60 years on duty, NATO’s purpose unclear

On April 4, the alliance that accounts for more than two thirds of world’s military spending is celebrating its 60th anniversary. A relic of the Cold War, NATO is trying to find a new role in the modern world.

BFF – best foes forever

After the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the winners found out their friendship was a shaky one. Even though they were allies against the Nazis, they had numerous grudges and an ideological conflict dating back decades.


Vladimiir Kremlev for RT

With communism at the height of its popularity and Soviet troops stationed in its part of occupied Germany, Western countries perceived the threat of a red continent a very real one. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a plan called ‘Operation Unthinkable’ for a possible war with the Soviet Union prepared.

As the USSR, the United States, Britain and France struggled for influence, tension was rising. Communists and capitalists alike were taking their share in building mistrust. After Churchill delivered his well-known ‘Sinews of Peace’ address in 1946, accusing Moscow of aggressive authoritarian intentions and calling for an alliance with America as the leading force, all bets were off.

In March of 1948, the Benelux countries, the UK and France signed the so-called ‘Treaty of Brussels’. It was a collective security agreement aimed against the defeated Germany, should it ever rise again, but as the Soviet Union was viewed more and more as the greater danger, Western European countries sought to forge a new alliance to repel a possible communist invasion.

On April 4, 1949, the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland joined the members of the Treaty of Brussels to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.


British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
In the early 1950s, the focus of the communism vs. capitalism fight shifted to Asia, where a series of bloody proxy wars played a major part in convincing Europeans that the Soviet Union and its allies were extremely dangerous and had to be contained at all costs.

Shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin the new Soviet leader Khrushchev applied for NATO membership, saying that a purely defensive alliance concerned with European security it claimed to be would accept the Soviet Union. The request was denied, reaffirming Moscow’s perception of NATO as an offensive organisation.

In 1955, NATO welcomed the former enemy when Western Germany joined the alliance and brought with it plentiful manpower. Moscow responded by forming the Warsaw Pact bloc.

Time for ‘razryadka’, comrades

Then came a period of détente, or ‘razryadka’ as it was called in the Soviet Union, when the rivals tried to tone down the Cold War hostility.

By the 1960s there were enough nuclear weapons stocked to destroy the world several times over. The expectation of war in Europe was replaced with the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

For NATO, the late 1950s and 1960s became a time of challenge, after French war hero General de Gaulle returned to power. He demanded a greater role for France in the alliance, opposed the special relations between the US and Britain and called for an expansion of NATO’s influence to African colonies, specifically the French Algeria.

“[German chancellor Helmut] Kohl, US State Secretary James Baker and others assured me that NATO wouldn’t move a centimeter eastwards. Americans didn’t keep the promise and Germans were indifferent. Maybe they were even rubbing their hands thinking ‘how clever we’ve conned those Russians!’ But what did it give them? It only made Russians mistrust the West’s words.”

Mikhail Gorbachev,
President of USSR

When the call was not met, the general started a gradual withdrawal from the alliance, denying foreign troops bases on French territory, developing an independent nuclear programme and eventually leaving the joint alliance command. The alienation even forced the move of NATO headquarters from France to Belgium.

France wanted Europe to be a third power to be reckoned with, along with the Soviet Union and the United States, and sought to improve relations with communist countries.

The unity of the Eastern block was degrading too. The two biggest communist nations, the Soviet Union and China, had ideological differences and pursued conflicting national interests, which lead to an eventual split.

Adding to the relaxation were economical consideration and safety issues. The cost of the arms race was too big a burden for both camps, especially with the hike in oil prices after the Arab members of OPEC imposed an embargo.

Maintaining nuclear weapons ready for a prompt strike posed danger to hosting countries themselves. In late 1960, two strategic bombers carrying hydrogen weapons on board crashed, causing radioactive contamination in Spain and Denmark, which raised doubts over how Europe should be protected.

