December 1, 2009  

The need for NATO

European security and stability remain the alliance’s top priority

The Alma battlefield in Crimea is a bleak ridge that rises from a long and bare plain cut by the Alma River. Here, near the village of Bourliouk on Sept. 20, 1854, 90,000 British, French, Turkish and Russian troops met in the first battle of the Crimean War. Standing on the position of the Russian defense is like being on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg; you shake your head as you think of the infantry marching head-on up these gentle hillsides much as Lee’s Confederates would march nine years later into the Bloody Angle.

“You know,” my pal said, as we looked out over the brown slopes, “this is the real reason NATO exists: to make sure Europe never has any more cocked-up wars like this.”

His words brought me up. Since the end of the Cold War, many Americans, myself included, have consciously or unconsciously figured that peace in postmodern Europe is so assured that NATO’s major role is as a sometimes-reluctant partner in “out of area” operations around the world.

But history has not ended in the region. My friend was right: Peace in Europe, the turbulent cockpit of warfare for centuries, is not a “done deal” by a long shot. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has in fact been a pretty rough place. The recent Russo-Georgian war, the continuing Russian occupation of Georgian territories, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars and massacres among Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovars should warn us that, for Europe and war, history may be only suspended. To prevent the kinds of internecine arms races and grabs for territory that led to the bloodletting on the Alma or the Somme or Normandy beach, the primary purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remains to ensure Europe controls the national jealousies and arms races that for centuries convulsed the continent and that dragged the U.S. into two global wars.


Before it deploys a single soldier to Afghanistan, NATO is already doing two great things for the U.S. and its European allies. First, it acts as a balancer and leveler for the military policies of the countries in the alliance, providing a common meeting place and a centralized command that dampens competitive impulses. NATO works hard at integrating the alliance’s military forces, attempting to convince members that one nation might focus on jet fighters while another emphasizes transport aircraft. While never wholly successful, NATO mediation over years has produced a degree of alliance interdependence that has political, as well as military, impact and reduces the chances that member states will embark on the kinds of unrestricted arms races that in the past led to wars.

NATO’s critical role as a political and military talking-shop for regional rivalries is vital to the peace and security of a swath of the world in which historic grudges and hatreds still smolder. The obvious case in point is the standoff between Greece and Turkey, the latter being an especially valuable member of the alliance that bridges Europe and the Muslim world. Without NATO mediation, these historic rivals might have long since plunged southern Europe into war. There are other potential flashpoints between member states made less dangerous because the organization exists. While the European Union may ultimately bind member states in a more cohesive political union, it is NATO that has been the key balancer of European power since 1947 — and has lasted, in fact, longer than the Concert of Europe that kept Europe (mostly) at peace after the Napoleonic era.

Second, there are the Russians. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a brief period when many believed that history would change. For a time there was hope that the formidable energies and passions of the Russian people would move toward a brighter, more integrated future with a democratic and peaceful Europe. That still may be true someday, but those hopes are now on hold, particularly after the Russo-Georgian war in the summer of 2008 and Russian truculence ever since. For Europe, Russia has resumed its historic role as the great question to the East, its policies and intentions unknown and potentially threatening. While the long-term future of Russia is dim — falling birthrates, widespread public health challenges and a shaky economy threaten its ultimate survival in its present form — in the near term Russian policy toward its Western neighbors, particularly toward those states like Ukraine or the Baltic states that used to be part of the Soviet empire and now constitute “the near abroad,” is increasingly belligerent.

The fact that NATO exists, that the U.S. is a major contributor and that the Russians are accustomed to dealing with it is enormously important for Western security, because the alternative would be the historic European approach of ad hoc alliances, fragmented anti-Russian treaties, arms races and worse.

While the U.S. may chafe at the fact that NATO could do more in Afghanistan or other out-of-area operations, NATO’s first and most important job is still in Europe. As in the Cold War, the U.S. has a huge investment in the continuation of European security.

More than 60 years ago, geopolitcian Nicholas Spykman warned that two wars in the 20th century should have taught us that the peace and security of the U.S. is inextricably linked to the peace and security of Central Europe. Spykman’s observation is still true today, and NATO remains our best hedge against the kind of European miscalculations that ultimately led my friend and me to the banks of the Alma. AFJ

BOB KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman who writes on defense issues.