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NATO: A Diplomatic Success Story

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April 4, 2016, marked the 67th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty – better known as the document behind the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Seven decades later, where has NATO been and where is it heading? More than anything else, this is an occasion to celebrate a lasting diplomatic success.

In the spring of 1949, the Cold War was in full swing. To counter communist in-roads in Europe, in March 1947 the Truman Doctrine had promised American help for nations threatened by authoritarian regimes. At Harvard University’s commencement that June, Secretary of State George Marshall called for the creation of what would become the European Recovery Program, which ultimately would provide $13 billion to rebuild the economies of Western Europe. Cold War tensions ramped up in June of 1948 when the Soviets began the Berlin Blockade. Unable to deliver goods to its sector of the city via the land route through Soviet-controlled East German territory, and unwilling to concede West Berlin to the Soviets, America and Britain initiated the Berlin Airlift. Ultimately, the Allies flew in over two million tons of coal, food, and other supplies through September of 1949.

Relations between the West and the Soviet Union had been growing increasingly poor, which made a more formal military and political alignment an urgent priority among the countries of Western Europe. However, there were a number of diplomatic and domestic hurdles – chiefly on the U.S. side – to be cleared. As NATO historian Stanley R. Sloan writes, three events in 1948 and 1949 opened the door for NATO. The first was the Brussels Treaty in March 1948 between the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. American policymakers were looking for signs that the Western allies would be willing and able to cooperate. By signaling these five countries’ “intent to structure postwar intra-European relations to encourage internal stability and defense against external threats,” the Brussels treaty did just that.

The second, and arguably most crucial, step dealt with U.S. domestic politics. For much of American history, an isolationist stance on European affairs had predominated, and these feelings resurfaced in America following the end of WWII. Remembering lessons from the League of Nations, American diplomats knew Congress held the future of any alliance in its hands. The Truman administration successfully converted one of the Senate’s most ardent isolationists, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, to take an internationalist position. In June 1948, Vandenberg authored U.S. Senate Resolution 239, and the United States then had a clear mandate to join the European endeavor.

The Washington Treaty, signed on April 4, 1949, represented the third and final step resulting in NATO’s creation. As Sloan writes, six months of negotiations resulted in a “compromise between the European desire for explicit US commitments to provide military assistance to prospective NATO allies and the American desire, strongly expressed in Congress, for more general, less specific assistance provisions.”

The diplomatic success story doesn’t end there, though. Throughout the Cold War, NATO deftly handled a number of sensitive issues that normally would have broken an alliance’s back. These included, among others, expanding in the 1950s to include Greece, Turkey, and West Germany (the issue of expansion resurfaced at the Cold War’s end); France’s retrenchment under De Gaulle; anxiety over what European allies viewed as U.S. preoccupation in Vietnam; the Greece-Turkey spat; and recurring deliberations over nuclear weapons and policy. Each was an important issue in its own right. Some could potentially have scuppered the alliance, had it not been for the resilience and strategic vision of numerous diplomats and policymakers.

NATO arguably faced its biggest challenge following the Cold War’s end, once its former foe, and chief raison d’être, no longer existed. The fighting that broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1991 helped give the alliance new life. Moving well beyond its original borders and mission, NATO conducted the first combat operations in its history against Bosnian Serb forces during Operation Deny Flight in 1994. The Implementation Force (IFOR), and later Stabilization Force (SFOR), in Bosnia lasted through 2004. NATO launched an air campaign in the region again in 1999 for 78 days, this time in Kosovo against Serbian forces, ultimately helping lead to peace and the deployment of peacekeepers. A few years later, following 9/11, NATO invoked its collective defense provision for the first time, assuming command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2003.

Recent events are also shining a light on NATO, for better or worse. Taken together, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its ongoing support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the hotly contested European migration issue, civil war in Syria, and recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Turkey, represent arguably some of the most severe challenges the alliance has faced. Currently, NATO's missions include: “peacekeeping in Kosovo; counterterrorism and human-trafficking patrols in the Mediterranean; counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa; support for African Union forces in Somalia; security assistance in Afghanistan; and policing the skies over eastern Europe.”

The alliance has weathered many storms throughout its history and, as the list above makes clear, it is likely to face many in the future. Questions will remain regarding the need for NATO’s existence, allies will squabble over funding while the United States continues to bear the financial burden, and, while legitimate and constructive when done for the right reasons, U.S. politicians will almost certainly debate NATO’s value – and funding – for short-sighted gains. If anything, though, the need for the alliance is growing, as it may join the fight against ISILin the near future, according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The U.S. Army has just added a third rotating brigade to Europe as well. Without the alliance, Russia would almost certainly be stirring up even more trouble in Eastern Europe.

The diplomatic creativity and foresight present at NATO’s creation, and the diplomacy that maintained it through the decades, is far from over. As Sloan has aptly written, the Washington Treaty “was based on common values, identified no enemy, protected the sovereign decision-making rights of all members, and was written in sufficiently flexible language to facilitate adjustments to accommodate changing international circumstances.” The expansion of these “common values” are just as important as the alliance’s military mission. The success of initial diplomacy 67 years ago has allowed for a dynamic organization to adapt throughout its history, an adaptation that will almost certainly continue to make the world safer. This is something worth celebrating.

Happy Birthday, NATO!

Dr. Kelly M. McFarland - ISD director of programs and research

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