To decrease tension a number of international agreements restricting nuclear proliferation and the build-up of strategic arms were signed, culminating in the Helsinki Accords in 1975. The agreement was a major breakthrough in the effort to tone down the Cold War rivalry and offered hope for a secure Europe.

Back to hostilities

In the late 1970s the pendulum swung back. A report commissioned by the CIA to a group of external experts, the so-called Team B, claimed the US intelligence greatly undervalued Soviet military capabilities and misinterpreted its intensions.

Much later the foundlings were proved to be flawed, but after the report was leaked, the public mood in the West changed and an intensive arms build-up followed, effectively killing off détente.

This coincided with advances in rocket technology, which greatly increased their accuracy. Both sides were tempted to count on a surprise first strike with short and intermediate range missiles to completely eradicate tactical forces of the enemy and undermine retaliation with strategic nuclear arms.

“The largest twenty democracies are responsible for three-quarters of the resources spent on defense in the world today. Democracies also account for most of the world’s wealth, innovation and productivity. Twenty-eight of the world’s thirty largest economies are democracies… Harnessing the power that comes from this overwhelming military, economic, political and social advantage would provide the necessary ingredients for effective international action.”

‘Democracies of the World, Unite’
by Ivo Daalder & James Lindsay

At the same time the US military put under question the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.), postulating the inevitable no-win result of any nuclear conflict. It was argued local nuclear wars were feasible, and thus European NATO members should build up their conventional weapons to match the strength of Warsaw Pact armies. A similar approach was adopted by the Soviet Union.

Moscow ordered the deployment in Eastern Europe of RSD-10 Pioneer missiles. NATO hosted Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles throughout Europe. The weapons remained in place until their ban by the 1987 agreement.

This spiral of arms escalation tipped the military balance, since the European part of the Soviet Union came under threat and could be attacked in a matter of minutes, while the American mainland could only be reached by strategic missiles with time from launch till delivery measured in hours.

The overall paranoid atmosphere could have ended in a war by mistake. When NATO staged a response to a possible nuclear attack as part of military training in 1987, Soviet leadership reportedly was almost convinced it was a cover up for a genuine attack and had armed forces ready for swift retaliation.

The tension level dropped only with Gorbachev’s perestroika gaining momentum, and the subsequent downfall of communism in the country.

Last man standing

All of a sudden NATO lost its prime adversary. Without a single tank shell fired or a bomb dropped, the menacing ‘Evil Empire’ ceased to exist and was replaced with a confused and weakened new Russia.

However NATO didn’t allow the Warsaw Pact to cease into oblivion as Moscow had hoped. Instead the alliance started to expand eastward, inviting former members of the Eastern bloc. Many Russian experts say it was the West’s hubris and intoxication with victory that made it disregard the former enemy, instead of making it an ally.

“Russia should not join NATO because this organization in its current form is outdated and not able to solve the problems that humanity faces, like WMD proliferation or international terrorism. It can’t help us in solving these problems. As for overall security, Russia can rely on itself and does not need extra ‘covering’ by NATO. The prospect of NATO taking responsibility for guarding Russia’s territory from possible aggression seems unrealistic.”

Konstantin Kosachev,
Head of Foreign Relations committee of Russia’s parliament

NATO’s enlargement became a bitter pill for Russia to swallow. Former President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev said that he was promised that NATO would stay within its borders, when he was negotiating the reunification of Germany. This commitment was never formally documented though, and since then the alliance has grown by 12 members, raising the total list to 28 nations.

Two countries seeking NATO membership, and promised it, are Ukraine and Georgia. Both currently have regimes hostile towards Russia and both are capable of harming Russia’s vital energy interests.

During the Cold War NATO as an organization didn’t wage war, especially since the North Atlantic Treaty limits its scope by Europe and North America. For instance, Britain was not assisted through the alliance’s structures during its armed conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982. NATO members preferred joint military exercises and the benefits gained through the standardization of weapons and procedures.

