NATO Turns 70

NATO Turns 70

Next week, Washington will throw the military alliance a birthday party. How much is there to celebrate?


On April 4, 1949, representatives of the United States, Canada, and 10 European countries, including the United Kingdom and France, gathered in Washington to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, a defense pact created at the urging of wartime allies France and Britain as a means to, in the words of NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

President Harry S. Truman pledged that the treaty would serve as a defensive one in the face of Soviet expansion, “against aggression and the fear of aggression—a bulwark which will permit us to get on with the real business of…achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens.”

Next week, to mark the 70th anniversary of that occasion, NATO foreign ministers will descend on Washington for a ministerial meeting, various think-tank panels and commemorations, all to be topped off by an address from NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg to a joint meeting of Congress.

The celebratory mood is nicely anticipated by promotional material for a town-hall event co-sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, the Atlantic Council, and the Munich Security Conference and scheduled to be held at the hip DC concert venue the Anthem, where participants will take part in a “public conversation about the importance of NATO, honor and celebrate its achievements; and discuss NATO’s future at this crucial time for the transatlantic community.”

Sounds like quite a night. But not everyone will be celebrating.

A wide range of antiwar groups plan to hold a series of events aimed at raising public awareness on the true costs of NATO membership and challenge the conventional wisdom that the alliance serves as a pillar of peace and stability. As Dr. Joseph Gerson of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament, and Common Security, puts it, “Too few people in the United States understand how NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders became the primary cause for the new and very dangerous Cold War or how NATO became an aggressive global alliance.” On April 2, will hold a news conference at the National Press Club and a “counter-summit” sponsored by No to NATO is planned for the same day.

In the years following the end of the Cold War, the alliance’s mission has transformed beyond recognition from that of the defensive alliance envisioned by Truman.

The 1990s saw an effort to expand both NATO’s mission (“out of area or out of business” became the mantra of the day) and NATO’s membership. Despite the well-documented promises made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by Secretary of State James Baker (and many others) that the West would not try to expand NATO “one inch eastward,” the Clinton administration embarked on a dual strategy that expanded the alliance eastward and transformed the defensive alliance into what became a staging ground for US interventions in the Balkans, Africa, and the Greater Middle East.

One of NATO’s first major post–Cold War missions, the 78-day arial bombing of Serbia, nearly ended in disaster when NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark ordered British General Mike Jackson, commander of NATO’s troops in Kosovo, to retake the airfield in Pristina, the capital, from the Russians—by force if necessary.

Jackson refused: “I’m not going to start Third World War for you.”

Undeterred by that apocalyptic near-miss, NATO has soldiered on, playing supporting roles in the Bush and Obama administrations’ wars of choice. In the meantime, despite well-founded objections, the alliance has continued to expand eastward, adding 10 member states between 2004 and 2017, with promises of more to come. Indeed, on Monday Stoltenberg, on a visit to Tbilisi told reporters that NATO is continuing “to prepare for Georgia’s NATO membership,” and that the alliance does not accept “that Russia or any other power can decide what members can do.”

Statements such as these might be described as myopic, at best. At a minimum, they show that transatlantic military-political elites have learned nothing from the Ukraine crisis. Stoltenberg’s comments are as good example as any of what the political scientist Richard Sakwa has described as “a stance of one-sided geopolitical nihilism, where the very principle of other states having geopolitical interests that do not coincide with those of the Atlantic community is considered an aberration that not only delegitimizes those who assert different interests, but easily leads to the demonization of the leaders and elites who oppose the Atlanticist hegemony.”

Puzzlingly, NATO is often to be said to be a vehicle for “Western values.” In March, NATO’s deputy secretary general, the former high-ranking State Department official Rose Gottemoeller, declared that NATO “promotes the shared values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Likewise, Stoltenberg, at a recent speech to the German Marshall Fund in Brussels averred that NATO has “helped spread freedom and democracy and human rights…. we must continue to work hard every day to uphold those values.”

But what are those values exactly? Turkey, currently governed by an Islamist authoritarian who has tacitly supported and funded ISIS, has been a member since 1952. The newest NATO member states have seen a disturbing recurrence of neo-Nazi torchlight marches and other events celebrating the wartime exploits of Nazi collaborators in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Yet, nearly three decades since the end of the first cold war, NATO’s role is viewed as so sacrosanct by US military, political, and media elites that questioning the alliance’s policy of eastward expansion, and whether such a policy serves or harms US national-security interests, is now treated as tantamount to treason.

We are in danger of forgetting that in the run-up to the first round of expansion, prominent establishment figures voiced reasonable, indeed, prescient, objections to the ill-fated project of NATO expansion.

In an open letter to the Clinton administration in June 1997, dozens of high-ranking former policy-makers and diplomats, including Senators Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, and Sam Nunn; Paul H. Nitze, Ambassador Jack Matlock, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, warned that “NATO expansion is neither necessary nor desirable and that this ill-conceived policy can and should be put on hold.”

The diplomat-scholar George F. Kennan also foresaw trouble. Writing just after the New Year in 1997, Kennan predicted that “the Russians will not react wisely and moderately to the decision of NATO to extend its boundaries to the Russian frontiers.” For Kennan, the decision was “the greatest mistake of the entire post–Cold War period.”

Time has proven the skeptics correct.

The policy of NATO expansion is largely responsible for the dangerous deterioration in relations between Russia and the West and lies at the heart of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Still more, says Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen, a result of “the new Cold War and its rampant Russophobia…has been the near-end of American diplomacy toward Russia and the almost total militarization of US-Russian relations. This alone is a profound source of insecurity-including the possibility of war with Russia.”

The end of the Cold War left NATO purposeless; expansion has made it untenable.

Instead of a self-serving, self-justifying anniversary celebration, NATO should address what has gone so wrong over the past three decades by reexamining, its policies of eastward expansion and non-defensive deployment and seriously consider adopting a nuclear “no first use” policy.

And as for the idea that a military alliance can and should serve as an arbiter of democratic “values”: an alternative approach might be for the United States and our European allies to reinvigorate the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which, because its membership is not contingent upon an acceptance of US military leadership and includes important post-Soviet states like Russia and Ukraine, is far better suited to promote a peaceful Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a vision shared by leaders as disparate as Gorbachev and Charles de Gaulle.

At any rate, 70 years on, it’s long past time we reevaluate America’s role in NATO.

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