WASHINGTON – April 4th 2015 came and went. Nobody paid any attention to this date. And why should they? Well, because April 4th is the anniversary of the Treaty of Washington, the treaty that established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, universally known as NATO, or the Atlantic Alliance.
If we look back at April 4th 1949 we can see that there were many good reasons for North America (The United States and Canada) to join a few, (fragile and virtually defenseless), European democracies in a defensive alliance. NATO’s main objective was to signal to the Soviet Union that any attempt to subjugate the part of Europe Moscow did not control (it had gobbled Eastern Europe) would have been met by serious force.
All in all NATO worked. Despite many internal disagreement on just about everything, (strategy, costs sharing, priorities, military procurement policies, and of course the role of nuclear weapons), NATO kept the peace in Europe. It was an armed, uneasy peace. But it was peace. West Germany, France and Italy were not overrun by Soviet tanks forward positioned in East Germany, and in other Warsaw Pact countries.
But then the Soviet Union and its Empire suddenly collapsed at the end of 1989. It all started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and it ended with the formal demise of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991. The USSR was replaced by the new Russian Federation, that is Russia minus all the Republics, from Estonia to Uzbekistan, that had been forced into the former Soviet Union.
Keep NATO after 1989
Notwithstanding the end of the 40-year-old Soviet threat, Western leaders decided that NATO should continue, in as much as it provided the best vehicle for security cooperation between North America and Europe. And NATO did not just continue, it expanded, in a major way. Bit by bit it accepted as new members (almost) all the semi-colonies of the old Soviet Union, from Estonia to Bulgaria.
Indeed, even after the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be a good political rationale behind the decision to give a “new home” to the free but still disoriented new democracies of Eastern Europe. The creation of a Western political and security connection seemed to be a good way to strengthen their new democratic foundations, while reassuring them that, whatever might have happened in Russia, as full members of the Western Club, they would be safe.
What is the purpose?
That said, a military alliance needs a shared objective. In the old days of the Cold War it was all about deterring the Soviet Union. (In fact, an old cynical NATO joke provided a different rationale. “NATO’s purpose is to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down“).
But what is NATO’s purpose today? Hard to say. There have been limited operations in the Balkans, a complicated, costly and inconclusive engagement in Afghanistan. But what is NATO’s mission, really? Ask anybody in the streets of New York or Amsterdam, or Lisbon, and you will get nothing precise.
Preserve Western Civilization
I can see a good mission, and it is clearly written in the preamble to the April 4th, 1949 Treaty of Washington:
“The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.
They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. [Bold added]. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.
They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.”
Yes, at least on paper, the mission was not (and it is not) just about “keeping the Soviets out” through the threat of American intervention in case of an armed attack against Western Europe, it was and is about safeguarding the values of our shared Western civilization “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
No longer united
The NATO preamble is still there, for all to see. But I do not see that many joint efforts aimed at reinforcing the supposedly shared values of our (once revered) Western Civilization.
The fact is that, while still technically allies, Europe and America have drifted apart.
Sure enough, there are still plenty of strong connections between the two sides of the Atlantic: business, trade, culture, education, and tourism. But there is no longer a shared sense of a common heritage that we wish to preserve and uphold.
Just to name one, I suspect that “individual liberty” means vastly different things in semi-socialist Europe and in libertarian America.
And so NATO continues, but on a very low key, and within general indifference –on both sides of the Atlantic. No wonder that April 4th 2015 came and went, without public ceremonies aimed at celebrating the most important alliance ever created and sustained in the modern era.