Calls to dissolve the Alliance are deluded. Despite its problems, NATO is the cornerstone of Western security and must be preserved.
We live in interesting times, which is a euphemism for a period in the historical cycle when conflicting geopolitical interests create dangerous tensions. This happens with monotonous regularity over centuries and the challenge for statesmen and women is to defuse the situation or, failing that, ensure there is a credible defence structure in place to protect the populations for which they have responsibility. So far as Europe is concerned, for the past 73 years the guarantor of security has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO.
The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington on 4 April, 1949 for two main purposes: to prevent any re-emergence of nationalist militarism in Europe and to contain the Soviet Union. With the USSR by then armed with atomic weapons, NATO’s founders established a principle of robust response to aggression. Article V of the Treaty stated: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” That very effectively embodied the principle of collective security, recalling how, in the 1930s, Hitler had picked off one by one the countries on which he preyed.
Subsequently, this principle was reinforced by the strategic doctrine of “Massive Retaliation”, whereby any attack by the Soviet Union would be met with nuclear weapons. This doomsday scenario proved an effective deterrent. When West Germany joined NATO in 1955, the Soviet Union retaliated by creating the Warsaw Pact, which mimicked the Alliance by grouping the satellite states already under the full control of Moscow in a cosmetic pact to confront the union of free nations assembled in NATO.
European defence is further complicated by the French drive to create some kind of European army. What for? Each member state has its own armed forces to assert national sovereignty and for collective security it has the umbrella of the Alliance.
NATO weathered confrontations of varying degrees of magnitude, the most serious being the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which was basically a bilateral confrontation between Washington and Moscow, though with the Alliance inevitably involved. In the event, NATO outlived the Soviet Union, though that had the consequence of creating more problems than it solved. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many delusions arose in the West, epitomised by Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the “End of History”.
The disintegration of states that were artificial constructs, peacefully in Czechoslovakia, violently in former Yugoslavia, drew in NATO in 1995 to end genocidal conflict. Then came 9/11 in New York and a startled awareness of the threat of Islamist terrorism. As the 21st century progressed, the potential threats posed by Russia and China began to reshape NATO.
What is the future of NATO? Does it have a future? Most definitely it does. Some people have canvassed the nuclear option of dissolving the Alliance. What would that achieve, other than to create a security vacuum in Europe? And what could a successor security organisation accomplish that could not be done more effectively by NATO – revamped, if necessary – with its experience and established defence mechanisms?
The question whether NATO should operate outside its European/North American theatre, originally a reasonable concern, now sounds naive. NATO had a legitimate locus in Afghanistan because terror groups were using that country as a base from which to attack NATO member states. NATO did not fail in Afghanistan; it was let down by the catastrophically poor judgement of the American President. That highlights the unexpected problem that confronts NATO today: its collective relationship with the United States.
NATO’s birth in 1949 was made possible by America’s abandonment of its traditional isolationism in the wake of the Second World War. Determined not to repeat Woodrow Wilson’s mistakes of 1919, America firmly engaged with Europe; the legacies of that engagement were the Marshall Plan and NATO, both designed to prevent Communism from overrunning the entire continent. Since then, America has been the backbone of NATO. Even under Donald Trump, NATO’s future was not in question: the President simply made the not unreasonable demand that member states should pay their financial dues to the Alliance.
Since the debacle in Afghanistan, however, America has become an unexpectedly problematic member of the Alliance, with President Biden giving the impression to Vladimir Putin that he would tolerate a “minor incursion” by the Russian military into Ukrainian territory – a far cry from the “Massive Retaliation” doctrine that successfully contained the Soviet Union.
Another problematic member state is Turkey.
Some commentators claim that NATO should concern itself with the domestic policies of member states, but that is not the business of the Alliance. In the case of Turkey, however, the situation is different because President Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” ideological tendencies have an external geopolitical significance not necessarily compatible with NATO’s principles.
Today, NATO is reconfiguring its defence strategies to cover a multiplicity of contemporary threats, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation (Iran), cyberattacks and disruption of energy supplies. But the real challenge will come from the need to confront Russia and China simultaneously, requiring a dual defence posture. The obvious division of labour is for responses to China to be led primarily by the US, with NATO leading in the containment of Russia.
Unfortunately, on that front NATO is not a free agent. Some of the means of response are in the control of the European Union. In fact, the leading EU countries are creating more problems for NATO than they are solving. The posture of appeasement that Germany and France have adopted towards Russia, largely due to energy dependence, provokes the question: why did they make themselves dependent on Russia? Even now, the German political establishment remains supportive of Nord Stream 2.
We cannot know what the future holds in relation to Russia and China, but it is obvious our primary defence strategy must be embodied in NATO, a tried and effective protection for three-quarters of a century and still our best resource.
European defence is further complicated by the French drive to create some kind of European army. What for? Each member state has its own armed forces to assert national sovereignty and for collective security it has the umbrella of the Alliance. Why create a third military entity, amounting to a vanity project, when Europe is hard pressed to respond effectively to the threat posed by Russia?
It was significant that NATO responded to the 9/11 attack on America by invoking Article V, a redefinition of collective security in the 21st century that effectively implies global outreach by the Alliance. With NATO members Britain and France building up a naval presence in the Indo-Pacific theatre, the Alliance should develop the cooperation it began in Afghanistan with non-member states, such as Australia, Singapore and South Korea. In counter-piracy operations it has already cooperated with India.
In a dangerous world, NATO needs to cultivate all the friends it can, without incurring additional political commitments. We cannot know what the future holds in relation to Russia and China (not natural geopolitical allies), but it is obvious our primary defence strategy must be embodied in NATO, a tried and effective protection for three-quarters of a century and still our best resource.
Gerald Warner is a newspaper columnist, author, broadcaster, commentator, and former policy adviser to Michael Forsyth when he was the UK’s Secretary of State for Scotland.