Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts NATO: Correcting the Course

NATO: Correcting the Course

Next month the leaders of the West will gather in Washington to celebrate a half-century of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Many thought NATO would never reach such an anniversary. When it was formed on April 4, 1949, the Cold War was underway, and history hung like a dark shadow over NATO’s prospects. Great Britain and France were exhausted; the western half of a divided Germany was still stained by the Nazi crimes; and the U.S. had never before actually committed its forces to defend Europe. Also, the American armies had returned home to the other side of the Atlantic and were largely demobilized. Meanwhile the Red Army, recently victorious and commanded by Stalin, stood in the middle of Germany.

Thus, NATO’s beginnings were not auspicious. A glittering signing ceremony in Washington and surprisingly broad Congressional support could not disguise the lack of military beef in the sandwich. What stood between Stalin and a free Europe at that point was the newly appointed NATO commander, General Eisenhower, his staff, and the United States Navy, which, as I remind my Navy friends, is not a land force. There were also a few nuclear weapons. To quote Dean Acheson, then Secretary of State, “these were not a frightening number.”

In today’s haze of memory, we forget that the road was so rocky at the outset. We also tend to forget that the road thereafter was never smooth. Faced by a daunting Soviet military machine, superior to NATO in important categories, the alliance was also beset by internal crises almost every year of its existence, including such divisive political issues as Germany’s rearmament, General DeGaulle’s opposition to frequently insensitive American influence, and Ostpolitik. There were fierce battles over strategic doctrine such as massive retaliation, graduated response, theater nuclear weapons, and the zero option. Throughout, NATO was pursued by a vast industry of critics always predicting its downfall and never out of work. I might add that they are still not out of work. 

Yet somehow the alliance found its feet. Skilled leadership on both sides of the Atlantic rose to the challenge and the results are there for all to see. The United States became a European power; Germany and France were reconciled; and democracy itself was saved from totalitarian aggression. In the end NATO never had to fire a shot. The Soviet Union, contained by the West and engulfed in the contradictions of its own system, went quietly into the night. This conclusion to the Cold War guaranteed NATO’s place as the most successful alliance in history. Speaking as a soldier, I can assure you that victory without war is the sweetest kind of victory.

Given this background, we can and have already seen plenty of self-satisfied rhetoric about NATO’s past and future. I do not want to add to that burden. Let me make only this personal observation. My time as Supreme Commander from 1974 to 1979 was among the most satisfying of my thirty-plus years of public service. FPRI’s founder, Robert Strausz-Hupe, served as ambassador to the NATO Council for part of that period, and we achieved a couple of things that the historians will record. All members of the alliance increased defense spending by a real 3 percent despite great economic hardship. NATO also decided to deploy theater nuclear missiles despite Soviet threats and domestic protest. NATO also achieved greater readiness, created new reinforcement capabilities, and enhanced member nation coordination. Taken together this evidence of NATO’s resolve shaped Gorbachev’s later decision to seek accommodation with the West.

Today, even after the end of the Soviet Union, NATO remains essential to world peace. We and our allies hold the preponderance of economic and military power and this should give the champions of democracy comfort in a world still too often hostile to freedom. But I would temper self-congratulation with a warning. All is not well and all will not be well if NATO continues on its current course. Since the end of the Cold War, the Atlantic Alliance has embarked on three experiments. One is peace-keeping in the Balkans. Another is a debate over the respective roles of the U.S. and Europe in the alliance. And a third is a new security structure that includes both NATO expansion and partnership with Russia. In my view, each of these has been accompanied by serious distortions which, if not corrected, will challenge the integrity of the alliance itself.


Let me begin with peace-keeping. NATO fired its first shots after the Cold War in August 1995, when its aircraft bombed Serb positions in Bosnia. Today thousands of NATO troops still patrol a shaky truce in that torn country, and we seem ready to commit thousands more to reshape the province of Kosovo in what remains of Yugoslavia. Whatever it is, it is not peace-keeping. Simply put, NATO is trying to make peace where peace does not exist. NATO is also trying to rebuild states ripped apart by ethnic conflict. These are among the most difficult tasks imaginable, and I would be very surprised if we succeeded any time soon, if at all.

Some have said that NATO’s actions in the Bosnia and Kosovo crises are a model of the alliance’s new role. I hope not. Repeatedly, NATO’s prestige has been risked over whether a hundred gunmen had side-arms or machine guns; whether artificial deadlines would be met by those skilled in the strategy of “cheat and retreat”; whether UN civil servants rather short of spine would order NATO into action. And all of this was accompanied by some of the worst self-defeating rhetoric ever heard from Western leaders, who managed to combine moral indignation with political cowardice.

