“Most alliances die young.”
That is how “The Economist” magazine begins an insightful special essay on the durability of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). This military alliance turns 70 years old this year. The treaty was signed in Washington in April 1949. The fact-based “Economist” essay notes coalitions of the Napoleonic wars lasted on average five years.
The current U.S. administration has directed strong public criticism at European allies for not doing more. However, such tension has been a feature of life in NATO almost from the beginning.
This administration also last April hosted the Baltic Summit, underscoring defense commitment to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States, which had achieved independence in 1918. All three nations became NATO members in March 2004.
Montenegro became NATO’s newest member in early June 2017. The tiny Balkan state had been campaigning for alliance membership for over a decade.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and East Europe communist regimes ended the Cold War, but not conflict in Europe. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the territory of Crimea. The armed invasion of Ukraine by Russia’s army, after months of covert aid to insurgent rebel forces, generated the most serious crisis in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s - and perhaps since World War II.
In 2008, Russian troops invaded a portion of Georgia, following an attack by Georgian troops on South Ossetia. This territory as well as Abkhazia had declared independence from Georgia. Russia encouraged and fostered these breakaway efforts, though the international community did not support them.
The end of the Cold War was a great victory for the policy of restraint and deterrence, termed “Containment.” Every United States president from Harry Truman, when the Cold War commenced, to George H.W. Bush when that conflict ended, supported this foundation security policy.
NATO endures, for good reasons. Bureaucracies naturally seek self-perpetuation, but strategic realities provide persuasive justification. General war in Europe was avoided for a century between the final defeat of Napoleon and the outbreak of World War I. A Concert of European nations, brokered by Great Britain, helped keep the general peace.
NATO today arguably represents an approximate counterpart to the uncertain but generally effective concert. The alliance has operated well beyond the nations of the North Atlantic region, including not only on the margins of Europe but in distant territory, including notably Afghanistan
Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on one member amounts to an attack on all. The 9/11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington D.C., and in the sky over Pennsylvania, triggered this clause, for the first time.
Today’s alliance leaders in Europe are articulate and effective, including in particular Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Chancellor Merkel spearheaded expansion of Germany’s roles in international humanitarian relief. She also provided arms to Kurds fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq.
Another outstanding leader is David Cameron, who was Britain’s Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016. He termed Russia’s aggression “unacceptable and unjustified,” and bluntly stated that any efforts to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin would be a repetition of the same mistakes made by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in accommodating Adolf Hitler in 1938. Britain and Germany both have highly effective militaries.
Since 2002, NATO has renewed efforts to develop rapid reaction military capabilities. The credibility of the alliance is essential. The periodic belligerent nationalist rhetoric from the White House undermines that cooperation.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur I. Cyr: Anniversary underscores importance of NATO
“Most alliances die young.”