At the beginning of the Cold War in 1949, the United States helped establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This military alliance obligates the United States to come to the defense of Western European nations if attacked. Today, with the end of the Cold War, the security threats of 1949 have disappeared. This new reality in Europe has raised questions about NATO: Should it expand to include the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe? Should the United States continue to participate in the alliance? Is NATO even needed in today's world?
The Beginning of the Cold War
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Soviet troops occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe. Communist governments soon controlled this area. The Communist Party was also gaining strength throughout war-torn Western Europe, especially in Italy and France. Talks among the four major wartime allies—Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States—collapsed over the future status of Germany.
Speaking in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during the World War II, warned of an ominous division taking place in Europe:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. . . . [A]ll these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I might call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject. . . [to] a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.
In 1947, President Truman responded to Soviet military pressure on Turkey and a threatened communist take-over in Greece with a promise of military support to "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation." This Truman Doctrine together with the Marshall Plan, a massive American economic program to aid war-weakened Western Europe, were designed to "contain" any Soviet aggression.
But the next year, a communist minority with Soviet military support took control of the government of Czechoslovakia. Soon after that, the Soviets tried to get their way in Germany by blockading all land transportation routes leading into the British, French, and American occupation zones of Berlin. The Cold War had begun.
U.S. Involvement in NATO
Western European nations needed some sort of defense arrangement to assure their freedom and independence. But these nations were not strong enough, either individually or collectively, to defend themselves against a major Soviet attack.
Shortly after the Berlin Blockade began, representatives of Great Britain, France, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States met in Washington. They discussed issues affecting the security of Western Europe and North America. One issue was how to make Western Europe strong enough to balance the power of the Soviet Union. Another problem involved the future of Germany in Europe.
After the war, Germany and its old capital city, Berlin, had been divided and occupied by the four major allies. Military occupation would have to end sometime. What would be the role of Germany then? The representatives knew that Germany would regain its economic power and prominence in Europe. They didn't want Germany to become once again a military threat.
To the Western Europeans, there was only one solution to the potential threats of an aggressive Soviet Union and a remilitarized Germany. This was the permanent involvement of the United States in the security of Europe. The United States would provide the balance of power preventing either the Soviets or the Germans from dominating Europe.
The Washington talks resulted in the drafting of the North Atlantic Treaty. On April 4, 1949, the foreign ministers of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States signed the treaty in Washington. Its key provision states that the signing nations "agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. . . . " In the event of an attack, each party to the treaty also agree to take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."
The following October, Congress authorized $500 million in military aid to strengthen America's Western European allies. The United States also led the effort to establish an organization (the "O" in NATO) to operate the new military alliance. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed the supreme allied commander of all NATO forces in Europe. In April 1951, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution supporting President Truman's decision to permanently station four U.S. Army divisions in Europe (in addition to the two divisions already occupying Germany).
Over time, NATO expanded to include Greece, Turkey, West Germany, and Spain for a total of 16 member-nations. The American military forces on European soil eventually grew to over 300,000 troops. The unqualified success of NATO can be measured by the fact that the defense alliance was never challenged during the 50 years of the Cold War.
With the end of the Cold War and Soviet Union gone, a debate developed over the need for the United States to remain involved in the defense of Europe.
Some called for withdrawing all U.S. troops from European soil and even the disbanding of NATO itself. According to this view, NATO had done its job and no longer had any purpose.
Others, however, argued that the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe had produced new dangers. Political and economic instability in Russia (a nuclear power), ethnic conflicts in the nations formed from the old Soviet Union, and civil wars like the one that engulfed former communist Yugoslavia could still threaten the security of Western Europe. In addition, if U.S. forces withdrew from Europe, the new reunified Germany would probably feel the need to build up its own military defense, perhaps even including nuclear weapons. Such a development would undoubtedly scare its neighbors. For all of these reasons, the Western Europeans, including the Germans, have unanimously favored the continuation of NATO with full American participation.
At the NATO summit in January 1994, President Clinton reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and the defense of Western Europe. "The security of the North Atlantic region," he declared, "is vital to the security of the United States." He went on to promise that the United States would keep at least 100,000 American troops stationed in Europe.
President Clinton also promoted "Partnership for Peace." Under this plan, the former communist countries of Europe could participate with NATO in joint planning, training, and military exercises. They could also "consult" with NATO if threatened or attacked. "Partnership for Peace" was envisioned as a pathway for old Iron Curtain countries to someday become full members of the NATO alliance.
Some foreign policy experts have raised troubling questions about enlarging NATO: Are the United States and its current NATO allies really prepared to defend a much larger area in Europe? Would U.S. troops be stationed in Central and Eastern European countries? Would NATO position nuclear weapons there?
