The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in crisis. NATO is one of the most successful and longest-lasting military alliances in history.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
A glance at news headlines from any of the last seven decades might leave you thinking NATO has been in a perpetual state of crisis since its origins in 1949. And yet, time and time again, the Presidents and Prime Ministers of NATO states have decided that NATO should – indeed must – remain in existence. What explains this cycle of crises accompanied by determination to keep NATO together? How can every generation’s pundits write headlines warning of the imminent demise of the alliance, while its leaders insist that the alliance must continue?
The answer to the riddle lies in the fact that many of NATO’s largest and most important powers were led by governments that relied on public support for their political power. This led to what I call in Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order the “dangers of democracy.” It was these dangers that help us why NATO leaders thought the alliance was necessary but also why they constantly fretted about its future.
The leaders who formed and maintained NATO did so because they thought the alliance would protect members from being blackmailed by the Soviet Union. In the late 1940s, the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin argued that the Soviet Union would use its military and political power to compel other states to act as Moscow wished. The “Russians,” as Bevin called them, “seem to be fairly confident of getting the fruits of war without going to war.” Soviet pressure on Finland, in which Moscow gained significant influence in the shaping of Finland’s foreign policies, offered an example of how this might happen. A Soviet ultimatum to Norway, and later a coup in Czechoslovakia, suggested that the Soviets would gain influence in Europe by picking off one state at a time. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it seemed likely that Europeans, cajoled or bullied by the Soviet Union, would urge their leaders to give in to any Soviet demands rather than risk confrontation. George F. Kennan, the famous American diplomat and expert on the Soviet Union, explained this fear eloquently when he said that “it is the shadows rather than the substance of things that move the hearts, and sway the deeds, of statesmen.” And the Kremlin cast long shadows.
NATO offered a solution.
NATO’s integrated military commands were never so much about being able to defend against the Soviet Union in case of war, but in cancelling out the Soviet Union’s ability to influence and compel European states to do what Moscow wished. Ideally, NATO would ensure that the Soviet Union would not bother trying to pressure an ally. But if a crisis came, NATO’s military capability had to be real enough to ensure that leaders could convince their citizens they did not have to give in. The alternative would be for frightened voters to pressure their leaders – be it through elections or other public protest – to give into Soviet demands. NATO insured against one danger of democracy – a panicked electorate faced with crisis – that might have otherwise allowed for the “Finlandization” of more European states.
The NATO leaders’ other worry, however, was that in times of peace, or even cold war, their electorates were not interested in maintaining the defense spending on which NATO relied.
Periods of détente with the Soviet Union seemed to strip away the rationale for NATO. The public reaction to the Vietnam War in both the United States and Europe caused allies to wonder whether there had been an outright rejection of the military instrument of foreign policy. These worries were amplified in the 1970s and 1980s as some protesters challenged NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons.
NATO’s champion believed the alliance prevented crises and would allow them to prevail if one did occur.
They also believed that NATO worked, in a sense, too well – that it caused their voters to forget why NATO was important. On its 70th anniversary, the greatest challenge to the alliance may be an American president who ignores these nuances and does not understand the power of shadows.
About the author of this blog post: Timothy Andrews Sayle is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto and a Senior Fellow of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. He is the author of Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order, and the editor, with Jeffrey A. Engel, Hal Brands, and William Inboden of The Last Card: Inside George W. Bush’s Decisions to Surge in Iraq, forthcoming from Cornell University Press.