Taking NATO for granted - US needs a history lesson

A few days ago the French, Germans, and Belgians balked at the proposal that they should supply military hardware to the Turks in anticipation of an Iraqi attack on Turkey. Their refusal was effectively a veto of the mutual defense commitment that lies at the heart of the NATO charter. Or so it seems.

On hearing the news, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, went ballistic. She accused France and Germany of being ungrateful wimps who had forgotten that American soldiers saved them first from fascism and then from communism. She reminded her NATO allies that the cold war cost the US $15 trillion.

This idea that NATO was something kind and generous that the US did for Europe is a common assumption among Americans. But Ms. Rice should know better. She should realize that NATO was nothing more than cold-war realpolitik that suited the Americans as much as it did the Europeans.

So here's a little history lesson. In 1945, the problem of keeping the Americans locked into Europe was a prevailing concern for statesmen across Europe. American commitment was not, after all, exemplary, as evidenced by the fact that they'd shown up rather late to two world wars. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Western Europeans worried that a revival of traditional US isolationism might leave them vulnerable if Stalin suddenly ordered his tanks westward.

On Dec. 15, 1947, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin told US Secretary of State George Marshall of his vision of "a Western democratic system comprising the Americas, ourselves, France, Italy, etc. This would not be a formal alliance but an understanding backed by power, money, and resolute action. It would be a sort of spiritual federation of the West."

Having just committed his country to the economic regeneration of Europe, Marshall was reluctant to enter a binding military commitment. But then the Prague "coup," closely followed by the Berlin crisis, convinced him that the Soviets were indeed dangerous. Marshall cleverly realized that it would be better to confront Stalin in Europe then to let him take Europe and confront him somewhere else.

In 1949, NATO was formed. It had a single purpose, namely to "promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area."

In truth, this meant providing a bulwark against Soviet expansion, a threat almost everyone considered real. NATO was not, and was never intended to be, an all-purpose alliance. The US did not, for instance, feel that NATO committed it to support the Suez adventure in 1956, nor did the Europeans feel inclined to help out in Vietnam.

With NATO, Europe got a guarantee of US protection, and America got a lot of military bases with which to fight the cold war. NATO allowed the Americans to threaten the Soviet Union in a way that the Soviets were unable to threaten America. In 1962, when Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba, he was simply trying to balance the score: The US already had more than 3,000 nuclear weapons in Germany, Britain, Italy, and Turkey.

NATO was not a love affair; it was not even a friendship; it was simply a symbiotic relationship. And, despite all those signatures on the charter, distrust remained. Europeans were never quite sure whether the American commitment would hold up if a clash over Europe went nuclear. In other words, would the Americans really put New York and Chicago on the line if Bonn and London were threatened by the Soviets?

In 1991, NATO's purpose suddenly evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Representatives of the old Warsaw Pact countries now sit around the great oval table in Brussels. But why? NATO has lost an enemy and has yet to find a role.

The current crisis over Iraq is entirely predictable, for the simple reason that NATO was never intended to be anything other than an anti-Soviet pact. France, Germany, and Belgium feel that the charter is being used to manipulate them into supporting a conflict they are not inclined to back. Granted, they're supposed to support Turkey when Turkey feels threatened, but the mutual defense element was always just window dressing for cold-war fears that no longer exist.

Despite all of Bevin's fine words about spiritual federation, NATO has always been short on spirit and long on cynical self-interest. That cynicism, which once drew NATO together, now tears it apart.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

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