The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was cast into the national spotlight last week when the 63-year-old alliance held its 25th summit in Chicago. While the thousands of anti-NATO protesters and the government’s heavy-handed security measures attracted most of the media’s attention, important questions regarding the Cold War–era organization went largely ignored.
According to Cold War orthodoxy, the United States and 11 western European nations formed NATO in 1949 to deter Soviet aggression and contain Soviet influence within the boundaries of the Eastern Bloc.
But if NATO was solely a defensive military alliance, why didn’t it declare “mission accomplished” and disband after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991?
Well, the answer to that question could be that, like any government bureaucracy, NATO had no desire to disband. So the bureaucrats in Brussels adapted to the new circumstances by broadening their mission. No longer confined to defending Western Europe from the Red Army, NATO’s mission was broadened to ensuring “peace” and “security” and providing “full spectrum crisis management.”
Such a nebulous mission statement has given the U.S.-led military alliance a multiplicity of pretexts for intervention anywhere in the world. NATO now has operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, North Africa, and Somalia.
The so-called war on terror has given NATO a new rationale as well. Days after the 9/11 attacks, NATO invoked article 5 of its charter, which declares that an attack on any one member is considered an attack on all members. This was the pretext for NATO’s support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and is the justification for its participation in the continued occupation of that country.
NATO has a utility for U.S. policymakers. The 28-member alliance is often used by the United States to put a multilateral veneer onto what are really unilateral actions taken by Washington. U.S. presidents have also found NATO to be useful in circumventing Congress in their conduct of American foreign policy. Bill Clinton’s undeclared and illegal war against Serbia in 1999 was done under the auspices of NATO, as was Barack Obama’s recent regime-change operation in Libya.
Another factor in NATO’s continued existence is the influence of the military-industrial complex. The procurement of weapon systems by NATO members transfers billions of dollars into the coffers of the nation’s military-contracting behemoths. Perhaps this explains why many of these firms have been supportive of NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War.
NATO membership has grown by 75 percent, from 16 to 28 members, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This expansion has involved the incorporation of all the former non-Soviet Warsaw Pact member states; the former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania); two former Yugoslav republics (Slovenia and Croatia); and Albania. NATO even had designs on Ukraine and Georgia until Russia signaled that it would not tolerate such a move.
NATO supposedly exists to promote security and peace in Europe, but its eastward expansion since 1999 has been extremely provocative and has heightened tensions with Russia. The decision by NATO and the United States to deploy military personnel and aircraft to member nations bordering on Russia is the primary reason Moscow suspended the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in 2007. And it was the prospect of joining NATO that emboldened Georgia into provoking a military confrontation with Russia in 2008.
In fact, the situation in Europe when NATO was founded in the late 1940s was itself a predictable and direct consequence of Allied war aims. Historian Ralph Raico writes,
That after World War II the Soviet Union would be predominant in Europe was inevitable, given the goals pursued by Roosevelt and Churchill: Germany’s unconditional surrender and its total annihilation as a factor in the balance of power. At Yalta, the two Western leaders acquiesced in the control over eastern Europe that had been won by Stalin’s armies, while affecting to believe that the Red dictator would cheerfully assent to the establishment of democratic governments in that area. The trouble was that genuinely free elections east of the Elbe (except in Czechoslovakia) would inescapably produce bitterly anti-Communist regimes. Such a result was unacceptable to Stalin, whose position was well-known and much more realistic than the illusions of his erstwhile allies. As he stated in the spring of 1945: “Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system [as far] as his army can reach.”
The balance of power at the onset of the Cold War was heavily in favor of the United States, which had emerged from World War II in a position of unprecedented economic and military ascendancy. Russia, on the other hand, had suffered grievously from her struggle with Nazi Germany and was in no position to wage another war. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery confirmed this view when he wrote to General Eisenhower after visiting Russia in 1947, “The Soviet Union is very, very tired. Devastation in Russia is appalling, and the country is in no fit state to go to war.”
Russian diplomats were anxious to make a deal with the West that would allow for the rebuilding of their war-shattered country. As for Joseph Stalin, he was certainly a tyrant, but that had little relevance to international politics. Even the most blood-drenched dictators usually pursue realpolitik in foreign policy. Historian Walter LaFeber observed, “However Stalin acted inside Russia, where he had total control, in his foreign policy during 1941–1946 he displayed realism, a careful calculation of forces, and a diplomatic finesse that undercut any attempt to explain away his actions as paranoid.”
