Hard as it may be to remember now, there was a time twenty-five years ago when the future of NATO looked like being short and undistinguished. The end of the Cold War took NATO completely by surprise, and the organisation and its members were in a state of frozen disbelief for quite a while. I remember being in NATO headquarters in January 1990: half of the offices were empty, as though the bureaucrats had run away to hide somewhere, and there was an almost tangible atmosphere of depression and shock throughout the building.
Of course, NATO did not die then, because its continuation served the interests of too many different states and lobbies. Although nations had claimed throughout the Cold War that the only reason for NATO’s existence was the Soviet Threat, and that this was why millions of young men were conscripted every year, and hundreds billions of dollars spent on defence, there was always much more to it than that.
An incomplete list of reasons why states really supported NATO would include the following. For the United States, the chance to have a decisive voice in European security issues without being militarily committed to the defence of the continent. For Britain, the chance to exert influence over the United States, and to play a role through NATO that it could not have played otherwise. For Germany, a ticket back to international military respectability. For France, the hope of not being left alone as in 1940. For many smaller countries, on the other hand, NATO was a useful counterweight to the developing Franco- German axis that threatened to dominate Europe. For Belgium, it was another international organisation to add to the collection. For just about every European state it was a way of keeping Germany under control, as well as providing assurance of international help if some of the continent’s large and powerful Communist parties looked like coming to power.
Whilst these factors were well understood, for obvious reasons they were seldom talked about in public So after the confusing first few years, it was necessary for NATO and its member states to come up with at least a formal new justification for its existence. Unfortunately, NATO was set up as a wartime military alliance, even if few people believed after the mid-1950s but it would ever actually fight a war. An essentially military organisation, organised along the paralysingly bureaucratic lines of the American military, was always going to find it hard to do other things successfully. Efforts at defence reform in Eastern Europe were best a modest success. Other attempts to extend NATO’s mandate into softer security areas (most recently Afghanistan) were in general a failure. When NATO actually came to conduct military operations, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, it turned out not to be very good at them. So if it couldn’t do war, and it couldn’t do peace, what could it do?
The answer, or at least an answer, turned out to be enlargement. Indeed, for most of the twenty years that followed the Cold War, NATO was primarily occupied with getting bigger. In spite of what is sometimes alleged, this was never a deliberate long-term plan. The assurances that the Americans gave the Russians in 1990 that NATO would not expand towards the East were probably at least partly genuine at the time. Certainly, many European capitals were very worried about the possibility of uncontrolled expansion of a military alliance which one day would find itself on the borders of Russia. But what else was NATO to do? It was like a bike: either it goes forward, or it falls over. And the potential problem of German tanks on the Russian border was one that future generations of politicians and generals could be left to solve.
Well, we are there now. In a sense, also, we are back where we were in 1990, except that all the pieces are considerably further east. Unable to expand any further, and with most of its members decidedly unenthusiastic about declaring war on any more Arab states, NATO is effectively forced into a posture of military confrontation to justify its existence. As it has been from the beginning, NATO is desperately casting around for a role, and allowing itself to be driven by events in the direction of anything that looks promising.
Over the last generation, American governments have been more or less enthusiastic about NATO depending on their complexion. Some Republican administrations have been decidedly lukewarm, but in the end have always come round, prodded by the foreign policy establishment. But, whilst it’s too soon to draw conclusions, it’s quite possible that one of the effects of Trump’s election victory will be to finally begin the process of burying NATO. The neoconservative hawks who have dominated American foreign policy for so long do appear to have been strangled, or at least put in cages, and the policy of confrontation for its own sake seems to be over now, for which we can all be thankful. NATO, which has been in an existential crisis for more than 25 years, is perhaps about to be put out of its misery.
The difficulty is that we have become used to the rhetoric of “defence” and of Europeans “taking responsibility” and “paying their share”. This rhetoric is the biggest single obstacle to actually seeing and dealing with European security problems as they really are, which have little to do with NATO, except inasmuch as it is a large part of many of the problems. For a long time, we had Cold War nostalgia by people who missed the certainty that the Cold War provided. We now have Cold War nostalgia by people who missed it in the first place because they were too young. Wars have been fought for many bizarre and improbable reasons in history, and we may have escaped, through Clinton’s defeat, the first war ever to have been fought out of nostalgia and the desire to escape an existential crisis. .