Although the Russian foreign minister vowed early in 1996 to oppose any plan that included former Soviet bloc nations in NATO, the "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation" was signed by NATO and Russia in May of 1997. This act formed the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, the venue for cooperation and consultation between Russia and NATO. This act also affirmed the joint commitment of Russia and the Alliance to the formation of a lasting and inclusive Euro-Atlantic peace. The NATO-Ukraine Charter and the Mediterranean Dialogue also encouraged communication and consensus-building between NATO and non-Western European nations. Furthermore, in 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO, bringing its membership to 19 nations.
NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo
Another problem facing NATO is the ethnic civil war in Bosnia. In 1992, following the collapse of communism, Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, one of the former communist states of Europe. Civil war broke out among Bosnia's ethnic groups—Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. The war was marked by "ethnic cleansing," the massacre and forced exodus of innocent civilians. Although no NATO country was attacked, this war could have easily spilled over into NATO territory, particularly Greece.
The war in Bosnia raised a new question for NATO. Just how far should NATO go in preserving the peace of Europe when alliance members are not directly threatened?
Several NATO members wanted to intervene. They argued that NATO could not simply stand by while genocide was taking place in Europe. Most members, however, urged caution because the conflict was based on old ethnic hatreds. If NATO entered the war, they argued, it would sink huge amounts of troops and resources into a mess it couldn't hope to solve. Further, they noted, NATO would probably have to intervene against the Serbs who were winning the civil war. The Serbs are traditional allies of Russia.
So NATO took the position that it would help to bring about and then implement "a viable settlement reached in good faith."
Starting in 1993, NATO aircraft began to fly combat missions to protect civilian "safe areas" and U.N. forces trying to bring about an end to the fighting in Bosnia. These were the first combat engagements ever by NATO forces. As a result of both NATO's military and diplomatic efforts, the warring parties agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, which was finally signed in Paris on December 14, 1995.
A few days later, NATO's Implementation Force (IFOR) began to carry out the military elements of the peace agreement. This involved sending 60,000 troops from about 30 NATO and non-NATO countries (including Russia) to separate the fighting armies in Bosnia and maintain the peace. The United States contributed one-third of the combat troops to this peacekeeping effort.
IFOR, completed its work in December 1996 and was replaced by a smaller Stabilisation Force (SFOR), which is working to lay the basis for the implementation of the Peace Agreement in its entirety. Since the 31,000 SFOR troops cannot remain indefinitely in Bosnia, NATO has also established the Security Cooperation Programme (SCP), which is working to create a peaceful Bosnia, independent of NATO involvement.
Some have called IFOR and SFOR "dream teams" because of the participation of so many countries and the inclusion of Russian troops under NATO command. IFOR and SFOR could become models for peacekeeping throughout all of Europe. Others, however, argue that neither the United States nor NATO has any business interfering in conflicts taking place outside NATO territory.
NATO’s recent involvement in Kosovo has raised another important question: Does NATO have a role in the internal affairs of sovereign nations? In 1998, nine years after the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy, the Kosovo Liberation Army, chiefly supported by ethnic Albanians, rebelled against Serbian rule. While the international community supported the idea of autonomy, it opposed the violent tactics employed by the Kosovo Liberation Army. In October 1998, NATO threatened air strikes on Kosovo if the Serb-controlled regime did not make greater efforts to restore peace. In 1999, these air strikes were launched, marking the first attack on a sovereign European country in NATO’s history. Opponents of NATO’s involvement in Kosovo have claimed that NATO should not have interfered in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, while supporters have argued that gross human rights violations justified the involvement.
Bosnia and Kosovo provide tests for whether NATO has any meaningful peacekeeping role to play in Europe now that the Cold War is over. Furthermore, NATO’s involvement in these two troubled areas raises important questions about the appropriate role of the international community in civil conflicts in which human rights are being violated.
For Discussion and Writing
- When the United States decided to join NATO in 1949, policy-makers ignored a longstanding American tradition of avoiding permanent foreign alliances. Do you think the United States did the right thing at that time? Why or why not?
- What is the main argument for and the main argument against enlarging NATO to include former communist Central and Eastern European countries? Which argument is better? Why?
- Some argue that we should withdraw all our troops from Europe and leave the defense of Europe to the Europeans. Do you agree or disagree with this view? Why?
For Further Reading
NATO’s Home Page: An official introduction to NATO’s policies and programs.
A C T I V I T Y
Should NATO Expand?
The former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have expressed interest in joining NATO. Imagine NATO has appointed a commission to decide on whether these countries should be allowed to join.
- Divide the class into triads. Assign each student in the triads a role of supporter of expansion, opponent of expansion, or commission member.
- Regroup the class so they can consult with one another while preparing for the role-play. Supporters of expansion should sit on one side of the room, opponents on another side, and commission members in front. Supporters and opponents should think up their best arguments, and commission members should think of questions to ask each side.
- Redivide into triads and begin the role-play. Supporters will present their case first. Each side will have two minutes to make its presentation. Commission members can interrupt to ask questions. After both sides present, each commission member should return to his or her seat at the front of the room.
- Commission members should discuss and vote on the expansion of NATO.