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NATO's Unsung Virtues.

June 2018

Key Points

* The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established to meet the security threat posed by the Soviet Union. Often overlooked, though, are the ways in which it has provided the material and behavioral grounds for the larger liberal order in Europe to emerge.

* Given the multilateral character of the alliance and the sometimes uneven US leadership, NATO has actually proved relatively adept at meeting changes in the security environment.

* Security "free-riding" by allies is a perennial problem. But US global leadership has been minimally constrained by alliance partners because American power has been seen as indispensable to European peace and stability.

A standard account of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

is that it was established to meet the threat posed to Europe by Stalin's Soviet Union and that, without that threat, it has struggled to adjust to the post-Cold War world. (1) It is also the conventional view that NATO, as an alliance and a bureaucracy, has been less than adept in meeting evolving security challenges. As the current American president suggested, NATO is, like an eight-track tape player, "obsolete." (2)

Of course, there is more than a grain of truth in these characterizations. But such standard accounts often overstate or miss important truths about the alliance.

Beyond Deterrence

NATO's birth in 1949 with the North Atlantic Treaty was driven by the Soviet Union. Economically on its knees, politically unstable, and with its various militaries demobilized, Western Europe faced a Stalin-led Kremlin with a still-massive Red Army that was in an increasingly dominant position in Central and Eastern Europe. If the challenge were to be met, it could not be done without the United States. While it was also demobilizing at a staggering rate after World War II, the United States was the only power with sufficient economic and military potential to plausibly be the cornerstone for a multination effort to meet the Kremlin's challenge.

If this multilateral effort were to take place, two fundamental things would have to occur. First, Washington's elected leadership would need to overcome its quasi-isolationist tendencies--no sure thing given Harry Truman's view of the American military's role in the world and those of a Dewey-led Republican Party. (3) Second, the capitals of Western Europe would have to set aside long-standing, often bitter enmities among themselves. Combined with the multifaceted character and scale of the strategic problem facing the West, nothing was inevitable.

Although the "lesson of Munich" was part of the strategic debate, it was not yet dominant, and various softer forms of appeasement policies toward Moscow were alive as well. However, if there were to be a global order worth its name, the first half of the 20th century indicated that leaving Eurasia exposed to open-ended competition among nation-states was an invitation to instability and, at some point, great conflict. What tipped the scales in both the United States and Western Europe was a relatively rapid series of events: the communist coup in Czechoslovakia (1948), a ground blockade of Western Berlin (1948), the first Soviet test of an atomic weapon (1949), and, not long after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, the Korean War (1950).

The Allies' success in coalition warfare during World War II created considerable momentum in establishing a new peacetime alliance structure. Most senior security officials had learned the formative practices of working with others just a few years before. Moreover, as with the wartime coalition, the focus was not just the military defense of Europe and North America.

As such, it stretched beyond the terms of a traditional security pact in which one nation agreed to come to the aid of another if that nation were attacked. Notably, before the most famous of the treaty's articles--Article 5, in which "the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all"--Articles 1-3 place that commitment within a wider horizon of the Charter of the United Nations. (4) By signing the treaty, the allied nations were pledging to "contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being." (5) In addition, they were to work "to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and... encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them." (6)

In short, the treaty's terms laid the groundwork for more than just a military alliance to deter the Soviet Union. While that might have been its primary goal, the treaty was doing so within the broader framework of an American-led effort to establish a postwar liberal order that was competitive and sustainable when faced with the Soviet political, economic, and military empire that lay behind the Iron Curtain. NATO was, in connection with the Bretton-Woods Agreement (1944), the Truman Doctrine (1947), and the Marshall Plan (1948), part of a larger strategic vision that saw economic prosperity, security, and liberal governance as essential to preserving and growing a nascent Western community.

In this respect, it is not too surprising that NATO got its institutional and political side in order before it created a command structure and developed operational plans to meet the threat posed by the Red Army. The treaty was signed in April 1949. By early fall, the members had established the North Atlantic Council (NAC), consisting of member states' foreign ministers; a defense committee, with member states' defense ministers; and a committee composed of military chiefs of staff. (7) A few weeks later, the alliance added an economic committee with allied finance ministers and a deputies' council to assist the NAC with its political and diplomatic work. Actual military plans and command structures would come later. (8)

What was relatively unique about NATO from the start was its creation of an integrated command structure during peacetime, with multiple members' militaries subordinated to alliance commands whose chiefs were not necessarily their own. And while deciding on major policy choices and their implementation could take time and generate plenty of heated debate, the alliance's ability to come to a consensus time and again was, as described below, noteworthy. The ability to pool, in effect, elements of sovereignty and put shorter-term interests aside for a longer-term goal was a habit of state conduct generated by the alliance's ends and institutional arrangements. Considerations of realpolitik were never completely submerged by members--especially as the European members regained their footing after World War II. But NATO was essential in creating a pattern of behavior and trust that had an impact beyond the narrow workings of the alliance itself.

