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NATO: Mutual Security or the Americans’ Liability?
by George de Poor Handlery
04 May 2004NATO

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 Europe’s role.

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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