Defining Ideas

Why NATO Still Matters

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
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Image credit: 
The Prime Minister's Office

The first Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the sober and judicious British Lord Ismay, famously remarked that the purpose of the controversial new postwar alliance would be “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Over the next sixty-six years of NATO’s existence, most in the Atlantic Alliance assumed that the first commandment was obvious, the second one was taken for granted, and the third would soon be irrelevant. No longer.

 why nato still matters  
 Photo credit: The Prime Minister's Office

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, few worry anymore about an invasion from a shrinking Russia. America’s recent loud announcements of a shift in strategic focus to Asia, coupled with continual cutbacks in troop levels within Europe, reflect, in trans-Atlantic terms, a new American desire to “lead from behind.” We saw that shift in the recent Libyan war, when the Obama administration outsourced America’s historic leading role in NATO to a militarily weak Great Britain and France, while predicating the legitimacy of the alliance’s intervention on United Nations directives (which were almost immediately exceeded when found bothersome to operations).

The alliance has recently not fared too well elsewhere. The effort in Afghanistan was to be the Obama administration’s “good war” (compared to Iraq) that would showcase NATO solidarity. Instead, we saw bickering European nations seeking to either evade or end their participation in the war. Note that Germany did not participate in Libya, and at home is facing fierce opposition to the continued presence of its shrinking contingent in Afghanistan.

Consequently, if Russia is by default out, and America is now only sort of in, how about the once forgotten third NATO axiom “to keep the Germans down”? After all, to read the southern Mediterranean newspapers today is to learn of the near-hatred directed at German bankers, who are now dubbed the new “Gautleiters” of an ascendant “Fourth Reich” that is supposedly doing by finance what it could not do in two lost World Wars. As Germans assume de facto financial control of Europe, images of Germans wearing swastikas are becoming daily fare in the popular Athenian press,. Given how politically correct Europe is, it is eerie to watch how quickly all the old stereotypes reemerge in the popular culture, from the uncivilized Volk across the Rhine, which was never tamed by the Romans, to the Übermenschen who goose walk wherever they please.

America’s active participation in NATO is now more critical than ever.

As the European Union begins to unravel, 120 million in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain owe trillions of Euros mostly to some 80 million Germans. Human nature being what it is, the debtors are not about to apologize for their own unsustainable entitlements, tax avoidance schemes, bloated bureaucracies, and dismal productivity, much less even to explain their debts. Most likely, two or three of the four debtor nations will default, tear apart the European Union, and blame the ensuing mess on German greed and imperiousness.

For Germany, the stereotype of the lazy Mediterranean is now as frequently assumed as it is rarely so crassly expressed. The anger in popular German culture is best summed up as something like, “They all want to enjoy what Germans have without working like Germans.” The old resentments of the late 1930s—that the weaker in Europe seek to find ways to tie down the stronger Germany—are resurfacing. Fortunately so far, we have a circumspect Angela Merkel and a booming German economy, not an Austrian corporal amid hyperinflation, whipping up the masses smarting from recent military defeat.

Of course, few in Germany are likely to confess that there was a sort of rigged German mercantilism at work over the last twenty years: the task of bringing southern and eastern European members up to Western European standards fell to German, Austrian, Scandinavian, and French banks lending the Mediterranean bloc enough money to buy mostly German goods and services—everything from Mercedes heavy equipment to Siemens electronics. All these dubious debts were then to be covered by a suitably large collective European Union.

German financial dominance might be worrisome, but it is not ipso facto a threat to European peace—yet. The worry instead is that a historically rich and economically powerful Germany will eventually translate its money into political influence and military superiority—and Europe will either give way or erupt. The Franco-Prussian War was roughly coterminous with the unification of Germany. After World War I, the myth of a “stab in the back”—that an undefeated German army was still on the offensive on the soil of foreign countries—ensured that Germans never came to grips with the looming truth that another six months of war would have destroyed their country.