In fine, NATO was essential in creating peace and stability in a part of the world where it was necessary if a larger liberal order were to emerge. Less appreciated, however, is how the alliance, in the way it organized itself and functioned, helped inculcate normative patterns among the members that made the expansion of other multilateral, liberalizing institutions more feasible. It is a reach to say that NATO established the Western community, but the alliance was crucial in making that community possible both materially and behaviorally.

Always Evolving

How, over the years, the alliance went about making that contribution is often a story of fits and starts. Negative accounts of these efforts abound, especially from when they were unfolding. Yet what is impressive, in retrospect, is the constancy with which NATO adjusted to changing political and military conditions.

In the early 1950s, galvanized by the Soviet explosion of a nuclear device and the Korean War, NATO accelerated the development of plans to meet the Soviet threat in Europe. In December 1950, the NAC appointed Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to be the alliance's first Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Within a few weeks, it established headquarter commands for Central and Northern Europe, with a southern command to follow shortly thereafter. Member countries also ramped up spending on their militaries, despite most still struggling economically. France and the United Kingdom increased their defense budgets by more than a third. (9)

The alliance's decision to allow West German rearmament and integration into NATO proved equally significant. Member states recognized that the decision was essential to establishing a coherent and effective defense posture in Europe, even as the memory of occupation and devastation by German forces was still fresh.

The alliance faced its next big challenge with the election of Dwight Eisenhower to the Oval Office. His "New Look" strategy played down conventional military deterrence in favor of early escalation to nuclear weapons. Arguing that deterrence based on nuclear weapons would be less costly than attempting to match the Soviet's advantage in conventional forces, the White House moved NATO to adopt the new strategy in 1957. Plans now called for building up a store of theater nuclear weaponry and making contingency plans for retaliatory strikes from the US strategic arsenal. In addition, to adjust to this new stratagem, NATO began to devise new tactics and restructure its conventional forces to enable them to fight on a nuclear battlefield.

It did not take long, however, before defense and security analysts challenged the operational and strategic wisdom of the alliance prioritizing massive nuclear retaliation. With the arrival of the Kennedy administration, NATO militaries were asked to adapt to a new strategy. This strategy, one of "flexible response," attempted to slow the ascent to the use of nuclear weapons and placed greater emphasis on conventional force planning. The change was also supported by the analytical tools and intelligence available to member states for force planning and for understanding the Soviet military threat. The result was greater fidelity in seeing what improvements in force structure, weapon systems, and deployments might be necessary to deter the Warsaw Pact.

Given America's dominant role economically, diplomatically, and militarily, it is no surprise that much of the momentum for changes in NATO has come from policy decisions made in Washington. And, hence, it is also no surprise that, as the US became preoccupied with the war in Southeast Asia, Watergate, an oil crisis, and a flagging economy, key allies doubled down on a policy of detente with Moscow. Much of the late 1960s and early- to mid-1970s can be described as the "wilderness years" for NATO.

Seeming to take advantage of this lull in American leadership, the Soviet-sponsored adventurism abroad rose, along with continuing improvements in Soviet military forces. Perhaps the most notable for NATO was the deployment of a new class of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (SS-20S) in the European theater. Solid-fueled and accurate, the missiles gave the Red Army a precise targeting capability that could pinpoint key NATO installations and be launched with little or no warning.

To counter the SS-20 deployments, NATO decided in 1979 on a "dual track" approach that consisted of deploying American ground-based cruise missiles (GLCMs) and Pershing II intermediate-range missiles in theater and offering to negotiate limitations on such systems with the Kremlin. (10) Facing massive antinuclear demonstrations throughout Europe--fueled in part by worries over the new Reagan administration's harder line toward the Kremlin and significant covert political warfare operations by Soviet intelligence--the alliance nevertheless stuck with its decision. By mid-November 1983, US GLCMs were being deployed in the UK and Pershing IIs in West Germany.

