The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is celebrating its 70th birthday in London today, is often described as the most successful alliance in history. Many people are skeptical of this claim, but in fact it’s a serious underestimate. NATO succeeded not only in its original aims but also in generating other major and long-lasting geostrategic benefits it could not even foresee at its birth.
Founded in the dark days of 1949 after the Soviet Union had consolidated its imperial control of “Eastern Europe” and when it was still posing a serious subversive threat to Western Europe, the NATO alliance brought together the leading Western European countries with the Anglo-Americans in a political alliance resting on serious military commitments, America’s nuclear umbrella, and Article V of the Treaty — which stated that an attack on one was an attack on all. Its success seemed far from certain when Europe was still suffering from wartime economic destruction and, in addition, was weakened by large Communist parties in France and Italy that opposed the alliance.
NATO’s deeper strategic aims were brilliantly summarized by Lord “Pug” Ismay, Churchill’s wartime chief of staff: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Those aims transcended the needs of 1949 and have continued to produce good results in the 70 years since then. Broadly speaking, NATO has had three unqualified successes.
First, NATO was the West’s (and Washington’s) main instrument in winning the Cold War. It did so only a month short of the alliance’s 40th birthday in 1989. Maybe we didn’t celebrate that birthday joyously enough from a creditable desire not to rub salt in Moscow’s wounds. But it was a victory as historically significant as the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.
Second, NATO ensured that America remained a European power — indeed, the strongest European power. America’s military presence on the European continent meant that no Western European country could take a dispute with its neighbors onto the battlefield. America wouldn’t permit it — and that was that. As a result Western Europe enjoyed one of the longest periods of peace in its modern history and it was able, with Washington’s encouragement, to establish institutions, including the European Union, to revive its economies and strengthen its solidarity. Brussels likes to claim that European peace is an EU achievement; in reality, the EU is a product of America’s peace.
Third, after the Berlin Wall fell, NATO at once began to encourage military and economic reform programs in the former satellites to allow them to join NATO, which they did a decade later. In the early post–Cold War days, there was a great deal of anxiety in the West that these countries would succumb to the evils that had plagued them in the inter-war years — to anti-Semitism, neo-fascism, oppression of minorities, revanchist policies and border quarrels. It hasn’t happened — anti-Semitism today is a bigger problem in Western Europe than in its Central and Eastern neighbors. Contrary to its later myth-making, moreover, the European Union was reluctant and slow in assisting Poland, Hungary, the Czechs, and Slovaks to reform to the point where they could join Euro-Atlantic institutions. It was NATO that did the heavy lifting. The result is the prosperous market democracies that are now NATO members and U.S. allies — and, five years after NATO membership, EU members too.
In short, the whole of peaceful modern Europe is a NATO — and especially an American — achievement.
That vast geopolitical success has been tarnished in recent years by the failure of European members of the alliance to spend more than a very modest portion, 2 percent, of their GDP on their own defense. That failure is the real source of NATO’s current weakness. Successive American presidents have complained about it with little success. When President Trump raised the rhetorical level three years ago, he was loudly denounced for weakening the Alliance. (American liberals now blame Macron’s stronger criticisms on Trump!) In fact, Trump was waking NATO up, if only into a light doze. Several countries now spend more — Poland and the Baltics spend more than the NATO target of 2 percent — and the rest must now follow their example.
If that is to happen, however, several leading European countries, notably France and Germany, have to overcome their ambivalence about NATO’s role. Germany’s outlook is confused. It is no use for Angela Merkel to sing songs of praise to NATO if her government continues to spend half of its promised defense spending. The underlying problem is that Germany’s political establishment and public opinion are tempted by a foreign policy rooted in pacifism, commercialism, anti-Americanism — and a complacent doubt that NATO is any longer necessary. NATO, however, is working today. No one should doubt that the Baltics would now be at the very least “Finlandized” states in a Russian sphere of influence, or that Poland would be experiencing border incidents, if they were not now in NATO. That’s why they pay their defense bills. A demilitarized Germany in an America-free Europe would not long remain a truly independent power.
France is a different and more creditable case. France has always wanted to exert an independence from the U.S., which has made its relations with NATO an off-and-on alliance. Macron seems to be saying today that NATO belongs to the past. Well and good. France spends money on serious military power. Paris is an ally worth having. But its recurrent vision of making the European Union into an independent military power is a delusion exposed as soon as its advocates ask: Which countries will be France’s allies in this quixotic enterprise? Not Germany. Brexit Britain? Who else?
In essence, NATO in 1989 was presented two possible routes to the future. The first was that NATO members should work towards making the European Union a closer economic partner with the U.S. in an economic counterpart of NATO, which itself would remain the central or sole institution of European defense. The second was that the EU should seek to separate itself from the U.S. in trade, economics, and foreign policy, and develop its own independent defense to make this possible. France and Germany, for different reasons, have chosen the second option; Britain has resisted this and, increasingly, opted for the first future. Brexit is the ultimate expression of Pug Ismay’s instinct that America must remain a European power for the sake of both sides of the Atlantic.
Both of these are still options. But NATO actually exists and, as we have argued, it is defending its members and preserving peace today. Sure, America pays too many of NATO’s bills. But NATO may also have saved American lives that would have been lost in a NATO-less world. An alliance that has such a record of historical success deserves better statesmanship today. If European leaders have truly woken up, they will stop behaving like gossipy teenage girls and give NATO a higher budgetary priority. If President Trump would confine himself to blunt honest speaking and restrain his occasional blow-ups, he would both look prescient and get more of what he wants. And if all of them would rise to the level of Truman, Attlee, Bevin, Schuman, de Gasperi, and NATO’s founders, the alliance would survive and perhaps even smooth the path to a more united West and thus a safer world. But we shouldn’t talk of dispensing with NATO unless we are sure we have a better substitute.