funding commitments. He is opposed to expanding NATO membership because it antagonizes Russia and increases the risk of conflict. Although Bernie is generally anti-war, he supported NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 and did not vigorously oppose NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya, although he did voice concerns.

Membership in NATO: Bernie supports the ongoing membership of the United States in NATO.

Funding NATO: Bernie believes that all members states in the alliance have a responsibility to meet the funding obligations that they have pledged to NATO.

Anti-Expansion: Bernie is against the expansion of NATO to include new member states because it risks provoking military conflict with Russia.

NATO Military Engagements: NATO has been involved in military action in Kosovo and Libya.

Membership in NATO

Bernie supports the ongoing membership of the United States in NATO.

During the 2016 Democratic debate in Brooklyn, Bernie said, “NATO has been the most successful military alliance in, probably, human history. I will stay in NATO.”

Who are the current members of NATO?

There are currently 29 member countries in NATO: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, the U.S., and the United Kingdom.

NATO partners with 40 other non-member countries, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Funding NATO

“I would not be embarrassed as president of the United States to say to our European allies, ‘You know what, the United States of America cannot just support your economies. You got to put up your own fair share of the defense burden.’”

Bernie Sanders 2016 Ninth Democratic Debate in Brooklyn referring to NATO

Bernie believes that all members states in the alliance have a responsibility to meet the funding obligations that they have pledged to NATO. Each member country has pledged to contribute 2% of their GDP to fund the NATO operations.

Bernie believes European nations should fund more of the costs of the alliance, which is primarily intended to protect their continent. Currently, only 7 of the 29 countries in the NATO alliance are meeting the 2% target.

American taxpayers pay for 22 percent of NATO’s budget, contributing nearly $686 million in 2017. Most of America’s NATO allies had been decreasing their military spending until recently.

Despite the incremental increase in spending by other members of the alliance, the United States still contributes more than twice as much as the second-largest funder. Bernie believes Europeans should play a larger role in funding the defense budget of a primarily European coalition.

In response to President Trump’s demand that NATO members double their spending to 4%, Bernie responded, “We spend $700 billion on defense, more than the next 10 nations combined, and end up with 30 million uninsured and crumbling infrastructure. Mr. President, instead of demanding that Europe spend more on planes and guns, why don’t we join them in guaranteeing health care to all.”


Since 1949, NATO membership increased from 12 countries to 29. Bernie currently opposes further expansion of NATO because it could lead to military conflict with Russia.

Which countries are interested in joining NATO?

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, the Republic of North Macedonia, and Ukraine have all indicated an interest in joining NATO.

Why is the expansion of NATO a problem?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the satellite states of the U.S.S.R. became democracies and some of those nations were invited to join the NATO military alliance. As NATO expanded eastward, many of these former Soviet countries joined the alliance. This eastward expansion meant the member states of NATO now bordered territory that Russia considers not only strategically important, but also a military threat. Article 5, an integral part of the NATO treaty, requires mutual protection from all member states in the event one member state is attacked or requires military assistance to defend that state.

And so, as Russia-adjacent member states are added (many of which have had long standing territorial disputes with Russia), the risk of conflict increases because any member state can invoke the mutual defense clause and thereby bring the whole alliance into the conflict.

The potential membership of Georgia and Ukraine are particularly provocative because they each share a border with Russia. In 2008, Russia and Georgia engaged in a 5 day military conflict due to mutual accusations of military build-up. There is also an ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula.

What is Bernie’s opinion on NATO expansion?

Bernie is presently opposed to further expansion of NATO, claiming it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and not geo-politically sound. In 1997, as a Congressman, Bernie said:

“After four decades of the cold war and trillions of United States taxpayer dollars allocated to compete in the arms race, many of our constituents understand that it is not the time to continue wasting tens of billions of dollars helping to defend Europe, let alone assuming more than our share of any costs associated with expanding NATO eastward.”

Bernie sees the eastward expansion of NATO as an unnecessary provocation of Russia — and, as stated in the quote above, he’s not interested in revisiting the Cold War era when Russia and the U.S. were constantly pitted against each other.

Even “pro-western” politicians in Russia have been hesitant to support NATO’s expansion to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the Baltic states that were part of the former Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy even suggested that Finland’s membership in NATO would start “World War III,” while Putin himself referred to Ukraine’s potential membership as a “direct threat” to Russian national security.

With regard to defending current member countries, Bernie was unequivocal during a 2016 Democratic primary debate on PBS when he said, “We have to work with NATO to protect Eastern Europe against any kind of Russian aggression.”

Learn more about Bernie’s stance on Putin at the Russia issue page.

NATO Military Engagements

Kosovo Crisis

In the 1990s, the Yugoslavian army conducted a mass ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which was then a region of Serbia. Serbia would not cooperate with diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the region. Bernie ultimately voted in support of NATO’s bombing of Serbia because he felt it was necessary to prevent further genocide.

What happened during the Kosovo Crisis?

Kosovo had been a fairly autonomous area within former Yugoslavia until 1989, when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic altered the status of the region by removing its autonomy and bringing it under direct control of Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The Kosovar Albanians opposed the move.

Their unrest eventually erupted in 1998, when conflict between the Serbian military and police forces and Kosovar Albanians resulted in the slaughter of over 1,500 Kosovar Albanians. The international community grew concerned as 400,000 people were forced from their homes. Their displacement was the result of Milosevic’s disregard for diplomatic efforts aimed at peacefully resolving the crisis.

As NATO considered ways to help achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the situation grew dire. NATO decided to authorize airstrikes in order to support diplomatic efforts to make the Milosevic regime withdraw forces from Kosovo, cooperate in bringing an end to the violence, and facilitate the return of refugees to their homes. At the last moment, President Milosevic agreed to comply, and the airstrikes were called off.

