NATO: Mutual Security or the Americans’ Liability?
by George de Poor Handlery
04 May 2004
NATO as a “shield” against Soviet expansionism
has never been worth more than slightly used Kleenex would have been.
The North Atlantic
Treaty Organization came about in 1949, as a response to the Sovietization
of Central Europe. At the time it was reasonable to assume that this expansionist
grab, extending well beyond Russia’s historic zone of influence, would be
followed by the conquest of Western Europe. Ever since then the United States'
European policy had NATO as its focal point. Old habits die slower than old
soldiers are alleged to. Therefore, official America has a hard time stepping
over NATO in its thinking. This being so, it takes some guts to jump into
the ring against the embedded assumption that the Atlantic Alliance is to
be regarded as a “given.” Regrettably, in the light of developments that
cannot be concealed, a perfunctory laudation of NATO, as the peg on which
our European foreign policy must be suspended, cannot be the conclusion of
the assessments to follow below.
In the era beginning with the end of the Soviet Union, it became acceptable
to discuss openly the long suppressed crisis of the Alliance. Let me share
an open secret with you: NATO as a “shield” against Soviet expansionism has
never been worth more than slightly used Kleenex would have been. Even though
NATO existed when the Soviet Union went belly up, its contribution to this
fortuitous event leaves its mark above “nil” only if you have a strong magnifying
glass. Not surprisingly, the current (2004) state of affairs has two adjectives
at its core. They are: “disappointment” and “abused.” The shortened
conclusion the writer has to suggest to America will be a shocking: “suckers
we shall no longer be.”
The evolution of the Atlantic Alliance, specifically Europe’s reaction to
measures provoked by 9/11, leave the politically aware with an indelible
impression. The response to the challenge of Islamists, in the context of
the disappearance of Europe’s perceived need to be protected from the USSR,
amount to a desertion of the US in her hour of peril. That America
is only stuck in the moment’s battle in the front line of the war waged against
Western Civilization and that in the future Europe will, no matter how pliable
now, be attacked by the Jihadists, is of little importance. Except, perhaps,
for the fact that, when faced with a need to sacrifice, Europe is incapable
of taking action consistent with the long term determinants of her survival.
Once numerous considerations of a similar nature are added, the observer
is left with the conclusion that America’s alliances need to be re-thought.
Not excluding NATO, they need to be trimmed and taken out of the context
of the one-sidedly self-evident. The more so since, the loosening of the
ties to America has already taken place as far as Europe in concerned.
What we call the present is a condition that, intentionally or accidentally,
evolved by a traceable logic, out of the developments and the responding
decisions of the past. Therefore, it is only natural to commence this essay
by taking distance -- in order to assess the object of the inquiry more accurately.
If we view the US’ affiliation with NATO from a remote perspective we arrive
at a unique insight. To maintain her global security posture, the USA can
refrain from imposing its will to keep its associates in their assigned place
in the order of battle. There is no need to threaten the federation so as
to bend it to the will of the United States. American interests are adequately
served if she does no more than indicate that she discerns withdrawal from
the association as an option. Bluntly put: America does not need to threaten
with intrusion. She can retaliate by simply “declaring independence” and
dropping some of her affiliates while she re-forges, on a bilateral basis,
her relationship with what might be left. And this needs to be done with
an emphasis on mutual -- not only one-sided -- obligations and sacrifices.
Regardless of the blabber about the “American Empire” and comparable good
sounding but unfounded European slogans invoked to justify “neutrality” when
called upon to give support, the US is not interested in domination. What
the phrase reveals is that those using it -- such a France -- crave something
approximating American power. Through their yearning they reveal what they
would do if they possessed the force they criticize only because they lack
it. Breaking with the historical mold of imperial analogies -- the
old empires forced their small clients to contribute to their cause -- is
something the US can afford. In addition, separation also happens to be a
course that conforms to the instincts of a substantial portion of her population.
What only a few in Europe realize is that American “nationalism” is not expansionist:
it is isolationistic.
