On 4 April 2019, the world’s most successful peacetime military alliance will mark its 70th anniversary. Over that time, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been the critical mainstay of the West’s commitment to international security. While established during the Cold War, NATO not only outlasted that ideological confrontation but has since expanded its membership and scope.
When signed in Washington, DC on 4 April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was a shared response by Western democracies to a perceived threat from Soviet-led communism. A year earlier, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg had concluded the Brussels Treaty pledging mutual assistance in the event of a threat to any of them.
Equally concerned about the menace of communism, President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration moved to secure bipartisan support for an American military alliance with Europe. Republican Senator Arthur Vandenburg obliged by proposing a congressional resolution in May 1948, which facilitated negotiations culminating in the North Atlantic (or Washington) Treaty.
In addition to the United States and Brussels Treaty states, signatories included Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal. Through Article 5 of the Treaty, they agreed to regard a military attack against any of their nations within North America and Europe as an attack against all of them.
The Treaty was notably significant for the United States, creating its first peacetime alliance outside the Americas. It required overcoming historically isolationist forces in Congress, especially within the Republican Party.
It was also a powerful symbol of Washington’s willingness to assume the burdens of leadership of the so-called free world, by linking American interests, national resources and political capital to the collective defence of Western Europe.
The North Atlantic Treaty signing did not itself launch a meaningful international military organisation. Only after the Korean War broke out in 1950 did member states act to implement the Treaty through an integrated military structure.
This involved various steps, including creation of the role of Secretary General of NATO as civilian head of the organisation in 1952. That same year, Greece and Turkey joined NATO, followed by West Germany in 1955.
Reflecting the Cold War context, the Soviet Union reacted by forming the Warsaw Pact with its East European satellite states in 1955.
For the ensuing 35 years, the rival alliances faced off against each other in preparation for a possible conflict, which fortuitously never came. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed, along with the ostensible rationale for NATO’s existence.
NATO has nevertheless endured and even expanded its membership to include 29 states in the post-Cold War era. Ironically, 10 of those states were once Warsaw Pact members (some as parts of the Soviet Union) and three were part of non-aligned Yugoslavia – a telling commentary on the respective
appeals of the two alliances. NATO currently recognises another four aspiring members: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine.
There have been criticisms aplenty of NATO’s expansion, notably on the grounds that it provoked post-Soviet Russia and generated needless strategic tensions. Those criticisms ignore the rights of smaller nations to seek collective security – especially against a powerful neighbour with a track record to the present of working to dominate its “Near Abroad”.
Another irony of NATO’s post-Cold War experience was the first ever invocation of Article 5 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. This led to NATO taking command in 2003 of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, representing the alliance’s first operations outside the North Atlantic region. NATO’s post-Cold War activities in Afghanistan and beyond have also entailed working with nations beyond its membership – including New Zealand, which has a partnership agreement with the organisation.
The most jarring irony for NATO since the Cold War ended is that one of the greatest challenges it faces in its 70th anniversary year comes from its historic leader, the United States.
It seems unlikely that a president who once suggested the organisation was “obsolete” will be joyfully popping his trademark Diet Coke tabs on 4 April when the alliance’s foreign ministers meet in Washington to celebrate its landmark anniversary.
Despite reported efforts by recently departed Secretary of Defence James Mattis to convince Donald Trump that NATO would need to be invented if it did not exist, the president has a tin ear on the issue. Repeated harangues of NATO members for not spending enough on defence and occasional hints about withdrawing American membership demonstrate Trump’s misunderstanding of what the organisation has meant and continues to represent.
His simplistic jibes ignore issues of effectiveness and quality rather than quantity of military spending, while failing to acknowledge that NATO has never been a transactional alliance of convenience or an imposition of power by a hegemon over reluctant satellites like the Warsaw Pact.
Rather, the alliance has symbolised the freely shared resolution of democracies to uphold collective security. As noted in the Preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty, its signatories agreed “to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security”, based on “the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” and in accordance with “the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments”.
In today’s global security environment, it remains as important as ever that democracies stand together to sustain the legacies of the historic commitment enunciated on 4 April 1949.
This article appeared originally in the latest issue of New Zealand International Review.