Rethinking NATO’s Role

by Global Scholar, Dr. David Koyzis

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, known as NATO (OTAN in French), is arguably the most successful military alliance in history. Founded in 1949, it brought together Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States into a defence pact aimed primarily at containing the Soviet Union. At the end of the Second World War, Moscow had moved into the heart of Europe, occupying a large swathe of territory extending from the Baltic to the Black Seas, stopping short of the Mediterranean. In the countries it occupied, it set up communist governments and made them clients of the Soviet Union.

With tensions mounting between the US and the Soviet Union, more member states were added to the Alliance, with the accession of Greece and Turkey in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982, following the end of the Franco régime. The unification of Germany in 1990 brought the territory of the former German Democratic Republic into NATO, followed by the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999. After the beginning of the millennium, NATO undertook a massive expansion with the addition of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020), bringing the total number of NATO members to thirty.

This is a rather large number of countries for a single military alliance—possibly too large. Past alliances have generally been much smaller. In the late 19th century, Germany, Austria, and Russia were allied in the Three Emperors League between 1873 and 1887. Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the UK, France, and Russia were part of a Triple Entente, while Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy were members of a Triple Alliance. Between 1920 and 1938, a Little Entente brought together Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia for common defence against a resurgent Hungary trying to regain the lands lost at Trianon. Of course, none of these alliances endured for very long. Italy left the Triple Alliance with the outbreak of war in 1914. If a country’s government concluded that it was in its own interest to leave an alliance or ally with another state, it would do so.

After the end of the Great War, US President Woodrow Wilson dreamt of establishing a League of Nations which would settle future disputes peacefully. He succeeded in establishing the League, but not in persuading the US Senate to bring his own country into the League. The absence of the United States, which had grown into one of the most powerful countries in the world by the end of the previous century, may have doomed the League. By the time Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the League was largely powerless to do anything about it. Within the context of a fatally weak League, individual nations entered into alliances with other nations in anticipation of renewed conflict.

Following the Second World War, the victorious Allies decided to try again. Rather than revive the League, they replaced it with a new United Nations Organization in 1945. The presence within this new organization of the Soviet Union and its new client states prevented the UN becoming a genuine collective security agreement. The UN did undertake military action in Korea between 1950 and 1953, but for the most part soldiers serving under the UN flag do so as members of peacekeeping missions in troubled parts of the globe, such as Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia. Although one might conclude that the UN has been impotent to prevent or settle military conflicts, the reality is more complicated. Although we can only speculate on this, in the UN’s absence, more conflicts might have erupted at various times.

How is the UN relevant to NATO? Because where the UN is deficient as a collective security agreement encompassing the globe, NATO has effectively kept the peace within the zone covered by the alliance for three-quarters of a century. Since joining NATO no country has opted to leave it, although President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966. This suggests that NATO has played more than one role during its lifespan. I would divide these into three.

First, it successfully deterred Soviet aggression during its first four decades. Although more than one spark could have set off another general European war, including the two Berlin crises of 1948 and 1958-61, NATO’s presence successfully prevented this occurrence. America’s status as a superpower undoubtedly played a role in this, as its protective nuclear umbrella extended over Europe as well as North America. Of course, there is another side to this story. Might NATO’s formation have provoked the Soviet Union into creating the Warsaw Pact in 1955? Did the west needlessly antagonize the Russian bear? We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. For centuries Russia has sought to create buffer states along its borders to defend itself against unprovoked attack. The irony, of course, is that, in the process of taking this approach, Russia itself has frequently played the aggressor. And, if so, then NATO must still function to contain post-Soviet Russian expansion.

