NATO at Sixty

Monday, June 29, 2009

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is now sixty years old. The most enduring, successful diplomatic and military alliance in the history of democracy, NATO was born in Washington on April 4, 1949, when representatives of a dozen nations in Europe and the Western Hemisphere signed the North Atlantic Treaty. Their creation not only outlived the Cold War, with its imperative of defending Europe from communism, but took on a remarkable new life as a promoter of democratic values with a far broader view. A brief review of the alliance’s goals, growing pains, and successes suggests a great deal about its future.

A little more than a year before the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, five of the twelve NATO founding members (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) had joined in the Treaty of Brussels, a collective security arrangement with cultural and social clauses. Those signatories were mindful of the Soviet-engineered communist coup that had taken place in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, just the month before.

June 1948 witnessed another momentous event that would fuel the movement toward a broader North Atlantic Treaty: the Soviet attempt to strangle the western zones of Berlin via a road and rail blockade. Democracies on both sides of the Atlantic realized their common need for a stronger shield against the expansionist tendencies of Josef Stalin’s USSR. Even as the Berlin airlift was defying Stalin’s expectations (he would abandon the failed blockade in May 1949), Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, and the United States were preparing to join the “Brussels Five” in a new collective security organization. Of the twelve, all except Portugal were democracies.

The North Atlantic Treaty’s critical component is Article 5, in which the signatories agree that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” The signatories pledge to assist one another “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other parties, such action as [each signatory] deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” This article gave NATO its teeth, equipping it with what was hoped would prove an effective deterrent. Yet to date, the only time the article has been invoked was in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, more than a decade after the Cold War’s end. This says something about NATO’s overall success.

At the time of its signing, the North Atlantic Treaty was more of “a North American political commitment to the defense of Europe,” in Paul Nitze’s words, than a framework for a military organization. The Marshall Plan for economic reconstruction, the creation of NATO, and the commencement of a military assistance program were three of the four major ingredients of U.S. strategy in Western Europe. The fourth, and most controversial, was the rearmament of Germany. Many Americans—and many senior U.S. military officers, especially—believed that rearming West Germany, standing as it did at the very front line of the Cold War, was crucial to Europe’s defense. Additional developments, such as Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb, the slow pace of recovery in British and French military capabilities, the growing French involvement in Indochina, and cuts in the U.S. defense budget, served as further arguments supporting German rearmament. In 1948, the West was hopelessly outgunned in Europe: there were only four British and U.S. divisions and practically no air force between the English Channel and the twenty-two Soviet divisions massed just across the border in the eastern zone of Germany. In terms of military personnel, the disparity was ten to one in the Soviets’ favor.

For its first three years, NATO was little more than an organizational shell. It remained more a political than a military alliance, in good measure owing to American and Canadian reluctance to assume what Washington and Ottawa feared would become long-term and open-ended military obligations. The outbreak of the Korean War, however, persuaded policy makers and military leaders in North America that the threat from communism demanded the full-scale development of NATO’s military component. Political elites on both sides of the Atlantic viewed North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, as a Soviet-engineered test of Western democracies’ mettle, not unlike Hitler’s challenge to them during the 1930s. The similarity between divided Korea and divided Germany was also hard to miss.

Article 5 gives NATO its teeth: “An armed attack” against a member in Europe or North America “shall be considered an attack against them all.”

The alliance’s 1952 Lisbon Conference created the post of NATO secretary-general, the first of whom would be the retired British army general and wartime Churchill aide Hastings Ismay. It was Ismay who famously summed up NATO’s raison d’etre as “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The alliance, of course, stood for much more than that. Although for most Europeans Article 5 was NATO’s premier attraction, the North American members were more interested in Article 2, which called for strengthening free institutions and promoting political stability and material well-being through international trade and economic cooperation.

