Clio, the muse of history, has a fabulous sense of irony: As the human pageant unfolds, she delights in confounding our intentions and expectations.
Thus, two public enemies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (whose acronym, NATO, sounds like another Greek deity) promise to be the unwitting saviors of the alliance, rescuing it from complacency, lethargy, and diminishing relevance.
The first—and most venomous—foe of the Atlantic Alliance is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Putin does not drink alcohol, but he’s long been intoxicated by his hatred of NATO, which he blames, in part, for the Soviet collapse. As Central and East European states recently brutalized by Russia rushed to join the alliance to deter Moscow from future aggression, Putin depicted NATO, which has given Europe the longest era of peace in its recorded history, as a conniving and unscrupulous threat to Russia and its historical entitlements.
Content to prosper, NATO’s European members overlooked Putin’s rhetoric for years. Even Putin’s assault on Georgia failed to alarm them much. Crimea, however, was different, and attempts to play down its seizure by Moscow’s “little green men” foundered on the subsequent armored invasion of eastern Ukraine’s industrial belt, where Putin hardly bothered to camouflage the direct participation of his military. At that point, NATO’s depressed stock soared again on Europe’s political exchanges. After stirring in Moscow’s cyber-aggression, the assassination of critics at home and abroad, natural-gas cut-offs, and Russia’s atrocity-laden air campaign in Syria, the world’s most-successful peacetime alliance has come mightily back into vogue. (Indeed, Putin has revived the hoary Soviet tradition of reminding Europeans of NATO’s value, as his predecessors did in Berlin in 1953 and 1961, Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.)
But even Putin’s murderous shenanigans were not quite enough to fully arouse Europe’s mandarins. Sleeping Beauty’s eyes had opened, but she continued to yawn. NATO members—particularly those in Western Europe—still assumed that the United States would do the serious work.
Then along came NATO’s other weighty adversary, U.S. President Donald Trump. A man with no background in strategy and ignorant of history, Trump had for decades displayed an interest in doing business in Moscow. Then, early in his political campaign, when no establishment figures would touch his effort, advisors sympathetic to Putin molded his views on security and NATO. As a result, Trump came to the White House convinced that the United States has been bamboozled and robbed by cunning Europeans unwilling to pay their share of the club dues: A view that may be mathematically correct but which remains strategically naive. His virulent attacks on NATO, including immensely destructive insinuations that a fed-up United States might not honor its treaty obligations, along with his public adulation of Putin, have terrified Europeans.
Dad appeared ready to dump the family for Natasha Fatale—while inviting the neighborhood thug to beat up the kids.
Europe has been reminded that it needs the United States of America.
While relations and trust between the U.S. and NATO are unlikely to return to full health while Trump remains in office—despite the best efforts of military officers and defense officials on all sides—the next American president will enjoy a rapturous welcome from NATO counterparts and will almost certainly reciprocate. And yes, European states will contribute a little more to their own defense. After this awkward trial separation, the trans-Atlantic security romance will be refreshed: Dad will be back, ashamed, while the kids will show more respect.
When it comes to the future of NATO, hysteria about a collapse of the alliance is unfounded (as is doomster talk of the European Union’s impending demise). Massed Russian tanks may no longer be a few days’ march from the English Channel and Moscow’s armed forces are in long-term decline, but Putin’s will to violence, his readiness to break the accepted rules that kept the peace even during the Cold War, his innovative methods of subversion and, not least, his multi-pronged interference in elections, have alarmed Europe as nothing else has done in a generation or more.
Previous—surmounted—crises within the alliance involved immediate, practical challenges and existential threats, not merely rhetorical bombast or the local violence of a declining power. Washington’s blunt ultimatum over Suez in 1956 did not derail the alliance. When France’s President Charles de Gaulle announced, in 1966, that France would withdraw from NATO, it meant the loss of NATO’s leading continental military power; the need to swiftly relocate strategically vital American airbases; the cutting off of critical lines of communications and the closure of strategic depots; and a question as to the continued military viability of the alliance.
NATO survived. It also survived Euro-Communism, left-wing terror, the “P2” Pershing-missile deployment crisis, and the fall of the Berlin Wall followed by the Soviet collapse—which appeared at first to negate NATO’s reason for existence (until the human delight in sadistic violence re-erupted in Europe’s Balkan borderlands).
NATO’s foundational rationale was to defend the West’s battered civilization against the new barbarians from the east, but its public role as a military deterrent to foreign aggression obscured its vital role in keeping Europe’s internal peace. Indeed, “peace-keeping,” when it came into vogue in NATO in the 1990s was hardly new: NATO, under American aegis, turned traditional enemies-unto-the-death into mere commercial and financial competitors. It submerged the Federal Republic of Germany in a greater and benign identity. NATO prevented hostilities between Greece and Turkey on Europe’s southeastern flank and marked the end of ethnic and religion-fueled atrocities on the continent—until the (non-NATO) Yugoslav collapse.