In 1999, conflicts in Kosovo reignited. NATO threatened to use air strikes again, this time sending the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to observe compliance on the ground from both sides.

Although the Kosovar-Albanian delegation signed a peace treaty, the Serbian delegation did not. After more attempts to make peace with Serbia, NATO launched an air campaign known as Operation Allied Force. After 77 days, NATO withdrew their forces and proceeded in a series humanitarian efforts to relieve the suffering of the many thousands of refugees forced to flee Kosovo by the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign.

What was Bernie’s opinion on the Kosovo crisis?

During a town hall event Bernie hosted regarding NATO’s air war in Serbia in May 1999, he started off by saying, “If anyone thinks there is a simple solution to this problem, then you know very little about this problem.”

Generally, Bernie did not want to engage in another ground war like the failed effort in Vietnam, and believed airstrikes would minimize U.S. military casualties and would be the likeliest way to stop a war criminal — Milosevic — who could not be dealt with diplomatically. In other words, he saw supporting the NATO airstrikes on Serbia as justified on humanitarian grounds:

So how did the situation in Kosovo conclude?

Ultimately, the Kosovo resolution won support from Congress, allowing the United States’ involvement in the airstrikes to go forward. NATO airstrikes began in late March 1999 and ended by mid-June that same year. Soon after the airstrikes ended, the Serbian government agreed to disarm, and its complete demilitarization was confirmed by September. Milosevic and other leaders were charged with war crimes by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Libya Intervention

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Libya in the form of a popular uprising. After long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi responded by violently targeting civilians, NATO used military intervention on behalf of the rebels to end the war. Since then, Libya has not been able to achieve stability and continues to be marred by conflict. Bernie takes a conservative stance on involvement in Libya, and believes we should have spent money on fixing America’s problems instead.

What was the situation in Libya in 2011?

Following the expulsion of the UNHCR – the United Nations’ refugee agency – in late 2010 and leaked diplomatic cables showing that the Libyan government mishandled nuclear materials, unrest began to brew in Libya. The arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel in early 2011 led to protests, clashes with police, and rioting in Benghazi, which subsequently spread throughout the country. This conflict quickly evolved into the Libyan Civil War, which ultimately involved NATO military intervention to topple the government of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Why did NATO intervene?

The international community watched in alarm as Gaddafi targeted civilians in his efforts to regain control over the country. In the U.S., the Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone and encourage Gaddafi to step down. Soon after, a no-fly zone was imposed with the support of the U.S. However, this did not stop Gaddafi’s army from continuing attacks on civilians. In response, NATO conducted airstrikes in Libya.

Why was U.S. involvement in Libya so controversial?

President Obama made sure to notify Congress within 48 hours of his first announcement that the he had mobilized a U.S. military intervention in Libya, as prescribed by the War Powers Act. This initiated a 60-day period, during which he was required to obtain approval from Congress. If he did not obtain approval from Congress in that time, the act gave him at most 30 days to halt all hostilities.

After the 90 days were up, Obama’s counsel, Robert Bauer, reasoned that the president had the right to continue the military campaign in Libya without legislative support, effectively breaking an established law.

What did Bernie say about Libya at the time?

In a February 2011 interview, Bernie expressed concerns with Obama’s decision to circumvent the War Powers Act, saying:

“I think one of the things many people are upset about is this war took place without consultation of the Congress, without debate within the Congress. Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer. We want to see him go, but I think in the midst of two wars, I’m not quite sure we need a third war.”

In a June interview later that year, he said:

“I have reservations about our involvement in Libya. I mean, we are in a huge deficit. We are in two wars. And I would become somewhat conservative on that issue.”

So how has he voted with regards to our involvement in Libya?

Bernie hasn’t had a chance to vote on bills regarding Obama’s choice to join the Libya airstrikes. The Kerry-McCain bill, drafted by Senate Democrats who wanted to show support for the president’s military intervention in Libya, was pulled from a vote in July 2011 because Republicans promised to vote against it “irrespective of national security interests,” due to an unrelated protest over the budget.

What happened after the NATO airstrikes helped to topple Gaddafi?

While the rebels did manage to form an interim government and hold elections after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, the new government faced challenges from rival rebel groups and never managed to completely solidify its power.

On September 11, 2012, Islamist militants attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three others. Bernie released the following statement after the attacks:

“I was deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American consular personnel. I join President Obama in condemning the senseless acts of violence at our diplomatic post in Benghazi. The families of the four Americans who were serving our country are in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

Following the attacks on the American consulate, factional violence escalated. In 2014, a full-blown civil war resumed, which continues to this day.

How did the U.S. react to the attack on its consulate in Benghazi?

The U.S. immediately increased security worldwide at diplomatic and military facilities, and began investigating the Benghazi attack. Through the investigation, it was discovered that the attack in Benghazi was premeditated, and not due to protests against an anti-Muslim video created in America, as had been initially theorized.

What’s happened in Libya since then?

Though the U.S. and NATO succeeded in the military effort to oust Gaddafi, they were not able to achieve their broader goal of setting Libya on a path toward democracy and stability.

Since the consulate attack in 2012, the U.S. and other Western countries have cut staff in Libya. After the Benghazi incident which had been the Obama administration’s top priority, the U.S. established an eight-year plan to train Libyan security forces after receiving direct request from Libya. However, the program was not able to begin due to the dangerous climate and the Libyan government’s inability to raise the funds required.

Today, Libya is considered by most observers to be a failed state and a humanitarian disaster.