It is also important to remember that during the Cold War—which now accounts for just two-thirds of the alliance’s history—NATO’s main objective was the defense of democracy and not necessarily the promotion of democratic rule in the member states where it might have been endangered. Strategic location and uncompromising anticommunism trumped democratic governance as the fundamental membership criteria during the Cold War. After all, NATO’s founding members included Portugal, an authoritarian state until 1974, whose material contribution to the alliance was marginal in part because of its engagement in colonial wars in Africa. NATO’s first enlargement in 1952 granted membership to Greece and Turkey: two countries that were not only ruled by authoritarian regimes but also locked in a seemingly perennial conflict with each other.

The last country added to NATO’s roster during the Cold War was Spain, which joined in 1982, seven years after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco. In that case, NATO clearly had a “democracy-friendly” effect: the prospect of joining the alliance supplied an important motive for the transformation of the Spanish armed forces after decades of Franco’s undemocratic rule.


NATO, unlike most alliances, was and remains a “democratic” alliance in another sense: it is constituted and governed by the consent of its members. A look at the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s Cold War foe, offers a clear contrast. Its 1955 founding document was almost a mirror image of NATO’s, featuring a Political Consultative Committee with a superficial similarity to NATO’s North Atlantic Council as its top political forum, a civilian secretary-general, and a united military command under a uniformed officer and a combined staff. In reality, there were enormous differences. Most important, the Eastern European states did not join the Warsaw Pact of their own free will. The only state that ever managed to leave the pact was tiny and impoverished Albania, which quit in 1968 to align itself with Beijing. Albania lacked a border with the USSR, had never been occupied by Soviet troops, and held virtually no political, economic, or strategic significance for Moscow.

For its first three years, NATO was little more than an organizational shell. The United States and Canada feared it would lead to long-term, open-ended military obligations.

Other countries that tried to exit the Warsaw Pact were not so lucky. When the multiparty government that took power in Budapest during the 1956 uprising announced Hungary’s immediate withdrawal, Khrushchev sent in Soviet tanks. The only time that Warsaw Pact forces (as distinct from the Red Army) became engaged in hostile action was not against NATO or another enemy but against a pact member: the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia aimed at crushing the “Prague spring” of political and economic liberalization. Not coincidentally, one of the demands of Czechoslovak reformers had been the revision of the Warsaw Pact’s war plans, which called for East European forces to act as cannon fodder, bearing the brunt of holding actions against NATO firepower until Soviet armies were ready to strike from the east. Throughout its thirty-five-year history, the Warsaw Pact never had a single top-level political or military leader who was not a Soviet national.

Unlike their Warsaw Pact counterparts, NATO’s members entered freely and could not be compelled to take part in it against their will. The alliance has always had a European secretary-general, and its structure has allowed genuine and active participation by member states. This is not to deny serious rifts among its members. The most important occurred in 1966 when President Charles de Gaulle of France, upset at what he saw as excessive U.S. influence within the alliance and a privileged relationship between Washington and London, pulled France out of NATO’s military structure (though not its political activities).

NATO’s first secretary-general, Hastings Ismay, famously summed up its mission as “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Throughout the Cold War, most disagreements within NATO revolved around four major issues:

  • First, after Stalin died in 1953, several left-of-center West European governments came to believe that the Anglo-American posture of vigilance toward the Soviet threat represented an overestimation of that menace and favored some form of détente as a better approach. Moscow’s intentions and the Warsaw Pact’s military capabilities were debated for the rest of the Cold War.
  • Second was the issue of nuclear weapons. Britain and France each insisted on developing and controlling its own atomic arsenal. During the 1970s and 1980s, Western European peace movements (partly—and secretly—funded by Moscow) succeeded in turning large segments of public opinion against the deployment of nuclear weapons in the region, especially West Germany.
  • Third was an issue common to nearly all alliances: how to share the human and material burden. With the growing prosperity of NATO’s European participants, a near-ubiquitous item on meeting agendas was a U.S. plea for stepped-up financial contributions.
  • Fourth, members debated whether NATO’s geographic identity as an alliance of North Atlantic nations ought to be maintained. Related to this question were debates over whether and to what extent NATO should become engaged in member states’ “out of area” activities (such as the counterinsurgencies that France and Britain waged in Algeria and Malaysia, respectively).


