Insatiable in their need for gloom, North American and European commentators have, for over a half-century, declared NATO to be in decline, or moribund, or dysfunctional, unnecessary and—the most-preposterous claim of all—provocative.
Yet, every time that Europe’s Ostpolitik club, its violent pacifists and subversive industrialists, suggested that NATO, not the Soviet Union, was the problem, the Soviets leapt to NATO’s assistance by strangling a neighbor: Hungary, East Germany, then-Czechoslovakia, Poland…and toss in distant Afghanistan. The most-cynical as well as the most-earnest anti-NATO efforts in Europe, whether Charles de Gaulle’s theatrics or the later anti-Pershing II demonstrations, just couldn’t help a USSR predisposed to play the mean drunk at the garden party.
After the Soviet collapse, the Serbs did their best to fill the threat vacuum, violating the longest period of peace Europe’s western half had ever experienced. NATO proved its worth yet again—and proves it still in the Balkans.
Then Putin arrived, alarming an attentive minority but excused by the somnolent or craven. But the through line for NATO has been Russian, whether in its Soviet or Putin-era neo-tsarist incarnation. And for their part, the Russians always took NATO seriously, even when Westerners insisted it was superfluous at best and, at worst, menacing.
Through all the criticism, NATO triumphed—that word is carefully chosen—as Europe-at-peace achieved levels of prosperity unimaginable in the first bleak, hungry post-WWII years. The fighting stopped and a battered continent bloomed. Far from being a strategic money pit, NATO proved to be the bargain of the last century and may prove an even better deal in this one.
NATO is often frustratingly bureaucratic, but the ornate bureaucracy in Brussels and Mons prevents rash errors. NATO can appear inefficient—but what greater efficiency could we ask than prolonged peace on a continent soaked in blood for millennia? To Americans in particular, NATO can appear “all hat, no cattle,” yet look how prodigiously its varied members, with only a few exceptions, have supported Ukraine. NATO’s collegiality, if sometimes strained, has served multiple operational-handyman purposes, as well: Officers from diverse countries and varied military cultures learn to work together under common protocols—an enormous advantage, should a “black swan” war erupt: It’s far better to go to war with a team that’s been practicing together for decades, rather than a pick-up squad already under fire.
But the greatest value NATO delivered has been that “dog that didn’t bark,” the many wars that didn’t happen. For all the ingrained animosity, Turks and Greeks have not gone to war with each other, nor have yesteryear’s trigger-happy nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe resorted to force to advance mythologized territorial claims (except in the former Yugoslavia, in which none of the combatants of the 1990s were yet NATO members).
Human beings, no matter their intellect, have trouble with reality (a state of existence particularly distasteful to intellectuals); we see what we want or need to see. In recent years, NATO again came in for criticism on both sides of the Atlantic as having outlived its relevance—despite Vladimir Putin’s lengthy record of aggression and lawlessness, which had been dismissed as blithely as Hitler’s early land grabs had been by the grandfathers of today’s pundits and politicians.
Then, in late-winter 2022, Putin’s bloodthirsty megalomania became impossible for anyone but paid hirelings to deny, and NATO proved to be the indispensable actor. The European Union did what it could with sanctions, but it was NATO’s startling unity (stunning to Putin) that gave Kyiv’s troops a logistic lifeline and kept Ukrainian hopes alive. The United Nations proved worthless. Various economic alliances made it harder for Russians to get a Big Mac, but none could protect a single Ukrainian woman or child from Russian torturers, rapists, and butchers.
Nor could the United States unilaterally have done all that NATO has done. The display of unity and common values—and a sobered sense of strategic reality—on the part of NATO’s members bewildered Russian toadies and prognosticators who had expected yet another free hand in the ravishment of a major state and neighbor.
Not least, long-term neutrals, Sweden and Finland, applied for NATO membership, with Finland’s entrance already ratified and Sweden’s accession inevitable, despite a Turkish tantrum. And this latest expansion of NATO isn’t merely of symbolic value: Should Russia somehow rebuild its now-depleted, exposed-as-inept military and feel a renewed urge to expand westward, it would no longer enjoy a huge northern buffer; instead, NATO would be on its northwestern border in seamless unity, requiring the diversion of Russian forces from any intended thrust westward. Beyond that, NATO’s new Nordic members bring tremendous strategic advantages to the alliance, enhancing everything from NATO’s freedom of maneuver and operational depth to its wartime ownership of the Baltic Sea and control of arctic sea lanes. From integrated strategic air defenses down to enhanced (if still imperfect) tactical interoperability, this is all good news.
So…is NATO in danger of becoming too large and unwieldy? Well, that was the argument when those states formerly occupied by the Soviets joined the alliance. Now look at the result: reinvigorated resolve, vital proximity, and unprecedented solidarity in the cause of self-defense, independence, and democracy. Even NATO’s current bad boys (there always have been one or two), Hungary and Turkey, have not meaningfully impeded NATO’s response to Russia’s aggression against a non-NATO state.
Now consider how different the far marches of Europe might look at this moment had Ukraine been a member of NATO.
As a former soldier, I long viewed NATO as primarily a strategic political mechanism, rather than a real military force.
I have changed my mind.