With this in mind, one is justified to opine that if America is an “empire”
than it is one more in response to the weakness of her affiliates than because
it is acting upon the instinct to dictate and to seek security through a
buffer zone on its outskirts. Some, including her home-grown detractors,
like to forget that the United States is a reluctant world power: she assumed
this role against her will. In both world wars the US was forced into the
fray by a foe (the Imperial German War Council in 1917 and Japan’s government
in 1941) that rationally should have been content to let the drowsy giant
slumber. Even after 1945, a good bit of the extension and much of the firming
of Soviet influence, could come about because, under the pressure of the
public, the “boys” were to be “brought home” at once. Thereafter, for more
than three years, the USA had a global nuclear monopoly. No one talks about
this very much, even though the power and its application are not only truly
unique but also help to define the country and its system in the realm of
foreign affairs. This atomic monopoly made the USA into the first power in
human experience that had the ability to dominate the world without too much
of an effort. Not a shortage of the means but her political culture, the
regulating power of American institutions and mainly the lack of the imperial
instinct, prevented the US from lording over the globe.
Nothing would be more “un-American” than to threaten wayward allies with
chastisement by a Soviet-style intervention. Uniquely, the likely popular
American response to abandonment can be located in the general area of an
isolationism that acts from behind the ramparts of a Fortress America. In
some quarters abroad this is privately recognized. Therefore much is done
to preserve a modicum of profitable interdependence by restraining America’s
tendency to go it alone. This goal is achieved through alternating between
vitriolic accusations followed by mild symbolic concessions. There is an
operative concern about the “Ami Go Home” graffiti getting taken too seriously
by the addressee. What most of Europe’s governors wish is the preservation
of a one-way alliance. It leaves the US committed to Europe’s support when
she needs it and allows the states of the Old Continent to be “neutral” when
asked for (mainly symbolic) backing until they are in need of American action
on their behalf. This wish to “hang on” cheaply is why those, who otherwise
profile themselves by bashing America, demonstrate superficial concern for
her well-being in that they warn against the costs of the allegedly wasteful
national missile defense system. (NMD now and the earlier ridiculed, but
not ridiculous, SDI “Star Wars” of Reagan and Teller).
Superficially analogous coalitions had chastised reluctant members who were
suspected of nurturing thoughts of independence. In the case of the Atlantic
Alliance the real threat is not intervention but the “resignation” of the
compact’s leader. Why is “getting out” a viable threat? Because NATO made
its key member -- a patient burden toting giant -- a captive of the dictate
of her lesser partners. Historically quite the reverse used to be the case.
Regardless of that, NATO, and any other conceivable European alliance that
excludes Russia, is not viable against major challenges without American
participation. Rather naively, those who speak for Europe do not see now
such threats at the edge of the horizon. Meanwhile, however, if you consider
the situation from the USA’s point of view, the physical dimension of the
US’ power is only marginally diminished or enhanced by NATO in its current
state. So, we get this diagnosis: Europe does not think it needs America
-- for now. America can do without Europe. She always has. For decades her
successes came about not because of Europe’s engagement but regardless of
Why, then, regardless of the services she rendered, do we encounter the amply
exhibited anti-Americanism within the original block of NATO? As long as
Washington can be counted on to hold the umbrella once the downpour begins,
there is little risk involved in defying the USA: she can be counted on to
act as though it had no alternative. For decades the French, recently joined
by a leftist-governed Germany, could play a major role in global politics.
This came about not on account of their means and the resolute use thereof
but because, as hitchhikers riding in the American chariot, they could apply
the contraption’s brakes. This never caused the coachman -- who even paid
for the fuel -- to retaliate. At the same time the US’ overt opponents demonstrated
appreciation for the restraining acts of America’s ambivalent allies. Oddly,
the power of the hinderers and their value in world politics depended on
the might of the USA -- whose capacities they formally lamented. To play
their game Paris and now Berlin, newly Spain and a gathering crowd of others
about to join the ride, exhibit little concern for their security -- which,
myopically, they do not see as jeopardized. Meanwhile they delight in being
able to cut an important figure due to their ability to defy Washington “from
inside the protecting walls of the fortress.” Much of this currently applies
to South Korea, too. It chooses to act as though not it but the USA would
share the peninsula with Baby Kim the Dear Bomb-Maker.
