“Most alliances die young.”
That is how “The Economist” magazine a year ago began an insightful special essay on the durability of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
Alliance nations led by the United States and Britain signed the treaty in Washington D.C. in April 1949. For comparison, the “Economist” essay notes coalitions of the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s lasted on average five years.
NATO is not only aging, but growing. On March 27, North Macedonia became the latest member. Montenegro joined the durable organization in June 2017.
The alliance is heavily involved in the current public health battle against the coronavirus. Last week, massive NATO transport planes delivered 48 and 45 tons of medical supplies to Eastern Europe from China and South Korea.
NATO was formed in direct response to Soviet expansionism following World War II. By 1949, the Cold War had begun. Today, the organization pursues various diverse missions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and East Europe communist regimes ended the Cold War, but not conflict in Europe. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the territory of Crimea. The armed invasion of Ukraine by Russia’s army, after months of covert aid to insurgent rebel forces, generated the most serious crisis in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s – and perhaps since World War II.
In 2008, Russian troops invaded a portion of Georgia, following an attack by Georgian troops on South Ossetia. This territory as well as Abkhazia had declared independence from Georgia. Russia encouraged and fostered these breakaway efforts, though the international community did not support them.
The end of the Cold War was a great victory for the policy of restraint and deterrence, termed “Containment.” Every United States president from Harry Truman, when the Cold War commenced, to George H.W. Bush when that conflict ended, supported this foundation security policy.
NATO endures for various reasons. Bureaucracies naturally seek self-perpetuation, and modern militaries represent potent political lobbies. However, the strategic realities of an assertive, effective Russia under President Vladimir Putin is the most important incentive. Also present is the danger of renewed violence among ethnic groups in Southeastern Europe.
NATO today has a range of missions including but going beyond self-defense narrowly defined. The alliance has operated well beyond the nations of the North Atlantic region, including not only on the margins of Europe but in distant territory, including notably Afghanistan
Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on one member amounts to an attack on all. The 9/11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington D.C., and in the sky over Pennsylvania, triggered this clause, for the first time.
Contemporary alliance leaders in Europe are articulate and effective, including in particular Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Chancellor Merkel spearheaded expansion of Germany’s roles in international humanitarian relief. She also provided arms to Kurds fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq.
Another outstanding leader worth noting is David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016. He termed Russia’s aggression “unacceptable and unjustified,” and bluntly stated that any efforts to appease Vladimir Putin would repeat basic mistakes made earlier regarding Adolf Hitler. Britain and Germany both have highly effective militaries.
After the final defeat of Napoleon, Britain spearheaded a confederation with the other major powers of Europe to keep the peace. This effort in fact maintained general stability on the continent for a century.
Today, NATO performs roughly the same strategic role, plus humanitarian missions.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org