It used to be said during the Cold War that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was created to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out. After the war of aggression against Serbia in 1999 to protect Kosovo, analysts wondered whether the previously defensive alliance had been reengineered into keeping the Americans in, the Russians down and the United Nations out. With military and humanitarian engagement in Afghanistan since 2001, has NATO mor phed into a tool for confronting local warlords, rooting out poppy cultivation, undertaking provincial reconstruction and schooling girls?
Forged in the crucible of the Cold War to contain Soviet aggression, NATO sustained the environment of military security, political stability and economic cooperation among the historic enemies of Europe (Britain, France and Germany). After the Cold War, it was both a force for stabilisation in a period of turmoil and rapid change and a tool for sculpting the emerging new order (including the reunification of Germany).
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. Now Croatia and Albania have been invited to join. But members cannot agree on the admission of Georgia and Ukraine, with the U.S. being in favour and France and Germany opposed. NATO leaders gathered for the Bucharest summit on April 2-3 ritualistically proclaimed the importance of the alliance to the entire Western world and its continuing, indeed increased, relevance in the post-9/11 world. They protest too much. The underlying issues have changed little over the decade: the core role of the alliance, repercussions on relations with Russia and implications for the Pacific.
During the Cold War, NATO had a clear enemy: the Soviet Union. This gave it a precise function: to defend Western Europe against conventional and nuclear attack. The clarity of the function against the defined enemy shaped the military structure and determined force deployment. The alliance and structure persist but are conceptually and operationally adrift in the war on terror that erroneously conflates a tactic — terrorism — into the enemy. Nor is NATO well-suited to combat other major contemporary threats like Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear disarmament. The European Union, not NATO, is the more effective instrument for consolidating and securing the new democracies born of the multicoloured revolutions across central and eastern Europe.
Projecting western force into distant trouble spots by deploying NATO out of its European theatre of birth carries a manifold risk. The vaguer, more nebulous functions in areas far removed from the vital core will dissipate the consensus that helped to preserve the alliance through the Cold War; entangle NATO in protracted and messy historical enmities and conflicts, turning it into a nation-building-like enterprise that infects it with the same weaknesses that enfeeble the United Nations; raise suspicions in and provoke retaliation by Russia; and revive memories of occupying colonial powers in many developing countries.
Helped by a bit of historical amnesia, westerners view NATO as the alliance that pools the military strength of the trans-Atlantic democracies. Obsessed unhealthily by the burdens of history, non-westerners cannot forget that every major 19th century colonial power belongs to NATO (but not every NATO member had an empire). The differing perceptions provide the key to their contrasting narratives of NATO involvement in theatres of operation far removed from Europe.
Especially in the post-Iraq environment of distrust of the United States and overseas military adventures tied to U.S. apron strings, western publics will be divided and unsettled by the new NATO. Al-Qaeda could be very effective in using film of President George W. Bush’s speech in Bucharest last week to identify NATO as the enemy in Afghanistan. For him to try to harness NATO to the cause of the U.S. war on terror is to gift a propaganda tool to Al-Qaeda in facilitating the conflation of NATO into a tool of American aggression.
Almost a decade after the Kosovo war, whose beneficiaries were Muslims being killed and ethnically cleansed by Christians, it is clear that those who thought they understood the Balkans were sadly wrong. A graveyard for would-be statesmen throughout the 20th century, the Balkans throw up a difficulty for every solution. NATO now finds itself in the classic termination trap of a choice between policy failure or disaster. It can cut and run, abandoning the dream of a multiethnic society living together peacefully. Or it can persevere, possibly for decades, and risk being drawn increasingly into a quagmire that turns NATO into an object of hatred and attacks by both sides.
Do westerners really want to put NATO in the middle of a potential Ukrainian civil war, knowing how deeply conflicted that country is between its pro-Russian and western factions? Or import Georgia’s troubles and conflicts? That is, far from securing these troublesome regions, NATO would risk long-term infection by their historical animosities.
The Cold War ended in a manner rare in history and unique in modern times. The defeated power, Russia, acquiesced to the terms of its defeat and thereby also to the legitimacy of the new order. The Kosovo war united Russians in deep and abiding anger against the West. While the ailing and erratic Boris Yeltsin played Russian roulette with his prime ministers, wide swathes of people and politicians lost confidence in the “good faith” of liberal democracies in conducting foreign relations on the basis of justice, equality and non-use of force. Western criticisms of the Russian use of massive force against Chechnya drew angry reminders of NATO action in Kosovo: an international war of aggression against a country that had not attacked any NATO member, as opposed to actions within Russia’s borders against a group whose terrorist acts had penetrated Moscow itself.
Cold War victory bred complacency and hubris in western capitals. Starting from the Kosovo war and including the most recent proposals on missile deployment, newest candidate states and Georgia and Ukraine as potential members, NATO has serially rubbed Russian noses in the dirt of their historic defeat. Confronted by the relentless in-your-face eastward expansion of NATO, an angry and resentful Russia, emboldened by the U.S. entrapment in Iraq and the resulting U.S. isolation and defensiveness, enriched by the escalating price of oil to which the Iraq conflict is a major contributor, and empowered by Vladimir Putin, has found its voice and is growling again.
The immutable facts of geography ensure that Russia is a factor simultaneously in Europe and the Pacific. The U.S. is separated by oceans from both theatres; Russia is joined by land to both. Russia’s death as a great power would have momentous consequences for the Pacific as well as Europe. The consequences would be equally momentous in both theatres if Russia were to recover and reinvigorate itself as a great power.
Despite the disappearance of European powers from this theatre, the Pacific balance of power is no more settled in this century than it was in the last. Yet, between being defeated by Japan a hundred years ago and helplessness in the face of NATO expansion today, Moscow bestrode the world as one of the two superpower colossi. That is a sobering warning against complacency.
During the Cold War, the clarity and proximity of the Soviet threat and the relatively stable global balance of power held the rival bloc coalitions intact. If NATO is an old alliance looking for a new role and its expansion is the price paid for anchoring the U.S. security commitment to Europe, what might this imply for U.S. allies and adversaries in the Pacific?
With the demise of the Soviet Union and the abatement of the Russian threat, the only common thread tying together the U.S. security alliances with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan seems to be the dormant fear of a resurgent and assertive China, with the risk of making this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Russia’s humiliation reduced the West’s bargaining leverage with China. It diluted Chinese fears of Russia, strengthened China’s determination to avoid having to negotiate with the West from a position of weakness, removed a possible “Russia card” for the West in the strategic game with China, and increased pressure on Asian countries to come to terms with China’s rising status and power.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with the moderation of communist ideology in China, its commitment to economic and market reforms and a skilful pursuit of the diplomacy of regional reassurance, have weakened the bases of U.S. alliances in the Pacific. In future the security partnerships with the West will lack the emotional attachment of the generations that experienced and grew up in the shadow of the world wars and the Cold War. The instinctive commitment to military alliances will be attenuated, and they will no longer provide ballast to commercial and political disputes.
Welcome to the new world order.