In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO was involved in two major military campaigns. In the 1990s, in a series of operations, it aided separatists in Yugoslavia, culminating in the bloody and legally questionable three-month-long bombing in 1999.

In 2001 NATO provided forces for a US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later took over command of the mission. From a security block seeking to protect its members, NATO turned into an alliance not hesitant to use force against other nations, even without a mandate from the United Nations.

A new role in the new world

“NATO used to be a strongman when it was in conflict with the Eastern bloc. Now, thanks to eastwards expansion… they get a new zone of responsibility, smearing their porridge over the plate. On the other hand they don’t get any serious military potential from the countries. What happens is America inviting more and more of its friends to a restaurant, and old Europe is to cover the bill.”

Dmitry Rogozin,
Russia’s envoy to NATO

Today NATO is standing at the crossroads, like a hero in a Russian folk tale. Critics say the alliance is outdated, that it has lost its purpose in the new world, and even compromises the very security it is meant to protect. The alliance’s anniversary summit, which is likely to see France fully rejoin, is to decide its future role.

It is argued that the UN is incapable of handling conflicts because the decision-making mechanism there is flawed by the presence of authoritarian nations. The most ambitious plan is to turn the organization into a world-wide alliance of democracies imposing its model of political governance and protection of human rights, with the backing of the world’s biggest military force. The man slated to be next US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, is a supporter of the idea.

More conservative thinkers point out NATO’s failures. The mission in Afghanistan was far from being a complete success. A big portion of the country is ruled by warlords thriving on the opium trade, and NATO is failing, or unwilling, to change that.

Older members are reluctant to risk the lives of their citizens and bear the increasing cost of the operation. NATO’s increasing influence also leads to growing opposition by Russia. The quarrel over antimissile defence in Eastern Europe became so fierce that many analysts said the times of the Cold War were returning.

“There is this precedent when, during the crisis in Kosovo, NATO de facto violated the UN Charter. It provoked fierce reaction from outside and heated debate inside the alliance. The case is unique, I believe. Afghanistan is different; NATO is there with UN consent. And in Iraq NATO has no mission. The problem is that the United Nations has no military instrument. Their peacekeeping operations fully rely on member nations.”

Aleksandr Pikaev,
Political analyst

The scenario with the least potential for conflict is for NATO to be transformed into a joint military force under EU command. The idea has been up in the air since 2003, and the split over the US invasion of Iraq, which France and Germany firmly objected to, gave greater weight to the proposal.

The move would quell Russia’s fears and give the Europe time to ‘digest’ the piece of cake it has eaten by expansion of NATO, while involving those EU members which preferred during the Cold War not to align themselves with either superpower.

NATO’s younger nations need years and billions of investment into their military infrastructure, equipment and training before they will become anything more than a source of cannon fodder and a place to build bases for their ‘big brothers’.

The least probable variant is to fulfil de Gaulle’s dream of a united Europe ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ and invite Russia to join NATO. The scenario was unexpectedly proposed recently by Poland’s Foreign Minister Rodislav Sikorski, who may become the next Secretary General of the organization.

Back in 1991, President Boris Yeltsin reportedly asked NATO unofficially to let Russia in, but was rebuked. Vladimir Putin, during the famous meeting with George W. Bush in 2001, when the American president ‘looked Putin into the eye and saw his soul’, argued that NATO’s reluctance to see Russia as a member implied its intentions hadn’t changed since 1954, when the Soviet application was rejected.

The task of integrating Russia into the alliance is challenging on all levels, from technical to political to psychological, but in terms of global security the prospect looks tempting, at the very least.

Whatever path NATO chooses, it will affect Europe and the whole world for years to come. Hopefully it won’t lead to countries wasting resources on beefing up weapons caches, and instead admitting everyone’s legitimate concerns and negotiating on how to avoid conflicts.

Alexandre Antonov, RT