NATO’s greatest moment may well have been the September 1990 signing, in Moscow, of the “two-plus-four agreement.” In this document, known formally as the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, the four states that had occupied that country since 1945 agreed to renounce all the rights that they held there. This act not only paved the way for German reunification but also resulted in newly reunited Germany entering the alliance.

Many have argued that this treaty should have been NATO’s last act. Having fulfilled its mission without ever engaging in hostilities, they say, the alliance should have folded its tent and faded into history. Those inclined toward “realist” theories about world affairs confidently predicted that because the threat that had called NATO into being was gone, NATO would soon be gone too. NATO, it was said, had to “go out of area or go out of business.” But organizations, particularly large and complex ones, resist change in general and particularly change that would end their existence. Yet “business as usual” in the face of epoch-making changes also did not appear to be a viable option.

In the Cold War, NATO’s main objective was the defense of democracy and not necessarily the promotion of democratic rule in the member states.

As new security challenges appeared—the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, followed by the rise of worldwide terrorist networks a decade later—the alliance’s members inevitably turned to NATO. After all, it had maintained its politico-military framework, and, equally important, it was the one major international organization through which European democracies were closely integrated with the United States. The latter’s standing in the world had only increased at the end of the Cold War, given the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of a politically unpredictable and economically frail new Russia, and rapid increases in the U.S. military’s firepower and technological prowess.

In many ways, the last third of NATO’s history has been more eventful than its four Cold War decades. The two main missions that NATO adopted in the early 1990s were to promote stability in non-NATO Europe and to develop institutional ties with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, many of which had been members of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact. Yugoslavia’s disintegration along ethno-sectarian lines was an explosion that sorely tested the alliance’s resolve to carry out its new missions. One could argue that NATO executed this mission successfully: forces from the alliance ended two brutal Balkan conflicts—Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999—and created a safe environment in which the rebuilding of the region’s states, societies, and economies could go forward. But an equally valid argument could be made that the Balkans were a scene of abject NATO failures.

Many have argued that the 1990 treaty reunifying Germany should have been NATO’s last act.

After all, for four years between mid-1991 and mid-1995, conditions in the former Yugoslavia went from bad to worse even as NATO leaders were touting the promotion of stability in Europe as their main mission. Yet the alliance’s leaders stood by as the conflagration between Serbia and Croatia, and then Bosnia, roared. Similarly, during Serbia’s conflict with Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic called the West’s bluff time and again until finally, in 1999, NATO air forces bombed Serbia into submission. Member states had limited interests at stake, could not decide on objectives, and lacked the will to use force effectively.

Immediately after the Cold War, “out of area” meant beyond the borders of the then-sixteen member states. Two decades later, NATO has expanded to include so much of Europe that “out of area” means beyond Europe altogether. Since 2004, the alliance has conducted counterterror operations on the eastern Mediterranean Sea and has sent soldiers to help train Iraq’s new army and police force. In late 2008, NATO launched Operation Allied Provider, in which warships from alliance countries conduct antipiracy patrols in shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia.

And then there is Afghanistan. The alliance’s first major engagement outside Europe was the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush’s administration at first rejected any direct NATO involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that stabilizing and rebuilding the country was going to be much easier with assistance from NATO. In August 2003, the alliance took charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and by 2006 the entire country was a NATO operational area. The list of top ISAF commanders has included generals from not only the United States but also Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Britain.

Winning in Afghanistan means not just helping the democratically elected government gain control of its country but also laying a basis for sustained economic development and the rebuilding (or building) of badly needed infrastructure. There can be no doubt that NATO has been instrumental in promoting democratization and improving the lives of millions of Afghans by providing humanitarian assistance, health care, education, and development.


