The Crisis in NATO

The next weeks should reveal whether we are experiencing the equivalent of a geopolitical earthquake.

Washington intended that NATO, from its very inception, serve as its instrument for maintaining its political hegemony over Western Europe, forestalling the emergence of a bloc that could play an independent role in world affairs. Charles DeGaulle, Winston Churchill, and many influential politicians envisioned such an alliance less as a means of confronting the Soviet army than as a way of containing a resurgent Germany as well as balancing American power.

Publicly, the reason for creating NATO in 1949 was the alleged Soviet military menace, but the U.S. always planned to employ strategic nuclear weapons to defeat the USSR–for which it did not need an alliance. But no one in Washington believed a war with Russia was imminent or even likely, a view that prevailed most of the time until the USSR finally disappeared. There was also the justification of preventing the Western Europeans from being obsessed with fear at reconstructing Germany’s economy, and American military planners were concerned with internal subversion. But when the Soviet Union capsized over a decade ago, NATO’s nominal rationale for existence died with it.

But the principal reason for its creation–to forestall European autonomy–remains.

For Washington, the problem of NATO is linked to the future of Germany, which since 1990 has been undecided about the extent to which it wishes to work through that organization or, more importantly, to conform to U.S.’ initiatives in East Europe. Germany’s unilateral recognition of Croatia in December 1991 was crucial in triggering the war in Bosnia and revealed its potentially dangerous and destabilizing capacity for autonomous action. Its power over the European Monetary Union and European Union understandably causes other Europeans to fear the revival of German domination. But for the U.S., the issue of Germany is also a question of the extent to which it can constrain America’s ability to play the same decisive role in Europe in the future as it has in the past. Such grand geopolitical questions have been brewing for over a decade.

NATO provided a peacekeeping force in Bosnia to enforce the agreement that ended the internecine civil war in that part of Yugoslavia, but in 1999 it ceased being a purely defensive alliance and entered the war against the Serbs on behalf of the Albanians in Kosovo. The U. S. employed about half the aircraft it assigns for a full regional war but found the entire experience very frustrating. Targets had to be approved by all 19 members, any one of which could veto American proposals. The Pentagon’s after-action report of October 1999 conceded that America needed the cooperation of NATO countries, but “gaining consensus among 19 democratic nations is not easy and can only be achieved through discussion and compromise.” But Wesley Clark, the American who was NATO’s supreme commander, regarded the whole experience as a nightmare–both in his relations with the Pentagon and NATO’s members. “[W]orking within the NATO alliance,” American generals complained, “unduly constrained U.S. military forces from getting the job done quickly and effectively.” A war expected to last a few days instead took 78-days. The Yugoslav war taught the Americans a grave lesson.

Long before September 11, 2001, Washington was determined to avoid the serious constraints that NATO could impose. The only question was of timing and how the United States would escape NATO’s clear obligations while maintaining its hegemony over its members. It wanted to preserve NATO for the very reason it had created it: to keep Europe from developing an independent political as well as military organization. Coordinating NATO’s command structure with that of any all-European military organization that may be created impinges directly on America’s power over Europe’s actions and reflects its deep ambiguity. Some of its members wanted NATO to reach a partial accord with Russia, a relationship on which Washington often shifted, but Moscow remains highly suspicious of its plans to extend its membership to Russia’s very borders. When the new administration came to power in January 2001, NATO’s fundamental role was already being reconsidered.

President Bush is strongly unilateralist, and he repudiated the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, opposes further restrictions on nuclear weapons tests or land mines, and is against a host of other existing and projected accords. He also greatly accelerated the development of Anti-Ballistic Missile system, which will ostensibly give the U.S. a first-strike capacity and which China and Russia justifiably regard as destabilizing–thereby threatening to renew the nuclear arms race. Downgrading the United Nations, needless to say, was axiomatic. The war in Afghanistan was fought without NATO but on the U.S.’ terms by a “floating” coalition “of the willing,” a model for future conflicts “that will evolve and change over time depending on the activity and circumstances of the country.” It accepted the small German, French, Italian, and other contingents that were offered only after it became clear that the war, and especially its aftermath, would take considerably longer than the Pentagon expected. But it did not consult them on military matters or crucial political questions.

Washington has decided that its allies must now accept its objectives and work solely on its terms, and it has no intention whatsoever of discussing the merits of its actions in NATO conferences. This applies, above all, to the imminent war against Iraq–a war of choice. This de facto abandonment of NATO as a military organization was made explicit during 2002 when Washington proposed a simultaneous enlargement of its membership to include the Baltic states and to allow Russia to have a voice, but no veto, on important matters. The nations along Russia’s borders regard NATO purely as protection against Russia, and are therefore eager to please the U.S.–which wants no constraints on its potential military actions.

