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When I was a senior in college, I was enrolled in two different seminar classes taught by the same professor. He was a very wise and experienced man who fought with MacArthur in the Philippines before receiving his doctorate in history. He is the preeminent NATO historian as well as a distinguished early American history scholar. The two classes were called “NATO: A Modern History” and “Jeffersonian America,” and both of those courses have been on my mind recently.
The Jeffersonian America class began with Washington’s Farewell Address from in 1796. Washington used the address to discuss what he believed should guide American foreign policy. He expressed a desire to uphold current alliances, but also cautioned against creating more alliances, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements.” Washington feared a United States being pulled into the conflict because of rivalries that have defined much of European history. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe,” he asked “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
Now let us fast forward to April 4th 1949 and the founding of NATO by twelve nations. The alliance was formed less than four years after the surrender of Germany and four months before the first successful Soviet nuclear weapons test. The free world was threatened by the Soviet Union’s expansionist foreign policy in Eastern Europe and the hardcore communist philosophy that underpinned it. My thoughts on communism are pretty much in line with those of Brigadier General Jack Ripper. The Soviet Union represented a real and present danger to the entire world because of its communist philosophy. NATO was formed to protect the United States and the other member nations from Soviet aggression and was central to the eventual collapse of the USSR.
However, it has been 67 years since NATO’s founding and I think it would be prudent to discuss the current merits of the alliance. The collapse of the Soviet Union has made NATO’s mission a little more muddled. Is the threat from Russia the same as the threat from the USSR? Soviet philosophy called for a global Marxist revolution, but what is the philosophy of the Russian Federation? Is Putin more of a Tsar than a General Secretary of the Central Committee? I have a sense that the current political climate in Europe is more like 1914 than 1949. The old rivalries are stirring and threatening the cooperation that defined the second half of the 20th century.
The most important question is does the NATO alliance still serve a purpose? If the Russians invade one of the Baltic nations what will happen? I believe that the US will dutifully try to defend the tiny nations, but I am not convinced that any of the other nations will heed the call. But what about Article 5, you ask?
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. [emphasis added]
I’ll never forget my professor trying to dissuade the class of the conventional understanding of Article 5 (it’s hard to disagree with a person who was there when the treaty was being signed and ratified). Article 5 does not require the use of armed force, it only includes armed force as one of the responses. The “deems necessary” line is never mentioned, but would most assuredly be used by other NATO allies to preclude sending military aid to a vulnerable Baltic nation. Will the French commit a significant portion of their over-stretched military? Will the Belgians and their unionized army get there on time? Will the Dutch respond to an attack on Estonia with force even though they barely protested the killing of 193 Dutch citizens on MH 17 by Russian-backed separatists? The Turks? The Greeks? Italians and Spaniards fighting in Latvia?
If it’s as easy as I think to picture NATO allies weaseling out of defending another member state, then I have to ask whether NATO serves an American interest or are we now entangled in the toils of European ambition as Washington warned? I have not come to a conclusion on this matter and I am no fan of Putin or a new Imperial Russia. I just happen to believe it’s important to discuss what has become an almost unquestionable belief that NATO in its current configuration is necessary for American foreign policy.