As the U.S. Senate debates expanding NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, questions are inevitably raised about the role of the organization in a post–Cold War world. In that light, it is important to bear in mind that, despite the demise of the Soviet empire, the world still is a dangerous place that needs the unique safeguards the alliance, led by the United States, offers Europe.
It is also worth noting the original goals of the organization, and its extraordinary success in uniting Europe, spreading democracy and economic security there, and keeping the peace for more than four decades.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
NATO was founded in 1949 not only to keep an aggressive Soviet Union at bay after World War II but to assure Germany’s European neighbors—France in particular—that the newly defeated country’s second attempt this century to conquer the continent would be its last. Another key purpose was to maintain U.S. involvement in Europe, with all its concomitant military, political, and economic benefits. Against all odds, and contrary to all predictions, it worked. No other alliance in history has included such diverse partners who cooperated on such a broad range of subjects or that lasted as long.
There were problems, of course. How could friction have been avoided in an alliance of genuinely sovereign countries, free to leave the alliance as they pleased and free to decide the percentage of gross national product they would contribute, the size and composition of forces they would field? The diversity of NATO allies, facing a militarily and politically homogeneous foe in the Warsaw Pact, assured other difficulties as well: NATO possessed no coordinated intelligence service, instead relying on the services of the individual members, who operated in an uneasy and often mutually hostile fraternity. There was no consistent policy for propaganda or political warfare; NATO proved much less adept than the Warsaw Pact at standardizing its equipment; and NATO’s command structure was overly complex.
Nevertheless, NATO met the standard, as enunciated by its first secretary-general, Britain’s Lord Ismay, of keeping “the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in.” For all its weaknesses, NATO deterred the Soviets, allowed free institutions to take root in Germany, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey, and made it possible for old rivals such as Britain, Germany, France, and Italy to work together militarily. Furthermore, NATO’s determined stance, as well as the responsible policy the Western democracies pursued when the leadership of the former Warsaw Pact decided on a course of dialogue and negotiation, was the most important factor in the collapse of the communist dictatorships and the emergence of today’s Europe.
THREATS TO EUROPE - OLD AND NEW
That new situation is one that Lord Ismay surely would recognize. France and Central Europe still look to the United States to keep Germany in hand. Although the Soviet Union is no more, Russia remains a potential threat. A Russian army, for instance, is in Georgia, threatening the life of President Eduard Shevardnadze as well as the independence and stability of the republic. And what is to stop Russian troops from slipping back into the Baltics, ending their all-too-brief return to freedom? The new Russia, freed from the communist yoke, could easily fall under the sway of the kind of fanatical nationalism that has proved so devastating in the twentieth century. Nor is Russian aggression the only possible threat to stability in post–Cold War Europe. There are a host of ancient and modern rivalries and hostilities that could prove volatile.
Who will keep the ethnic bloodshed in Yugoslavia from igniting a broader conflict? Who will deal with the civil wars raging in Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Kosovo? What will be the fate of the 25 million Russians dispersed throughout former Warsaw Pact countries? Who will protect the 600,000 Hungarians living in Romania? What can be done, in short, to enforce peaceful coexistence—and encourage further democratic reform and economic development—in Eastern Europe? NATO engendered peace, stability, and economic cooperation in Western Europe. It can do the same in Eastern Europe by bringing Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and ultimately Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Baltics, into the alliance. And the involvement of the United States will, as ever, be key.
Who will keep the ethnic bloodshed in Yugoslavia from igniting a broader conflict? Who will deal with the civil wars raging in Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Kosovo?
The United States now must extend to Eastern Europe the technological know-how, command and control expertise, military strength, and firm moral leadership that brought stability and economic cooperation to the once fratricidal countries of Western Europe. The costs will not be great—$10 billion to $15 billion over fifteen years—and will be shared equitably among all members of NATO. Preventing a war is cheaper than paying for a war. A rearmed Central and Eastern Europe is less likely to be attacked than a disarmed region. It was a well-armed collective security system that made NATO the most successful and long-lived alliance in history.