NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the U.S. Congress last week. His remarks were full of proclamations of NATO’s ongoing importance and the commitment of all and sundry to its existence. But my view, quietly shared by many but uttered by few, is that NATO is in fact the wrong alliance at the wrong time, and as a result, it will be replaced by a new structure.
But this won’t happen anytime soon. During times of general peace and prosperity, NATO’s member states will be satisfied to keep the organization as it is. The motivation to replace it with something more useful will come from an international crisis so intense that institutions like NATO will disappear overnight and be succeeded by something that can better deal with the crisis. Since such an event won’t arise in the foreseeable future, NATO’s outdated structure will remain in place for now – and it will continue to squander scarce resources on sustaining itself and to evade questions over its usefulness. I’m not advocating a policy here; history generates policies on its own. I am merely trying to explain the process that is underway. The purpose of NATO, to protect the security of the Euro-American world, will not go away. But the instrument securing that purpose must evolve.
NATO was created with a single mission in mind: to prevent or defeat a Soviet invasion of Western Europe that could, if successful, lead to Soviet domination of the European Peninsula and achieve what neither Hitler nor Napoleon could accomplish. It would also bond Soviet natural resources and manpower to Western Europe’s industry and technology and thus, again as Napoleon and Hitler dreamt, change the global balance of power. Given that Europe and the United States had already lived through two world wars, the worst case scenario appeared to be quite plausible. Possibilities had turned into realities throughout the 20th century, so ignoring the possible was not an option.
To counter a potential Soviet attack, two things were essential. First, that the United States be irrevocably committed to Europe’s defense. Second, that all relevant countries on the European Peninsula be equally irrevocably committed. The greatest threat – apart from a Soviet invasion itself – was that one or more members of this coalition would reverse their position and either declare neutrality or, at the last moment, opt out of war.
To be a credible defense, a range of dissimilar and recently hostile countries had to be forged into a single, integrated military force. Each nation had its own operational responsibilities in the event of war, and appropriate equipment and trained troops carried out drills in endless war games. Belgium, for example, was tasked with certain missions that would be carried out the day prior to launching a strike. Germany was supposed to absorb the first blow in its center, while Britain would guard Hamburg and other ports against “the Hamburg Grab,” a scenario in which the Soviets would punch hard to seize the city and then initiate a negotiation.
NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, who was always an American, commanded troops belonging to sovereign states. The war plans NATO’s Military Committee tasked him with implementing were built on ever more complex scenarios and possibilities. Frankly, the scenarios had become so baroque and so unlikely by the 1980s that the individual exercises became fragmented.
For this command structure to work, the organization needed to trust that each member was willing and able to play its role. Each member state had to be relied upon to execute its part in the plan and to not pull a clever European diplomatic pirouette. It should be remembered that the one member the Europeans thought would be least reliable was the United States. Its task was to provide air and sea reinforcements for NATO forces fighting to hold territory as far east as possible. If that proved impossible, the U.S. was committed to defending Europe with tactical and even strategic nuclear weapons. French President Charles de Gaulle argued that the United States would not risk nuclear war to protect Europe. That was the piece of the war plan that was really uncertain. It would depend on a decision made by the U.S. president at the last possible minute – and that decision was unpredictable because going nuclear would likely lead to annihilation, not stability. Nonetheless, the most important thing was not whether the Americans were prepared to fight a nuclear war or whether the French thought they would; it was that the Soviets believed it was possible.
NATO was built for an extraordinary situation, one in which a third world war was reasonably possible. It was a world where Europe was split down the middle with forces on both sides able to view the other’s maneuvers through binoculars. It was a Europe that coalesced into a single geographical entity, a single political commitment, and a single military structure. If any part of it failed, Europe might succumb to Napoleon’s and Hitler’s dream. NATO was built for this world and was indispensable to stabilizing the situation.
A Changing Reality
NATO essentially transferred the question of war and peace from its members’ national governments to its own military and political committees. Its command structure was headed by an American officer, who ultimately still listened to his superiors in Washington. It might sound like an unreasonable arrangement, but given the condition of Europe at the time, it wasn’t.
But the reality that defined Europe then hasn’t existed for a generation. There is no general threat to Europe now. The Russians have retreated deep behind their old lines. They specialize in trolling the internet and are not about to invade. The Europeans are not prepared to subordinate their war option to NATO, and the Americans have an interest in facing the Russians in Poland and Romania but don’t need a NATO war plan to do it. NATO’s vast infrastructure is pointless. The decision made by many European governments to reduce the size of their militaries reflects their sovereign perception of the likelihood of war. And the American reluctance to guarantee European security reflects the reality that Europe isn’t facing the same level of threat it was in the 1950s, and that the U.S. is prepared to let Europe take the risk that its perception of the threat is correct.
This is not an American or European abandonment of NATO. It is simply a reflection of the fact that a military alliance has a mission, and the mission on which NATO was founded is gone. The general principle that brought NATO members together – that Europe and the U.S. have common security interests – will always be set against a realistic appreciation of the situation. Retaining a military alliance that is irrelevant to the reality increases rather than decreases the danger to Europe and the United States. It’s as nonsensical as if British reconnaissance flights were still taking place over Germany in 1970. That war was long over by the ’70s, and so too is the one NATO was built to fight. There will always be a need for security alliances. But NATO is an anachronism that has survived long past its original mission.