NATO today: The sad decline of a grand alliance

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the most successful military alliance in modern history. For 40 years, NATO protected Western Europe from the hostile might of the Soviet Union until that ideologically driven empire collapsed in 1990. Victory in the Cold War, however, would be the beginning of the end for NATO, an alliance that has outlived its time and today is an expanded membership group of disparate nation-states unable to agree on its current purposes.  

The 72-year-old alliance has become the victim of its own success and the simple passage of time. In NATO’s heyday, the glue that held it together was a very realistic fear of Soviet Russia and its immense military establishment. Now most members of NATO do not feel threatened by today’s post-communist Russia — and worse, feel little inclination to militarily support the few “frontline” states (e.g., Poland, the three Baltic nations) that do feel threatened. 

Polls in recent years confirm this new reality. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found that, among NATO members, only in the United States and Canada did a majority support military force to aid a NATO member that was invaded. Earlier this year, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) polled 60,000 people in its 11-member states and found that, by margins well over 2 to1, public opinion believes that their countries should remain neutral in conflicts between the U.S. and Russia or China. 

These sentiments flatly contradict the core tenet of the NATO Treaty — Article5, which obligates all members to militarily support a member who is under attack. If European NATO members prefer to remain neutral in any Russia-America conflict, what is the point of the alliance from the United States’s perspective? Add to this the fact that almost all European NATO members long have been defaulting on the financial obligations required by the treaty, and American skepticism about NATO in recent years is entirely understandable.

The seeds of NATO’s decline were sown at the moment of the alliance’s greatest triumph, and the context was the issue of NATO expansion into the former Soviet satellites. The not unreasonable view of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and later former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was that with the Cold War over, the Soviet-sponsored Warsaw Pact dissolved, and with an economically prostrate Russia struggling to become a democracy, there was no justification for expanding a Western military alliance hundreds of miles closer to the Russian border.  

Initially, Presidents Bush and Clinton seemed to agree. Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured Gorbachev in February 1990 that NATO wouldn’t move “one inch eastward.” In October 1993, Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher assured Yeltsin that there would be no NATO expansion, but instead a new organization, “Partnership for Peace,” that would include all of the former satellite states and Russia as well. Yeltsin enthusiastically embraced this concept. However, his fury knew no bounds a year later when Clinton reversed course, expanded NATO to include the satellites and excluded Russia. Yeltsin insisted that what was agreed upon was “Partnership for all, not NATO for some” and he spoke of betrayal and the purposeful humiliation of a weakened Russia. From the sidelines, Gorbachev lamented the rejection of his concept of a “common European home.”

This toxic issue has haunted relations between Russia and the West ever since, and became particularly dangerous when President George W. Bush said in April 2008 that he “strongly supported” NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and wouldn’t accept any Russian attempt to veto this. Bush’s proposal, however, was strongly rebuffed by six NATO members led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, who called such NATO expansion “needlessly provocative.” An outraged Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was a direct threat to Russia’s national security and he viewed it as a “red line” that could not be crossed. 

Putin further countered by becoming involved in the savage ethnic politics of Georgia by supporting dissident separatist groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and ultimately recognizing them as independent republics backed economically and militarily by Russia. In 2014, when Western-backed mass protests led to the overthrow of a pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Putin acted swiftly to intervene militarily in those areas of Eastern Ukraine whose inhabitants were largely Russian ethnically (Crimea 65 percent) or Russian-speaking (Donbas 70 percent).

It is ironic that, with all its internal problems, NATO should be pursuing high-risk policies on behalf of countries that are not NATO members; are not allies; and assuredly would bring far more burdens to the alliance than assets. As for the United States, which has seriously damaged itself through long wars in distant places, why would we be risking more of the same in places so little-connected to our true national interests? 

Clearly it is time for NATO to re-examine the reasons for its existence so far beyond its prime.

William Moloney, Ph.D., is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.

Tags Baltic states Bill Clinton Boris Yeltsin Enlargement of NATO George W. Bush Mikhail Gorbachev NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization Partnership for Peace Russia Vladimir Putin

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