It is not the intention of this writer to suggest that the anti-American
block within the league of her nominal friends should be physically coerced
to bend to Washington’s wishes. Sovereign countries have a right to self
determination. Bringing up fairness in this case is as irrelevant as are
reminders of long term interests useless. What might be prudent, legitimate
and justified is to calmly remind some allies that the US, as an equally
sovereign state, is considering taking for herself the liberties they are
already enjoying. Give notice that a second declaration of American independence
is in the making: the termination of free rides is becoming a seriously considered
policy option. That would make it clear that the dangerous, misleading and
harmful theory “no matter what, the Americans have to defend us” is, mildly
put, an exaggeration.
NATO, and the US, too, face challenges that will not just go away if ignored.
One of these is how much responsibility the Alliance takes for matters which
impact on it but that originate outside its limited geographical area. Until
the end of the Cold War, NATO’s primary purpose was to defend itself on its
own territory against a (seriously planned) Soviet offensive. The vicissitudes
of the post-Soviet era appear to be in the long run not much less menacing
than the Red Kremlin used to be. Nevertheless, these threats have global
roots. Moreover, they are best dealt with if the counter measures are preventive.
Global, out-of-area problems used to be a US responsibility. This is not
so any more. Iraq is in two ways a harbinger case. First, it was the US that
had asked for succor, second, “Old NATO” not only refused to help but created
serious political difficulties for Washington.
“Iraq” -- which is only the beginning of a long process -- split the Alliance
more than the Atlantic could ever separate it. One ditch now divides the
USA from a French-German-led block. Their inclination to drop the US, while
seriously pondering the creation of a parallel alliance that excludes America,
deepens the divide. Without improving Europe’s military posture, one might
add. Not having maintained and kept up the forces to which they were committed
as members of NATO, does not suggest bright perspectives. These measures’
only impact will be political, as in “political alienation.” A further gap
opened up within the Continental membership of NATO. Having recently experienced
foreign domination the East Europeans act in tune with their developed instinct
for safeguarding their independence. Therefore they seemed at the beginning
of the Iraq crisis to draw closer to the USA in response to the pressure
by the Franco-Germans. Mr. Chirac’s arrogant “advice” to the new NATO states
to essentially “keep their trap shut” has triggered an alarm. Actually, the
threat might be overstated since, even jointly, these two powers are not
especially strapping militarily. But then, their over-estimation is natural:
it was the French and the Germans who have in history played the role of
the bully on the block. Besides the concern regarding France and Germany,
inching toward the US was facilitated by two factors. For one, Washington
is far away while Paris and Berlin are close. Finally, when they were “captive
nations,” the satellites realistically pinned their hopes on America that
happens to be a country, where, additionally, many inhabitants have relatives.
Regrettably, under the impression of America’s hesitant “conduct of the peace”
in Iraq made what was once called the “new Europe” shift its position away
from the US. No surprise: a power that becomes tentative when her vital interests
are challenged by pygmies is hardly the ideal senior partner likely to prevent
your conquest. Negotiating about a non-negotiable in Fallujah is not exactly
a confidence building measure in the eyes of those who have a good understating
of the use of power.
Seemingly, the traditional partnership’s last hope is the success in setting
up NRF, the NATO Response Force. This project is part of the US’ European
agenda. It would create a mobile corps suited for quick shock-like interventions.
An example is the Kosovo crisis. This intercession would be likely to happen
outside Western Europe, one should add. If this instrument, that could make
Europe -- with more inhabitants and a greater GNP than the US -- effective,
fails, then the traditional alliance is in danger of being buried while still
kicking. If this comes about America will have to resort to a new RX: selective
bilateralism with the willing, instead of continued paralyzing collectivism
in company of limp hitch-hikers or free-loading isolationism.
George Handlery is an historian. He has lived and taught in Europe since 1976.
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