Russia is not quite out, America is not quite in, and Germany is on the rise.

The crime of Versailles, then, was not so much punitive treatment of a defeated Germany, but a failure to occupy the country, monitor forced democratization, and decouple more than a few parts of East Prussia from the German Empire—a mistake not repeated after World War II, when anti-Versailles accords led to permanent U.S. bases in the country, a new democracy, and a division of Germany into two countries, with sizable losses of territory to Poland, France, and Czechoslavakia. More than a half-century of peace followed.

In short, the common threat of the Soviet Union to NATO members, the stand-off between East and West Germany, and, later, the creation of the European Union all seemed in serial fashion to have put an end for good to the perennial “German problem”—a supposedly politically-incorrect artifact of a long ago Neanderthal age that had once believed in nefarious things like “national character” and “blood and soil.”

Yet today, Germany is as unified as it was between 1871–1945, a far more volatile period in European history than was the era between 1946 to the present. The European Union is dissolving. There are really no traditional means of deflecting natural German ambitions except for NATO, which finesses a great deal of historical anomalies that otherwise might soon loom large. Why, for example, is the richest, most scientifically advanced, and largest European country not nuclear, while a far weaker France and Great Britain are—especially given emerging threats like a soon-to-be nuclear Iran?

Why should Germany be punished for its productivity and thrift when its debtors are forgiven for their siestas and profligacy? Why did Germany at its own expense—perhaps at a cost of as much as $2 trillion—rebuild Eastern Germany, while the entire European Union, Germany most prominently, was charged with subsidizing southern and eastern European modernization?

With Russia not quite out, America not quite in, and Germany quite up, European disunity looms large, especially given not just the failure of the European Union, but the bitter acrimony and vast social dislocations that will accompany its implosion—turmoil that might make the Balkan nightmare of the 1990s look tame in comparison. In that context, keeping non-nuclear German defense integrated within NATO and assuring its continued protection with a sizable U.S. presence on the ground are as critical now as in 1946. Oil-rich Russia is out, but not entirely down, and it offers Germany far more trade advantages than does most of Europe, which in the future cannot pay for what it would like to keep borrowing. Like it or not, eastern Europe is sandwiched between a Russia and Germany that have more in common trade-wise than either has with what lies in between.

Expect two or three of Europe's debtor nations to default.

There are other growing NATO worries. Greece is not just the most notorious of the insolvent EU debtor nations, and the most notably angry at present German lenders and past occupiers, but it is also the most vulnerable. It traditionally offered NATO key bases aimed at keeping the southern European flank safe from the Soviets, once eager to seek influence in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. That now defunct role always masked less remembered historical flashpoints.

Greece’s historical rivalry with its former Ottoman occupier Turkey was adjudicated by having both countries inside NATO. That way, their shared rivalries in Cyprus, around the Greek islands, and in the airspace over the Aegean remained incidents rather than wars—although they nonetheless nearly fought each other over Cyprus in 1974.

Now? The old fault lines are returning. A large, ascendant, and increasingly Islamist Turkey no longer has a desire to join the dissolving European Union and acts far more like a friend to Iran and the Palestinians than an ally to the nations within NATO. There is a lot of history here, too. Germany has traditionally been a friend of Turkey and an enemy of Greece. The result now is that without a strong NATO, a broke and weak Greece remains the object of ridicule from most of Europe, and will soon be unable to sustain its own military at levels to achieve deterrence. If Turkey were tomorrow to move into Cyprus, or against a disputed Aegean island, or claim oil finds in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece could do nothing and most likely would find Germany siding with its historical ally rather than a despised debtor. NATO alone could manage to put a veneer of unity over a growing disunity between its members.

The role of NATO—and America’s participation in it—is now more critical than ever, both to protect a relatively disarmed and insolvent Europe from foreign pressures—but, even more importantly, to help protect twenty-first-century Europeans from themselves.