The crisis in NATO was both overdue and inevitable, the result of a decisive American reorientation, and the time and ostensible reason for it was far less important than the underlying reason it occurred: the U.S.’ growing realization after the early 1990s that while the organization was militarily a growing liability it remained a political asset. That the United Nations and Security Council are today also being strained in ways too early to estimate is far less important because the U.S. never assigned the UN the same crucial role as it did its alliance in Europe.

Today, NATO’s original raison d’?tre of imposing American hegemony is now the core of the controversy that is now raging. Washington cannot sustain this grandiose objective because a reunited Germany is far too powerful to be treated as it was a half-century ago, and Germany has its own interests in the Middle East and Asia to protect. Germany and France’s independence is reinforced by inept American propaganda on the relationship of Iraq to Al-Qaeda (from which the CIA and British MI6 have openly distanced themselves), overwhelming antiwar public opinion in many nations, and a great deal of opposition within the U. S. establishment and many senior military men to a war with Iraq. The furious American response to Germany, France, and Belgium’s refusal, under article 4 of the NATO treaty, to protect Turkey from an Iraqi counterattack because that would prejudge the Security Council’s decision on war and peace is only a contrived reason for confronting fundamental issues that have simmered for many years. The dispute was far more about symbolism than substance, and the point has been made: some NATO members refuse to allow the organization to serve as a rubber stamp for American policy, whatever it may be.

Turkey’s problem is simple: the U. S. is pressuring it, despite overwhelmingly antiwar Turkish public and political opinion, to allow American troops to invade Iraq from Turkey and to enter the war on its side. The U.S. wants NATO to aid Turkey in order to strengthen the Ankara government’s resolve to ignore overwhelmingly antiwar domestic opinion, for the arms it is to receive are superfluous. But the Turks are far more concerned with Kurdish separatism in Iraq rekindling the civil war that Kurds have fought in Turkey for much of the past decade, and the conditions they are demanding on these issues have put Washington in a very difficult position from which–as of this writing–it has not extricated itself. Turkey’s best–and most obvious–defense is to stay out of the war, which the vast majority of Turks want. It may end up doing so.

America still desires to regain the mastery over Europe it had during the peak of the Cold War but it is also determined not to be bound by European desires–or indeed by the overwhelming European public opposition to a war with Iraq. Genuine dialogue or consultation with its NATO allies is out of the question. The Bush Administration, even more than its predecessors, simply does not believe in it–nor will it accept NATO’s formal veto structure; NATO’s division on Turkey has nothing to do with it. Washington cannot have it both ways. Its commitment to aggressive unilateralism is the antithesis of an alliance system that involves real consultation. France and Germany are now far too powerful to be treated as obsequious dependents. They also believe in sovereignty, as does every nation which is strong enough to exercise it, and they are now able to insist that the United States both listen to and take their views seriously. It was precisely this danger that the U.S. sought to forestall when it created NATO over 50 years ago.

The controversy over NATO’s future has been exacerbated by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s attacks on “Old Europe” and the disdain for Germany and France that he and his adviser, Richard Perle, have repeated, but these are but a reflection of the underlying problems that have been smoldering for years. Together, the nations that oppose a preemptive American war in Iraq and the Middle East–an open-ended, destabilizing adventure that is likely to last years–can influence Europe’s future development and role in the world profoundly. If Russia cooperates with them, even only occasionally, they will be much more powerful, and President Putin’s support for their position on the war makes that a real possibility.

Eastern European nations may say what Washington wishes today, but economically they are far more dependent on Germany and those allied with it. When the 15 nations in European Union met on February 17 their statement on Iraq was far closer to the German-French position than the American, reflecting the antiwar nations’ economic clout as well as the response of some prowar political leaders to the massive antiwar demonstrations that took place the preceding weekend in Italy, Spain, Britain and the rest of Europe. There is every likelihood that the U.S. will emerge from this crisis in NATO more belligerent, and more isolated and detested, than ever. NATO will then go the way of SEATO and all of the other defunct American alliances.

The reality is that the world is increasingly multipolar, economically and technologically, and that the U.S.’ desire to maintain absolute military superiority over the world is a chimera. Russia remains a military superpower, China is becoming one, and the proliferation of destructive weaponry should have been confronted and stopped 20 years ago. The U.S. has no alternative but to accept the world as it is, or prepare for doomsday. The conflict in NATO, essentially, reflects this diffusion of all forms of power and the diminution of American hegemony, which remains far more a dream than a reality.

GABRIEL KOLKO, research professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, is author, most recently, of Another Century of War? (The New Press, 2002). He can be reached at:


GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience