In 1952 British General Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously quipped that NATO existed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Mission accomplished. NATO was a diplomatic achievement on par with the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which kept the peace for ninety-nine years after a generation of pan-European upheaval. In fact, NATO is the most successful alliance in European history. The Americans remained and Germany did not rise up a third time. Most importantly NATO ensured the Cold War stayed cold.
NATO was an expression of Post War Allied unity against Soviet expansion and a declaration that America had taken Britain’s place as leader of the West. The United States cast aside President Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements and committed to collective security, much to the relief of Western European leaders worried that war-weary Americans would once again turn their backs on distant Europe.
For the first time the United States maintained a large peacetime military. After the Civil War and the Great War, the United States Army demobilized millions of soldiers and went back to its prewar role as a frontier constabulary chasing Indians and Mexican bandits and maintaining small posts in distant parts of the Pacific. No longer. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the United States had met President Reagan’s goal of a 600-ship navy and maintained an army of a quarter of a million men in West Germany. In the words of military historian JFC Fuller “Rome Shuddered” at America’s power and might, all in the defense of Europe.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia took the USSR’s place on the UN Security Council and maintained the USSR’s nuclear arsenal. But Russia quickly fell into political and economic chaos reminiscent of Weimer Germany. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was no threat to Western Europe. Western leaders wondered, “What next for NATO?”
In 1989 history ended according to Professor Francis Fukayama. Except it hadn’t. In 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Following NATO’s example of collective action, President Bush built an international Coalition to free Kuwait. Under the auspices of the UN and the leadership of the United States the nations of the world came together to defeat Saddam. In victory the US imposed economic sanctions on Saddam and imposed no fly zones over Iraq to protect the Shia and Kurdish regions. It seemed President Bush’s New World Order could ensure peace.
Or could it? Despite Fukayama’s predictions history reared its head again in 1991 as Yugoslavia dissolved. On NATO’s doorstep was a brutal civil war killing hundreds of thousands. Now was NATO’s time. Yet NATO seemed powerless, counting on diplomacy, ‘soft power’ and UN peace keepers to stop the sieges, massacres and ethnic cleansing of and by Bosnian, Croat, Kosovar and Serb. If NATO could not maintain or impose peace in Europe than what is the point of NATO?
After failing in Yugoslavia and despite having no enemy per se, NATO expanded in the 90’s admitting Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and Poland. Despite promises, given by NATO and US to President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev after German reunification that the Alliance would not expand to the East admitting ex-Warsaw Pact countries.
But NATO’s elite seem determined to push further east. In 2004 NATO admitted the Baltic Republics. From there Brussels looked beyond Europe. After the Russo-Georgia War of 2008, President Bush called for NATO to admit the Republic of Georgia. Even if Americans opposed Russian’s invasion of Georgia, in Moscow’s view mounted in defense of Ossetia and Abkhazia, what was NATO’s interest in these republics remaining part of Georgia? Today, five years into the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, former president Petro Poroshenko and newly sworn in President Vladimir Zelenskiy want Ukraine to join NATO. This is a terrible idea.
As NATO and the United States have interests, so does Russia. Since at least the times of the Romanovs Russia has sought to secure its border by exerting influence over or maintaining friendly governments in Eastern Europe. Given Napoleon and Hitler this is understandable. The Warsaw Pact was the ultimate expression of Russian interests in Eastern Europe and guaranteed a buffer between the Soviet Union and Western Europe.
With the USSR long gone pushing NATO even further east is a pointless provocation. Those advocating for expanding to Russia’s border forget NATO’s mission, stated clearly in the alliance’s name, North Atlantic Treaty Organization; North Atlantic. NATO links western Europe to North America with Great Britain as the physical and cultural bridge between the two. From Nord Kapp, to the North Sea and down to the Greenland, Iceland United Kingdom Gap NATO protects the Atlantic crossings. The Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia have nothing to do with the Atlantic and should have nothing to do with NATO.
Today most American troops are gone from Europe and NATO’s once fine, professional militaries have shriveled. Why poke the Bear?