Stalin’s desire for a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe was reasonable: the invasion that had so devastated his country had come from hostile eastern European countries. His demand that Turkey permit the transit of Soviet warships through the straits was merely a revival of a traditional Russian claim. Stalin had also honored his agreement with Churchill regarding Greece and had promptly withdrawn his armies from Iran after receiving the oil concessions.
Republican Senator Robert Taft, surveying the post-war situation, said, “No Russian military attack is threatened in Western Europe,” and “I certainly do not pretend to understand the Russian mind, but for four years they have shown no intention of making a military advance beyond the zones of influence in Central Europe and Manchuria allotted to them at Yalta.”
Henry Wallace, a former vice-president and cabinet member of the Truman administration, agreed with Senator Taft’s analysis. He said in a speech in New York,
We have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, Western Europe and the United States.… [W]hether we like it or not the Russians will try to socialize their sphere of influence just as we try to democratize our sphere of influence.
President Truman ignored Wallace and Senator Taft. Instead he took the advice of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who told him to “scare the hell out of the American people.”
These events roughly coincided with the publication of an important article in Foreign Affairs, which supported Truman’s confrontational approach vis-à-vis Russia. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” written by the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, argued that the Soviet regime was fanatically expansionist and that its influence needed to be contained in areas of strategic importance to the United States. Kennan wrote,
The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.… Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.
But there was scant evidence supporting Kennan’s alarmist vision of a hungry Russian bear needing to be caged. As John Lewis Gaddis writes,
Stalin is now seen as a cagey but insecure opportunist, taking advantage of such tactical opportunities as arose to expand Soviet influence, but without any long-term strategy for or even very much interest in promoting the spread of communism beyond the Soviet sphere.
Kennan soon became his own critic, repudiating the ideas he put forth in his polemic; but its concepts became received doctrine and continued to shape U.S. foreign policy for the next 40-plus years. Kennan, for his part, would go on to serve in multiple diplomatic posts, but he was marginalized in favor of cold warriors like Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Nitze.
The truth is NATO’s creation in 1949 was part of a wider geopolitical plan that had been drawn up in Washington long before the end of World War II, envisioning the establishment of a world-spanning American political and military empire. As Christopher Layne writes in his The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present,
Even during World War II, U.S. policymakers were laying the grand strategic foundations of a postwar international system in which U.S. power would be predominant. Even during World War II, and its immediate aftermath, the United States aspired to be the preponderant power in the international system, and to make sure there were no rivals that could challenge it.
The fear-mongering by U.S. policymakers regarding international communism was necessary because without it the American people never would have accepted such a radical reversal in their country’s foreign policy. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles admitted as much at the time, saying, “In order to make the country bear the burden, we have to create an emotional atmosphere, akin to wartime psychology. We have to create the idea of a threat from without.” Hence the Red Scare of the 1950s and the wider Cold War.
The suspicion that the Soviet threat was a mere pretext for Washington’s imperial ambitions is further substantiated by National Security Council Memorandum No. 68 (NSC-68). This formerly classified 1950 policy document stated that military superiority was “a policy which [the United States] would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet Union.”
It should be remembered that war is often a self-perpetuating industry. The billions of dollars spent on manufacturing weapons and other war-related materials creates special interests that have no desire to see swords beaten into plowshares. America’s participation in the Second World War spawned powerful bureaucratic structures and wove a network of financial interests that were unwilling to be dismantled once peace arrived in 1945. The “arsenal of democracy” became the military-industrial complex.
Moreover, U.S. policymakers in the 1940s mistakenly viewed a permanent warfare state as a way to create permanent prosperity. Since 1950, when NSC-68 was implemented, huge military expenditures have been a regular feature of the U.S. economy. The economic fallacies underlying this system of “military Keynesianism” have become all too apparent in recent years as the U.S. economy strains under an enormous debt burden for which decades of military spending bear much responsibility.
In recent years, the absence of a countervailing power has encouraged the United States and its allies to lunge forward, exposing NATO for what it truly is: an aggressive global military alliance.