This article was last modified on April 22, 2009.

Empire Strikes First: NATO

Last month, the world witnessed a ceremony celebrating the 60th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Largely ignored by the media — and not surprisingly given the ongoing economic crisis — this spectacle brought with it a considerable share of protesters. But why protest the military alliance that kept us safe from Communists during the Cold War? Because this very same group may be leading us back into the conflict, albeit unintentionally.

NATO started off as a post-World War II political alliance in 1949, but soon grew much stronger in the early 1950s, during the Korean War. As all Communist countries were viewed as closely interacting, Europe felt an opposing force would be necessary to counter the impending threat. The political alliance became a military alliance. As the first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Ismay, said, the organization’s objective was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. From the beginning, NATO was clearly an us-versus-them group of people. Unlike the United Nations, which — in theory — encourages cooperation and discussion, Article 5 of the NATO Charter says that an attack on any member shall be considered to be an attack on all. If the inherent flaw of this rule is not immediately clear, I shall return to it shortly.

Rather than linger on ancient history, though, we must look to the future. If there is no more Communist menace, what is the purpose of NATO? In January 2009, Richard Burt, former head of the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs summed it up nicely. “NATO is at this point an organization either in search of a mission or an organization with too many missions [that] needs to kind of fundamentally go through a pretty deep review of what its core mission is.” NATO’s (mis)adventures in the Balkans and Afghanistan stray from the organization’s ideals, and such “peace-keeping” missions would be better served through a UN coalition, rather than an American-led military alliance.

As Russian-American relations continue to improve, NATO is becoming obsolete, if it ever had relevence at all. Its Article 5 is becoming dangerously close to igniting a massive conflict along the lines not seen since World War I. Almost a century ago, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, sparked a series of alliances that brought in global powers to a regional dispute and caused the deaths of over 15 million people. Not even one year ago, we almost saw another regional battle spiral out of control.

Depending on your perspective, Russia either invaded Georgia or crossed the border to come to an ally’s protection. Regardless, had Georgia been a member of NATO as it will soon be, America and Europe would have been required to come to its aid. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov understands this threat. “The Caucasus crisis showed how dangerous the automatic eastward expansion of NATO is… It is enough just to imagine what would have happened if Georgia had been a NATO member, as Russia would have still had no other option but to act as it did last August.”

Russia obviously has the obligation not to attack its neighbors, as does any nation. But Russia is rightfully skeptical of NATO’s intentions. As Mikhail Gorbachev said, “the Americans promised that NATO wouldn’t move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises?” George H. W. Bush had agreed not to expand NATO in exchange for Russia’s cooperation in the reunification of East and West Germany. Germany today stands as one nation, but Bill Clinton and his successors did nothing to stop the growth of the European alliance.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is also concerned about a NATO training exercise in Georgia which begins May 6. “This is the wrong decision, a dangerous decision… Such decisions are disappointing and do not facilitate the resumption of full-scale contacts between the Russian Federation and NATO.” In NATO’s defense, the exercise was planned long in advance and is not a response to the military activity last fall. However, Russia’s call to cancel or postpone the meeting are reasonable — is it a step towards long-lasting peace to stage troops mere miles from contested territory, particularly in a country which is not (yet) a member of the organization?

One solution to the Euro-Russian tension would be to include Russia as a NATO member. But Lavrov says, “I don’t think Russia could join NATO as it currently stands.” This is true in multiple senses. Clearly Lavrov’s intent was to make clear the anti-Russia bias of NATO — if Russia is included, what are the aims of NATO?. But, also, the rules of the organization clearly state that “Parties may by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State”, leaving open the question of whether Russia is a European or Asian state. The principled and pragmatic solution is simply to dismantle NATO — disagreements should be worked out in a United Nations discussion, not on the battlefield, which is where expansion will inevitably lead.

One unintended byproduct of NATO expansion could be the strengthening of the European Union. Currently, NATO is by and large an American-dominated unit and Europe “pushing back” against this power is not unthinkable. A stronger, more unified Europe would help to realign international power and humble America’s hegemonic intentions. This would be a plausible outcome, but no guarantee, and as Europe could join together without such prodding if they desired, it is no incentive to feed the hungry monolithic beast that is NATO. Better to slay her now before we lose control.


In the last column I raised some questions about the “new” strategy in Afghanistan. I remain skeptical of America’s role in the region and our ability to create long-term stability under our present methods. But President Obama assures us that he is thinking beyond mere military solutions. “What we can’t do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems… So what we’re looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there’s got to be an exit strategy … There’s got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift.” Unfortunately, until this strategy becomes something besides pouring in more troops, all we can expect is “perpetual drift”.

Gavin Schmitt ( is a Kaukauna resident. His only alliance rests in the Guild of Calamitous Intent.

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