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NATO’s Dilemma: The Ties That Bind Nations Together Are Fraying


By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Pursuing national interests is difficult for any nation-state; in some cases, it is hard just to define one nation’s interests. Nonetheless, diplomats and politicians try to hammer out agreements in pursuit of their national interests in the most efficient and expeditious manner possible.

Agreements are not perpetual, however, and long-dormant issues can rise to the forefront if a nation’s strategic picture changes. It is the strategic picture that sets the priorities of some interests above others.

Long-Term Alliances Are Difficult to Maintain

Security is one issue that can vex the most experienced heads of state. But the need for security can lead to alliances or collective security agreements.

Alliances are difficult to maintain, however, because the overriding interests that brought the parties into the alliance can change. The pursuit of collective security, a much less binding agreement, becomes stressed once the participating parties’ interests diverge or the security threat that prompted the agreement ceases to exist. In some cases, the threat might remain, but it could be perceived differently by the concerned nation-states.

In Henry Kissinger’s book “World Order,” the former Secretary of State defines the diplomatic ideals fostered by President Woodrow Wilson:

“An alliance comes about as an agreement on specific facts or expectations. It creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fulfillable in an agreed manner. It arises out of a consciousness of shared interests, and the more parallel those interests are, the more cohesive the alliance will be. Collective security, by contrast, is a legal construct addressed to no specific contingency. It defines no particular obligations except joint action of some kind when the rules of peaceful international order are violated. In practice, action must be negotiated from case to case.”

Kissinger’s words bring to mind the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its uncertain future. NATO was conceived after World War II by political scientists and policymakers to prevent a repetition of the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. This treaty forced severe reparations on a defeated Germany, which led to the rise of National Socialism and Hitler.

Halford Mackinder, a British geographer, is considered one of the founding fathers of both geopolitics and geostrategy. In his 1943 article for Foreign Affairs, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” Mackiner called for the formation of an alliance among the U.S., Britain and France, along with an agreement with the USSR. This alliance would formalize a response to any post-war attempt to rearm Germany.

Mackinder’s idea was to use the natural geography of the region to dissuade future German aggression. What Mackinder could not foresee was the division of Germany into two separate nations by the victorious allied powers, whose wartime alliance began to fray even before the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. For the United States and the United Kingdom, the resulting Potsdam Agreement was less about preventing a rearmed, expansionist Germany and more about restraining an expanding Soviet Union.

Two years into the postwar period, U.S. diplomat George Kennan, writing under the pseudonym “X,” penned his famous Long Telegram. It was published in Foreign Affairs in 1947 as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan’s article became a framework not just for a North Atlantic alliance, but also for a larger policy of Soviet containment.

“The Sources of Soviet Conduct” became an instructive thesis for dealing with the Soviet Union. One often overlooked fact was that Kennan was a U.S. State Department official. The willingness of the U.S. to enter into an international alliance in 1949 was seen as an important change in American foreign policy – from prewar isolationism to postwar international peacekeeper.

Signing of the North Atlantic Charter Creates the International NATO Alliance

The United States was a rising power before World War II, and the Allied victory cemented the U.S. as not just a great power, but also as one of two global superpowers. The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, creating the international NATO alliance in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949, is important because it led to the large-scale influence the U.S. still wields in NATO, providing the organization with direction and a common cause.

The idea that the Eurasian landmass could potentially fall under the control of a single political body, i.e., the Soviet Union, was then perceived as an existential threat by Washington.

Naturally, the victorious but devastated nations of Europe also viewed the Soviets as a threat and feared becoming Moscow’s next conquest. The founding members of NATO were brought together by a common interest viewed from different perspectives. But their differences could be overlooked because the net result was the same: mutual defense against a common threat.

When the Soviet Union Collapsed, NATO Expanded

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO began to expand and moved the eastern frontier back toward Russia. Several former member-states of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO, pushing back the direct threat of a Russian ground invasion from the border of a once-divided Germany to the eastern borders of Poland and the Baltic States.

These states have been the most vocal in pushing NATO members to reaffirm their dedication to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That article commits all NATO members to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all of them.

Nations further to the west have been keener to reach an understanding with Russia over issues such as Moscow’s invasion of Crimea and support of Syria, because they are reliant on Russian energy to run their economies. With projects such as the Nord Stream gas pipelines meant to bypass former East Bloc states, it is clear that the interests of many NATO members have diverged.

For its part, the U.S. has tried on several occasions since the 2008 invasion of Georgia to improve its relationship with Russia. But it appears that the interests of the two nations are intractable.

With the most recent round of U.S. sanctions targeting Russia and its energy sector, the break between Moscow and Washington and between Berlin and Warsaw has become more profound. Can NATO survive these divisions?

Typically, alliances are not eternal because the nations that make up the group cannot be expected to defer their interests perpetually. NATO is now seeing this firsthand, but it’s not the only time there has been strife in the organization.

For example, France pulled out from NATO’s military command in 1963, while member-states Greece and Turkey nearly went to war on several occasions during the Cold War. The NATO alliance endured, however.

Today, NATO consists of 29 independent member countries and is no longer dedicated to containing the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies. Instead, it is an organization in need of leadership, direction and, above all, a common cause.

Without such direction and accommodation of each member’s national interests, the alliance cannot be expected to function much longer in its current form. Indeed, the ties that bind NATO are frayed and in need of mending.