NATO is, at once, a guarantor of peace and an excuse for peace. Behind its defensive shield, both free Europe and the United States and Canada enjoyed an explosion of wealth in the place of exploding bombs. Transitory squabbles about trade practices briefly obscure the immense mutual benefits, but those of us born in the post-war years have enjoyed an economic miracle, with the United States the greatest beneficiary, thanks to the stability provided by the Atlantic Alliance.
To undercut that alliance, to quibble about fractions of a percentage point in defense outlays, is destructive folly. Germany’s military is, indeed, in pathetic condition. But should we truly mourn the demise of Berlin’s former militarism? From 1864 to 1945, Prussian then unified-German aggression ravaged and finally ruined Europe—costing the lives of tens of millions of Europeans and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers (one could propose that German aggression began with Frederick the Great in the 1740s, but that was a false start—as Napoleon demonstrated a half-century later). A mature, historically informed view might welcome Germany’s current pacifism and the lack of spare parts for its obsolete warplanes and aging panzers. Shouldn’t we be quietly pleased that Italy’s armed forces maintain a higher degree of combat readiness than Germany’s?
Of course, the alliance—which has grown from twelve to twenty-nine members with more clamoring to join—will never be problem-free. Interests, sentiments, and even threat perceptions will not always coincide. Old resentments bubble up under stress; some governments should, indeed, contribute more; and, in democracies, politicians will always question the need for defense outlays, assuring us that the Peaceable Kingdom has come and that we’re to blame for resisting the will of monsters. But NATO is essential, a stabilizing force well beyond its geographical confines. Its two noisiest detractors have only reminded us of the fact.
This commentary certainly is not intended to make light of the challenges facing NATO. Welcomed into a new-born NATO, thanks to its strategic location, Turkey now has a vociferously anti-Western and increasingly dictatorial strongman in its presidential office, a religious fundamentalist determined to play the Russia card to have his way with Turkey’s long-term allies. NATO ultimately may have to devise a means to suspend or end Turkey’s membership. Nor is all well with democracy and the rule of law in every East-European member state.
In the Baltic zone, the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline project threatens misery and strategic division. If completed, it will allow Russia literally to freeze out NATO’s eastern members by shutting down older pipelines that transit former Soviet-occupied states (which Putin views as belonging to Russia’s historical vale of influence—or empire). And shameless German greed is at fault for this strategic travesty: Berlin’s selling out its allies at a discount. The pipeline signals active Russian malice and strategic ambitions that are far more worrisome than malaise in the Bundeswehr.
Having served in successive U.S. Army units and formations earmarked for NATO in wartime, I have never been blind to the alliance’s nuts-and-bolts problems. As a first-lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the 46th Infantry, stationed in Erlangen, Germany, I published my first article on strategy. It was a critique of NATO’s politically essential, militarily lunatic forward-defense commitment. Prissy NATO staff officers infuriated me with their (overheard) we’re-sophisticates-and-they’re-dumb-cowboys remarks (that haughtiness collapsed with Saddam’s swift defeat in Desert Storm). And I, too, found Europe’s contributions to its own defense too stingy.
But over the years I came to appreciate NATO’s phenomenal success at keeping the peace on the continent that has generated, perpetrated, and exported more death and destruction than any other. In another example of Clio’s ferociously whimsical sense of irony, the founding members of the European Union, to trumpet their solidarity, chose Charlemagne, Western Europe’s first unifier, as their symbolic figurehead. They overlooked another side of the record: During Charlemagne’s 46 years as a ruler, first as king then as emperor, the continent saw but a single year of peace.
Under NATO, Europe (and the world) has fared quite a bit better. And NATO’s headline-dominating detractors will end by giving this most-enduring of all alliances a refreshed commitment and renewed sense of purpose.
Ralph Peters’ latest book, Darkness at Chancellorsville, will be published in May 2019.
Ralph Peters is the author of thirty-three books, including works on strategy and security affairs, as well as best-selling, prize-winning novels. He has published more than a thousand columns, articles, and essays here and abroad. As a U.S. Army enlisted man and career officer, he served in Infantry and military intelligence units before becoming a foreign area officer for the dying Soviet Union and the new Russia. As a soldier, journalist, and researcher, he has experience in more than seventy countries, covering various wars and trouble spots. His historical fiction won the American Library Association's Boyd Award for Literary Excellence an unprecedented three times and also received the Herodotus Award and the Hammett Prize. Additionally, he was the 2015 recipient of the Goodpaster Award, presented each year to a distinguished American soldier-scholar. In 2017, he was selected for the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.