These are harsh words. But what else can be said of a policy that lets Humpty Dumpty fall off the wall and then tries to put him back together again? The lesson of these fiascoes is surely not to bluff late as we did in Bosnia. Nor can it be to bluff early as we have just done in Kosovo. Still less is it to put NATO forward with tough-sounding but empty demands made in Washington that look good in the headlines. Actually, these actions carry the direct, long term danger of diminishing NATO’s deterrence.

Let me suggest an alternative approach. We should not automatically engage NATO in every out-of-area conflict as if the mere mention of the alliance would fix the problem. Instead, those few NATO powers who are able to project force should do so after agreeing among themselves. Hopefully the NATO alliance as a whole would support them. But the alliance per se, with its cumbersome consultation procedures, should not be the first resort. Nor should already weakening NATO transatlantic cooperation be further damaged by contentious efforts to establish acceptable new rules of engagement. But if the decision is made to engage the alliance, then NATO should say what it means and mean what it says. NATO ultimatums are not things to be switched on or off in reaction to tactical whims, even if these whims originate in Washington.

Finally, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. In 1991, we should have recognized that U.S. warnings against the break-up of the Soviet Union would have encouraged Belgrade to use force. More timely transatlantic diplomacy might have helped. The best strategy would have been to work with our allies to keep Humpty Dumpty on the wall.

Let me turn now to the second NATO direction that should give us pause. We have always had a debate in the alliance over roles and responsibility. The actual burden of effort has often been misunderstood. Despite popular impressions here throughout much of the Cold War, the Europeans actually fielded more troops and spent a greater percentage of their assets on NATO than did the United States. Today, they have put more troops into the Balkans and spend more on Bosnia than we do.

All of this notwithstanding, there has been and will continue to be an underlying tension between the United States and some of our European allies. Some of this is attributable to arrogance. I wish officials in Washington would stop talking about the United States as the world’s only superpower and indispensable nation as if this confers upon us a monopoly of wisdom that we clearly do not possess. And there are those in Europe, sometimes with French accents, who take a childish delight when we blunder or who claim for their own domestic political purposes that America is too strong for the world’s good. Would they really prefer that we be weak?

When you strip away this posturing, you will find two surviving ideas, a good one and a bad one. The good one is that the Europeans should revamp their thinking and their forces so that they become more effective. This is already taking place. The static and largely immobile European components of NATO are modernizing and becoming more mobile. There is no good reason why in joint operations NATO cannot make a division of labor that recognizes important differences. The U.S. does have a global reach that the Europeans lack and some capabilities that cannot be duplicated. Let each side contribute its strengths and let both sides compensate for the other’s weaknesses.

Unhappily, the Balkan experience has cast a baleful shadow on this process. It was a mistake for the Bush Administration to tell the Europeans that Yugoslavia was their baby before Europe was ready to act, leading to a dangerous delusion on their part about the risks of premature commitment. Then came the U.N. confusion about the chain of command and U.S. refusal to commit even token ground forces to share the risks with European troops already deployed if U.S. airplanes bombed the Serbs. All of this led to a very bad idea that the Europeans should be chiefly responsible for European problems of vital interest to them while we handle the rest of the world of vital interest to us. In other words, the “European pillar” would stand alone on its own ground while the U.S. would pursue — more or less — its own other interests elsewhere.

The trouble with this approach is that it presumes a division of vital interests. Is European security less vital to us than to the Europeans because we live on this side of the ocean? If that were the case, there would never have been a NATO in the first instance. Is the security of the Persian Gulf less vital to the Europeans than to us simply because they cannot project the military power to protect it and we can? If that were the case, there would never have been European participants in Desert Storm.

The idea that the U.S. and Europe can make their way independently is a profound illusion demonstrated twice in this century. American political influence around the world depends on relations with our allies. U.S. defense plans rely upon allied participation for success. As for the Europeans, they look to the U.S. not just for security, but also to articulate the common interests that sometimes elude them. Moreover, the process of European unity is at a very delicate stage, and I am referring here to more than the debate over the Euro currency. Unified Germany is going through a change of generational leadership as it struggles to absorb the formerly communist east and readjust to new economic conditions. As we have seen recently, the debut of the new men has not exactly been reassuring.

To sum up, the only way to proceed is for both Europeans and Americans to participate in the defense of our common interests, even if the proportion of effort will vary according to the forces available and the crisis at hand. But an alliance that bifurcates its forces on the grounds that vital interests differ is an alliance headed for confusion if not dissolution.

Finally, a few words about NATO expansion and partnership with Russia. When the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland formally join the alliance, there will and should be a justified cheer for the overdue inclusion of these three long-suffering peoples. We will likely also hear that the Administration has produced a miracle in that Russia remains a democratic partner of the West despite NATO expansion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The time is long overdue for us to be very clear about expansion and even more clear about the nature of our relationship with Russia.

The Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles know exactly why they want to join NATO and it has little to do with moral rewards. For them the alliance is the only organization that has ever dealt effectively with the historic German problem and the still existent Russian problem. And from NATO’s point of view, expansion makes it much more difficult for those in Moscow or elsewhere to reverse course on the results of the Cold War. So there is no doubt in my mind that NATO’s move into central Europe had from the outset an important strategic rationale and we should have long ago labeled it as such.

Also we should not be complacent about the real situation in Moscow. Two presidents have hailed post-Soviet Russia as a democratic partner. I wish that this were true, but it is not yet so. Indeed Russia is not moving toward greater democracy. Today Russia is increasingly in the hands of the Communist party and is treating Russia’s economic crisis primarily through the ruble printing press. As in 1991, hyperinflation is again on the horizon, threatening a second collapse of the Marxist myth. The possibility of a nationalist strongman is increasingly likely. Rearmament pump-priming could be the result, along with even more aggressive activity in the CIS. Contemporary Russian leaders are presiding over one of the greatest economic collapses of modern history. Since August 1998, the Russians have been plagued by a bad harvest, a ruble fallen in value by 66 percent, and industrial production off by 40 percent from a year earlier. Direct foreign investment has amounted to less than $10 billion since 1991, less than 25 percent of what China attracts almost every year. And every day’s headlines brings new revelations of corruption.

Despite its condition, today’s Russian government is not friendly to the U.S. and has not been so for some time, probably since late 1993, when a coalition of communists and nationalists took control of the Duma. Take the issues one by one: no ratification of the START II treaty; little cooperation on preventing arms sales to countries like Iran; a steady campaign to get Saddam off the hook; an arms sale to Cyprus that might have led to a Greek-Turkish war; a role both in the Balkans crisis and in the Middle East that can only be described as mischievous.

This is only a shorthand version of the situation, and we can debate the reasons for it. Yet, the fact remains that relations between Russia and the West have been bad for some time and are getting worse. Despite the frequent summits and the elaborate declarations following them, the “partnership” never really existed.

In some circles, the debate over “who lost Russia” has begun. Surely the U.S., and the IMF in particular, will come in for some justifiable criticism. Overall, we probably expected too much too soon and totally mistook the symptoms of kleptocracy for real reform. Yet there can be no excuse for portraying the situation as one full of promise, hope, and progress when we have known at least since 1993-94 that none of this was really happening.

Ultimately, the Russians will decide their own fate and it is useless to pretend otherwise. But at the moment of NATO’s expansion, the alliance must avoid two very serious mistakes. One is obviously to continue the pretense of partnership and to snag NATO in such tricky devices as the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which allows Moscow to make enormous mischief in the alliance. While the Russians sort things out, NATO must keep up its guard. Indeed, by doing so the alliance will signal that a new Soviet empire is no longer an option. Do not listen to those who say that the Russians are so weak that they will pose no problems in the foreseeable future and do not be fooled by the Russian collapse. Under effective leadership, the Russians could recover their strength much faster than many people think. A balanced picture is long overdue.

A second mistake would be to turn expansion into a general policy. NATO is not a collective security structure for all of Europe. A hasty enlargement would deprive the alliance of coherence and turn it into a political debating society incapable of action. At this point, NATO has enough to do with the new members, and we ought to see how that works out.

Let me conclude by summing all of this up in a few homilies. NATO has been the most successful alliance in history because it united the democracies around vital common interests, reinforced their moral values with military strength, and shared both risks and responsibilities. In doing so, NATO saved democracy from the totalitarian ideologies that plunged much of the twentieth century into war.

Over the next fifty years, to succeed in securing the peace won by so much sacrifice, NATO need not reinvent itself. Just because the fire has gone out you do not disband the fire department, especially when the Russian embers are still smoldering. But NATO should also avoid pursuing a furtive quest for fresh fires to fight. We must be leery of pitfalls of peace-keeping and nation-building; NATO is neither social worker nor sheriff. We must not delude ourselves about our true partners and NATO expansion must be justified by strategic purpose. By camouflaging this longstanding strategic purpose we delude ourselves and mislead those who have yet to prove they share our interests. Above all, the United States and its allies must reestablish a clear sense of vital common interests.

Winston Churchill, writing in 1948, called the last volume of his memoirs, “Triumph and Tragedy.” He argued that having barely escaped with their lives in two world wars, the western democracies were already resuming the bad habits that had put them into danger. And so it might have been. But then the West acquired a new habit. It was called NATO. After fifty years, let us not take the habit for granted and wander into the old vices of irresolution, illusion, and division. Take it from this old general: a robust NATO is the finest legacy our tortured century can bequeath to the new millennium.