Second, as we noted above, NATO has successfully kept the peace in Europe for a nearly unprecedented amount of time. Historians often observe that a century of peace reigned in Europe between 1815 and 1914, meaning that, while general European wars bookended this era, the great powers were mostly at peace. However, we ought not to forget the smaller conflicts such as the revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Schleswig wars (1848-1850, 1864), the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and so forth. By contrast, since 1945, the only military conflicts were in the former Yugoslavia and the current Russo-Ukrainian war. Several times during this period, Greece and Turkey were at the brink of war, mostly over Cyprus and disputed territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. The years 1955, 1963-64, 1967, and 1974 were especially tense. Had the two NATO members fought each other, the damage to the Alliance might have been irreparable. Yet in every case, war was averted.

If NATO has functioned as a successful collective security system, then there is in principle no reason why Russia could not have joined. In fact, NATO and Russia have undertaken joint military exercises on occasion, notably in 2011 and 2020. As such, the NATO security zone would wrap around the world, covering most of the northern hemisphere. However, because American power has largely been the guarantor of this peace, Russia’s leadership would have had a tough time swallowing an arrangement in which, so to speak, they would play second fiddle. National pride has so often stood in the way of peace and co-operation in the past, and, with a resurgent nationalism in such countries as Russia, Hungary, China, and even the United States, it shows no signs of diminishing any time soon.

Third, NATO has tied the interests of the United States, which is subject to sporadic bouts of isolationism, to an international order enabling smooth political and economic relations among members. Over the past century or more, Americans have succumbed to the temptation to go it alone, most notably during the interwar era. In 1952, Senator Robert Taft sought the Republican nomination for president on an isolationist programme but was defeated by the internationalist General Dwight Eisenhower. America’s failure in Vietnam encouraged a resurgence of isolationism in both parties, while the George W. Bush administration represented an effort to combine the two foreign policy themes: America as an international actor but acting unilaterally to protect its own interests.

Yet if NATO is still functioning as a defensive alliance against Russian expansion, then it may have grown beyond sensible limits. We are told that the oldest military alliance in the world is that between England and Portugal established by the Treaty of Windsor in 1386. An alliance this old is based on real ties of friendship developing over the centuries and binding the two countries’ interests together. If one country is attacked, the other readily comes to its defence because these ties are so strong. By contrast, NATO is much younger, and the links holding its members together may not extend much beyond the formal legal obligations. Could Portugal and, say, Latvia ever enjoy the closeness of Britain and Portugal? Would American or Canadian public opinion jump to the defence of the Baltic states if Russia attacked them? NATO’s Article 5 holds that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on the alliance as a whole. But how realistic is this, given the fluctuations of public opinion in the member states?

In 2016, President Donald Trump cast doubt on America’s commitment to the three Baltic states, prompting an outcry from various quarters, including, of course, the governments of those states. There is no doubt that Trump, whose sympathy for Russia’s Vladimir Putin was well known, made an unwise statement that seemed calculated to weaken the Alliance. But he was also expressing the views of many in his support base: resources are limited; many Americans have been shut out of the economic prosperity of a postindustrial digital economy; Estonians are spending proportionately less of their budgets on their own defence; the United States, swimming in trillions of dollars of debt, shouldn’t be bankrolling so many other countries’ militaries and expecting its own young people to fight on the other side of the globe. “America First” is a slogan nearly as old as America itself, and it resonates with people feeling neglected by their own government.

Is NATO too large then? One can understand the countries once under Russian domination during the Cold War wanting to join the alliance. They have borne the brunt of Moscow’s expansionist tendencies in the past and have no desire to repeat the experience. This is what drove Ukraine’s government to seek NATO membership, a goal that I had long thought misguided and needlessly provocative of Russia. Thus far NATO has held together, but for how much longer? Will Russia be able to wait it out in Ukraine, hoping that the alliance’s unity will crumble in the meantime? Will NATO’s thirty members continue to recognize the threat of an aggressive Russia and subordinate their own interests to that of the alliance as a whole?  Might a post-Putin Russia finally abandon its historic pattern of aggression towards its neighbours? These are questions that we cannot answer easily, but they all point to the need for NATO to reconsider its role in these troubled times.

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