NATO's Other Purpose

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Greetings from historic downtown Belgrade (MT), to which the Borderlands Lodge has recently transferred its operations. 

There's been a lot going on lately. I've learned that buying a house is a 3-step process: purchasing the new place, moving out of the old one, and setting up the new one. All three steps can involve a lot of work. I finished the first of them in March, the second one in early May, and the third...I'm slowly realizing that the third step will go on for as long as I live in this house. 

Even in the Bel-zone we get the papers, and this week I've been reading about the meeting of NATO leaders this past Monday in Brussels

A lot of people in the US consider NATO an anachronism. People on both the right and the left in the US. Under DJT, the GOP went from supporting NATO to treating it as a protection racket, demanding more contributions from US allies (not an unreasonable demand, in my opinion). The problem is that, absent any sort of governing ideology or belief system--such as support for democracies--the alliance itself makes no sense. If it's just about protection, far-flung NATO will collapse under its own breadth. It has to be about something more than just defending members who are willing to cough up more money. 

On the left, meanwhile, it has also become fashionable to criticize NATO as an organization which "cements European division, bombs the Middle East, burdens the United States and risks great-power war." 

In the 1990s, there was a great deal of discussion about whether or not it made sense to expand NATO, or even keep it around at all. After all, the Cold War was over. Why keep the alliance alive? 

Some people argued, meanwhile, that, by expanding NATO, the US would miss out on better relations with Russia. And indeed, it seems pretty clear that US Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev back in 1990 that the US would not pursue the eastward expansion of NATO. Similar promises were apparently made to Boris Yeltsin. However, none of these pledges were ever written down and submitted to the US Senate as part of a treaty that could be formally approved or denied. James Baker's personal promises, or those of anyone else, don't hold the force of international law. 

At Camp David, 1990
In truth, I think the real reason Americans from both the left and the right are less interested in keeping NATO around is that, regardless of political persuasion, Americans tend not to care very much about international relations. For five decades the US was tethered to the world thanks to the Cold War. It's taken a bit of time, but during the decades which have passed since the early 90s Americans--no matter what their politics-- have become more and more intellectually disconnected from its allies and the NATO alliance. 

It's the ultimate privilege: US citizens feel they can afford to be ignorant regarding what goes on in the rest of the world. Electing DJT president in 2016 was a message to the rest of the world that we're no longer interested in playing a leadership role internationally. The fact that the only Democratic candidates in 2016 and 2020 who gave much ideological support to NATO and internationalism tended to be older figures from the 1990s--like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden--is telling. In my opinion, the only way that a majority of Americans will ever go back to supporting Cold War-levels of US engagement with Europe is if some kind of 9/11-style bolt from the blue takes place. So, one way or another, I see it as fairly inevitable that the US will continue to disengage internationally over the long term. 

NATO enlargement over the years
That being said, maybe part of the reason why more Americans don't see NATO as important is that the Cold War seems so distant. Russian meddling with US elections notwithstanding, the idea of shoring up an alliance consisting of 30 member states just to offset Moscow's influence probably strikes a lot of people as overkill. "Europe is stable and affluent," one might be tempted to argue, "far removed from its warring past."

True enough, but containing Russia is hardly NATO's only job. Go back to the early 1990s and consider the map we were dealing with at the time. Yugoslavia was being torn apart by a series of conflicts, and the concern at the time was that all of Eastern Europe could potentially go through a Yugoslavia-like conflagration. After decades of forced servitude in the Warsaw Pact and foreign policies dictated from Moscow, there were genuine concerns that ethnic nationalist "populism"--of the sort that we are in fact seeing now--would become a real issue in Eastern Europe. 

The reason why NATO is important is not just because the alliance puts a check on Russia's ambitions vis-a-vis its neighbors, but also because it locks in dozens of countries that could potentially go to war with one another. Europe might be "far removed from its warring past," but a lot of that actually has to do with the fact that most European countries have been locked into a broader security alliance since the end of WWII. 

Take Turkey and Greece, for example. Those two countries hardly constitute an example of good international relations. Indeed, since the end of WWII Ankara and Athens have come close to going to war against one another on at least a few occasions. 

But the thing is, they didn't. Whether it was during crises relating to Cyprus in 1960 or 1974, or more recent issues pertaining to energy exploration in the Aegean Sea, Turkey and Greece have been at loggerheads for much of the past seven decades. 

Had they not both been members of the same military alliance, would Turkey and Greece have both come back from the brink of war on multiple occasions? It's impossible to say with certainty, but I think not. Then, consider some of the other potential flashpoints within the alliance: Germany-Poland, for example, or Germany-France. Then, look to the East: Hungary-Romania, Hungary-Slovakia, Hungary and...well, actually Hungary and most of its neighbors. Albania and North Macedonia are another example. 

People can disagree regarding whether or not Russia constitutes a threat to its neighbors that should be blunted with an alliance like this one. Without NATO, however, I think the rest of central and eastern Europe would have had a much messier past few decades than has actually been the case. 

It's easy to dismiss NATO as a relic of the Cold War, but the alliance's value extends well beyond its impact on Russia. 


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.   

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