The 1980s also saw development within the US, and then NATO, of new defense strategies to deal with advances in the Soviet Union's battle plans for Central Europe. The US-developed AirLand Battle doctrine--which combined advanced air defenses, deep fire capabilities, and maneuver warfare for ground forces--sought to counter the Warsaw Pact's plans for a blitzkrieg-style campaign designed to advance quickly through NATO's forward lines. (11) Once again, by the mid-1980s, NATO had adopted the change in plans and operations. And while these new stratagems were never put to use against Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces, they demonstrated considerable value when the US-led coalition, including key NATO allies, swept through Saddam Hussein's Soviet-style forces during the first Gulf War (1991). (12)

With the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire, the question for NATO became: What is next? With the Cold War concluded, many believed that NATO's rationale for existence no longer held. Others argued that the alliance was too valuable to toss aside but acknowledged that it would have to adjust to new geopolitical realities. As Richard Lugar, longtime member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it in 1993, for NATO, it was "out of area or out of business." (13)

Since then, NATO has conducted "out of area" military operations in the Balkans throughout much of the 1990s, maintained an anti-piracy mission off the east coast of Africa starting in 2009, launched an air campaign that brought down Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya in 2011, and, most significantly, after the 9/11 attack and the first invocation of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and train Afghan security forces.

Of course, of no less significance during the transition from the Cold War was the decision to tie German unification to continued membership in NATO. This was by no means a certain outcome, and it required a considerable amount of statecraft, not only with Moscow but also within the alliance. (14) And, similarly, in the latter half of the 1990s, the alliance, again with considerable deliberation, moved to open up membership to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. (15) In keeping a unified Germany in the alliance and expanding membership, NATO was eliminating a potentially problematic geopolitical gray zone in which the countries of the region might once again stand between powerful neighbors east and west.

Never happy that the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe had thrown their lot in with the institutions of the liberal West, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his intentions clear more than a decade ago that he would attempt to challenge this security architecture. (16) Since then, he has waged a cyberattack against Estonia in 2007, invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and conducted campaigns of political warfare in key member states. (17)

Since Ukraine, NATO has adjusted to this new threat from the east by moving troops into the Baltic states, stationing American armored forces in Poland, expanding military exercises and air patrols, stipulating that cyber defense is a core task of the alliance's collective defense responsibilities, increasing defense spending commitments across the alliance, and resurrecting a regional command (Atlantic) and a logistic command to address the new environment. (18) At the same time, NATO has intensified its ties to non-alliance members, such as Sweden, and stayed committed to training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. (19)

In fine, although it can be argued that the alliance is slow at times to respond to new circumstances and, when it does, does not always take the steps necessary to fully meet those new circumstances, over the decades NATO has certainly made multiple major adjustments in response to changes in the security environment and demands from Washington. Given the multilateral character of the alliance, its policymaking by consensus, and the uneven leadership from the US, NATO has actually proved quite adept at meeting diverse and evolving challenges.

Unsung Virtues

In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with the justification that the EU offers "probably the most dramatic example in history to show that war and conflict can be turned so rapidly into peace and cooperation." (20) In handing over the medals to the EU's top three officials--the commission president, the council president, and the president of the European Parliament--Nobel Prize Chairman Thorbj0rn Jagland stated that the European Union had been instrumental in making "a continent of war [become] a continent of peace." (21)

Without suggesting that the EU did not deserve its award, it certainly can be argued that NATO officials should have shared both the stage and the prize with the EU. NATO largely provided the security and, in turn, the basic stability on the continent that allowed the subsequent political integration and cooperation. (22)

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949. The European Coal and Steel Community started in 1951, while the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Community (EC) followed in 1958. In both cases, the signatories--Belgium, West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands--were members of NATO first. Indeed, the vast majority of new members to the EC or the European Union have always been closely aligned with membership in NATO.

And even though NATO has no treaty-specific mandate regarding a member's domestic rule, the decision not to expand eastward in Europe after the Cold War unless the countries asking for membership were liberal and democratic has reinforced NATO's original pledge to enhance the "free institutions" of the West. Imagine a Europe in which the nations of Central and Eastern Europe had never become members of the transatlantic alliance. Whatever the current problems in sustaining that standard in some nations, it is not too difficult to see how much worse the situation would be in what remains a continent of significant economic and political interest to the United States.

Overall, NATO's mutual security guaranties have proved instrumental in encouraging states and peoples to put aside traditional rivalries in the name of greater regional cooperation. Moreover, and less appreciated, the alliance has helped establish habits of state behavior that have generally reassured member states that the greater powers would not simply ignore the concerns of lesser powers, while the lesser powers would not frustrate alliance decisionmaking when their own interests were secondary to larger geopolitical issues. In short, NATO has provided a public good that has assisted the democracies of Europe in advancing cooperative liberal efforts and institutions.