The alliance has clearly succeeded in its second major post–Cold War mission: expanding institutional ties with the new democracies from the former Soviet bloc. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became full-fledged NATO members in 1999, with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joining five years later. During NATO’s April 2009 sixtieth anniversary summit in Strasbourg, Albania and Croatia entered the alliance, bringing it to twenty-eight members.

The Atlantic alliance offered different promises to different countries. For states making successful transitions to democracy and the market, membership signified little more than a seal of approval on their way to membership in the European Union, the prize they really sought. But for regimes that had encountered difficulties in consolidating democracy—Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, for instance—securing an invitation from NATO also signified a boost to their domestic legitimacy.

As critics were quick to point out, most new members could not, at the time of accession, meet the military or even the political standards that NATO had set for membership. Such countries had little to contribute to the alliance and might even be said to be a drag. Yet expansion continued, driven by a number of outside factors, the most important of which was the new global security environment that took shape after 9/11.

Throughout its history, NATO’s political identity has been nearly as important as its military one. Expanding NATO’s membership has been an effective way to promote democracy and stability. Countries have progressed in such areas as civilian oversight of the military, eliminating ethnic and gender discrimination within the ranks, and treating conscripts in a more humane manner. Moreover, democracy depends on responsible civilian officials having control over the military. Across Eastern Europe, the prospect of NATO membership—for which civilian supremacy is an absolute requirement—has promoted this sine qua non of democratic governance. Overall, preparing for NATO membership has meant airing and peacefully resolving a host of troublesome points.

Two decades after the Cold War, NATO has expanded to include so much of Europe that “out of area” means beyond Europe altogether.

Most Europeans (especially Western Europeans), having witnessed massive expansion of NATO and the EU over the past two decades, suffer from an understandable sense of “enlargement fatigue.” The political, economic, and military performance of some recent entrants has also given rise to skepticism. If NATO is to grow any more, it might be better advised to cast its glance north rather than east. Finland and Sweden already satisfy virtually all alliance accession criteria and could be particularly valuable to nearby NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Poland—each of which worries about a resurgent and aggressive Russia.


Should NATO become a global organization, or should it limit its focus to its core membership and geographic area? NATO has already “gone global,” having provided logistical support in Darfur, tsunami relief in Indonesia, supplies for earthquake victims in Pakistan, and most recently the antipiracy patrols off the Horn of Africa. Challenges to security have become increasingly international, and one can argue that only a world-wide alliance with a worldwide reach—acting as much as possible under a United Nations mandate—can meet them effectively.

There is not now, and will not likely appear anytime soon, another organization on our planet with capabilities comparable to NATO’s. But what level of ambition should the alliance harbor? How much should it be able to do? The alliance is finding its resources stretched to the limit and its members lacking in desire to make a harder effort.

An until recently unanticipated bright spot in the alliance’s future may be the April 2009 return of France, after more than four decades, to NATO’s integrated military structure. Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France has already stepped up its contribution to fighting the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. Given the expected bargaining and reallocation of top command positions and the fact that France does not have a vested interest in maintaining the organization in its current shape, Paris may well drive the process of institutional reform within the alliance.

For the first forty years of its history, NATO had a clear enemy and an unambiguous mission. During the past twenty years, however, NATO has become something new. In what must surely count as one of history’s most notable reversals, all its new members once belonged (however unwillingly) to the enemy camp. The mission has changed, too: now it is multiform, and involves a wealth of what the professionals call “operations other than war.”

NATO must continue to evolve and adapt to the fast-changing political and strategic environment in which it operates. Despite decades of epochal shifts, its command and force structures still look much as they did during the Cold War.

NATO has shown that it can go to places far from its core area and do things that alleviate suffering and make the world safer, actions that no other international actor or organization has the will or the ability to perform. Advancing along this path can ensure that the alliance continues to celebrate anniversaries in the years ahead.

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