In a stop last week on his way to Belgium for Monday’s NATO summit, President Joe Biden visited a Royal Air Force base in eastern England. “In Brussels,” he told the assembled crowd, “I will make it clear that the United States’s commitment to our NATO alliance and Article 5 is rock solid. It’s a sacred obligation that we have under Article 5.”
These lines were aimed at a tiny number of human beings. Certainly almost no Americans have any idea what “Article 5” is part of or what it says.
But Biden’s words were genuinely significant. Article 5 is a clause in the North Atlantic Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which states that any armed attack against any member of the alliance “shall be considered an attack against them all.”
This is at the core of how the U.S. runs the world and intends to keep running it in the future. It also signifies that should we face the prospect of sharing power with others — today that mostly means China — we may end up destroying the world.
The North Atlantic Treaty is also known as the Washington Treaty, which tells you most of what you need to know about it. It was written in 1949, a time when U.S. power was so overweening that it could simply dictate terms to its allies. Most of whatever little discussion there was with other countries’ diplomats took place in secret over two weeks at the Pentagon. It was co-written by the delightfully-named Thomas Achilles, a State Department official who later said his boss had told him, “I don’t care whether entangling alliances have been considered worse than original sin ever since George Washington’s time. We’ve got to negotiate a military alliance with Western Europe in peacetime and we’ve got to do it quickly.”
The public rationale for NATO was that it was a defensive alliance necessary to stop the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. The private rationale, as articulated by Achilles, was somewhat different:
At that point Western Europe was devastated, prostrate and demoralized and it badly needed confidence and energy within. With the Soviet armies halfway across Europe and still at their full wartime strength and the Communist parties the largest single political elements in France and Italy, something to inspire Soviet respect was equally essential.
Some top U.S. officials did honestly think that the Soviet Union was poised to stage a military attack. Whether that belief had any basis in reality is extremely debatable; about 27 million Russians, or 1 in every 6 people in the country, had just died in World War II. The equivalent for the U.S. today would be 50 million dead Americans. Even Joseph Stalin might have had a tough time motivating the country to immediately embark on another such event.
A more reasonable concern for the American government was a political, rather than military, threat. As Achilles said, there were powerful communist parties across Europe, especially in France and Italy — ones that could plausibly win honest elections. The anti-communist forces in those countries needed the “confidence and energy” of NATO to fight back. Meanwhile, NATO would “inspire Soviet respect” that would hopefully lessen Russian support, material and moral, for Europe’s communist parties.
Something else is notable about NATO’s founding. The original 12 members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the U.K., and the U.S. — in hindsight, something of an all-star league of European colonialism. It’s difficult today not to notice the blindingly alabaster complexion of the officials who signed the treaty. The original version of the treaty even specifies that it applied to any attack on “the Algerian Departments of France.”
A fuller reading of history suggests that the formation of NATO helped intensify and institutionalize the Cold War.
In any case, the architects of NATO would say that they were simply responding to the Cold War, already in progress at the instigation of the Soviets. A fuller reading of history suggests that the formation of NATO helped intensify and institutionalize the Cold War. The Warsaw Pact, after all, was not created until 1955, six years later, and its text is in many ways a replica of that of NATO’s treaty. It even has its own Article 5 language, except it’s in Article 4.
The unstated logic of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact was also the same. Indeed, it’s identical to that of similar alliances for thousands of years going back to the Delian League, founded in 478 B.C. and led by Athens. Providing protection is one key way for powerful countries to bind less powerful ones to them. The U.S. didn’t create NATO because we believed that we’d someday need Luxembourg’s military might to save us, nor did the Soviets come up with the Warsaw Pact because they felt that way about Albania. Rather, both superpowers knew that if they didn’t promise smaller countries protection, the smaller countries would feel compelled to protect themselves — which would lead to them wandering off on their own with their own foreign policies. That’s no way to run a sphere of influence.
NATO worked during the Cold War, both in the sense that there was no Soviet invasion and that the U.S. was able to corral Western Europe into following our instructions most of the time. A smattering of new countries joined during this period: Greece and Turkey in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.
Then came the dissolution of the Soviet Union, beginning in the late 1980s. If NATO’s champions were correct, it would have similarly been disbanded, its purported purpose now moot. But NATO’s more skeptical critics, who claimed that it was largely an aggressive instrument of U.S. power, have clearly been proven right by time.
As Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to peacefully dismantle the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, he sought assurances from the U.S. that NATO would not expand into the areas the Soviets were vacating. James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, told Gorbachev not once but three times that wouldn’t happen. “Not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction,” Baker promised.
NATO’s goals have expanded along with its territory.
Instead, in 1999 NATO incorporated the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, a big chunk of what had been the Warsaw Pact. Then in 2004 Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, more of the Warsaw Pact, joined, along with Latvia and Lithuania, which had actually been part of the Soviet Union. Other Eastern European countries followed, bringing NATO’s current membership to 30.
NATO’s goals have expanded along with its territory. The U.S. has found it particularly useful as a way to create legitimacy for wars when the United Nations won’t authorize them, as with the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011. In both cases, the American government pointed to NATO’s involvement as making the wars “multilateral” — that is, not unilateral acts by the U.S. — even though the U.S. provided the crucial firepower and neither war would have happened if America hadn’t wanted them to.
Russia has greeted these events with the same enthusiasm that the U.S. would if Mexico, Canada, and a newly independent Texas joined a Russian-led military alliance. Of particular concern to Russia is the possibility of Ukraine, another huge chunk of the former Soviet Union, becoming part of NATO.
NATO is also looking farther afield, to the entire planet. It just released “NATO 2030,” which describes an “an ambitious agenda to make sure NATO remains ready, strong and united for a new era of global competition. … NATO needs to adopt a more global approach to tackle global challenges to Atlantic security.” The head of NATO recently discussed this need with Lloyd Austin, the new U.S. secretary of defense.
Oddly, it turns out that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “Atlantic security” now is largely about China, a country famously located on the Pacific. After Tuesday’s summit, NATO released its formal communiqué, which said, among other things, that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”
It now seems quite possible that NATO will accomplish in the near future what it did 70 years ago — that is, push countries outside it into their own alliance in what they perceive as necessary self-defense. Thus just as NATO helped create the Cold War then, it’s well on its way to creating a sequel now.
Ominously, there is essentially no discussion about this in the U.S. and Europe. As Biden said, the small number of elites who are involved in these discussions see NATO as “sacred.” Similarly, when advocating for the creation of NATO, then-British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said it was necessary for “the salvation of the west.” As strange as it may seem for normal people, NATO is an institution of religious fervor for Western elites and therefore cannot be debated, any more than the Pope is open to debate about the Holy Trinity. And we all know how religions can lead to war.