At the same time, US global leadership has been constrained minimally by alliance partners because America's greater power has been seen as indispensable to peace and stability in Europe, where there is no single power capable of taking on that leadership role. Security "free-riding" by allies is a perennial problem, but that irritant has to be set against allies' willingness to offer diplomatic and military assistance when needed. It is a delicate balance that Washington and allied capitals must keep in mind but one that, in the past few years, is at risk of being forgotten.

NATO is an institution that has helped keep both sides of the Atlantic from backsliding into less-than-helpful, sometimes dangerous, historical patterns. But institutions and the norms they inculcate can and do break. And, once broken, like Humpty Dumpty, putting them back together can be nearly impossible.

By Gary J. Schmitt

About the Author

Gary J. Schmitt is resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies national security and longer-term issues affecting America's security at home and its ability to lead abroad.


(1.) A version of this essay will appear in Miehael J. Green and Andrew Shearer, eds., Alliances in the 21st Century: Reinforcing the Rules Based International Order (Washington, DC: Center for Strategie and International Studies, fortheoming).

(2.) Reuters, "Tramp Says NATO Is Obsolete but Still 'Very Important to Me,'" January 15, 2017,

(3.) To be fair to Truman, while he voted for the Neutrality Acts in the mid-1930s, he followed President Roosevelt's lead in moving away from that position as the threat from Nazi Germany grew. Nevertheless, after the war, he called for a dramatic cut in military spending and force structure overseas, believing perhaps that whatever role America might play after World War II could be done by some form of "offshore" balancing.

(4.) North Atlantic Treaty art. 5, April 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243,

(5.) North Atlantic Treaty preamble, April 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243.

(6.) North Atlantic Treaty art. 2, April 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243.

(7.) North Atlantic Council, "Final Communique of the First Session of the North Atlantic Council (Terms of Reference and Organisation)," September 17, 1949,

(8.) North Atlantic Council, "Final Communique," November 18, 1949,

(9.) From 1951 to 1952, the United Kingdom's military expenditures rose from $17,889,972,010 to $23,746,081,470 (an increase of 32.74 percent). France's military expenditures rose from $12,238,989,000 to $16,509,286,570 (an increase of 34.89 percent). For raw data, see Max Roser and Mohamed Nagby, "Military Spending," Our World in Data,

(10.) The deployment of Soviet SS-20s to the European theater and the subsequent NATO "dual track" approach are detailed in Raymond L. Garthoff, "The Soviet SS-20 Decision," Survival 25, no. 3 (1983): 110-19.

(11.) For an outline of the Air Land Battle, see John Boyd, "Patterns of Conflict" (presentation, December 1986),

(12.) For a comprehensive overview of the various adaptations that NATO made from its inception until the end of the Cold War, see Richard L. Kugler, Commitment to Purpose: How Alliance Partnership Won the Cold War (Santa Monica CA: RAND Corporation, 1993).

(13.) Ronald D. Asmus, "Reinventing NATO (Yet Again) Politically," NATO Review, June 2005,

(14.) For background on the deliberations involved, see Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

(15.) Ronald D. Asmus, Opening NATO's Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

(16.) Vladimir Putin, "Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy" (speech, Munich, Germany, February 10, 2007),

(17.) Alina Polyakova and Spencer P. Boyer, The Future of Political Warfare: Russia, the West, and the Coming Age of Global Digital Competition, Brookings Institution, March 2018,

(18.) Valcntina Pop, "U.S. Allies Boost Defense Spending, NATO Says," Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2018,; Eoin Micheal McNamara, "Securing the Nordic-Baltic Region," NATO Review, 2016,; and Jonathan Stearns, "NATO to Boost Command Sites, Cyber Policy with Eye on Russia," Bloomberg, November 8, 2017,

(19.) Ryan Hendrickson, "Sweden: A Special NATO Partner?," NA TO Review, April 23, 2013,; and Robin Emmott and Idrees Ali, "At U.S. Urging, NATO Agrees Training Mission in Iraq," Reuters, February 15, 2018,

(20.) Thorbjorn Jagland, "Award Ceremony Speech" (speech, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2012),

(21.) Jagland, "Award Ceremony Speech."

(22.) This underlying point was made by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in a speech delivered at Humboldt University in Berlin in May 2000. He argued that the American commitment to "stay in Europe" was one of "two historic decisions" that "altered Europe's fate for the better" and set the ground for "the idea of European integration." Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 92.
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Author:Schmitt, Gary J.
Publication:AEI Paper & Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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