NATO in the 21st Century

 

Truman_signing_North_Atlantic_TreatyWhen 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.

There are 40 comments.

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  1. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Nice essay, may I assume you’re new to Ricochet? When one looks at the American Cemeteries in Europe, especially the WWII cemeteries I would think NATO has been a success.

    We can pretend all we like that Russia under Putin has reached some sort of enlightenment, but for over 70 years the Soviet Union was based upon a looter’s mentality. One other thing that NATO has done is to prevent the stronger European nations from selling out their weaker neighbors to the Russians for some sort of temporary truce. As Churchill said when Chamberlain returned from Germany, you will neither have peace, nor honor. (paraphrase)

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  2. Hercules Rockefeller Inactive
    Hercules Rockefeller
    @HerculesRockefeller

    Doug Watt:Nice essay, may I assume you’re new to Ricochet? When one looks at the American Cemeteries in Europe, especially the WWII cemeteries I would think NATO has been a success.

    We can pretend all we like that Russia under Putin has reached some sort of enlightenment, but for over 70 years the Soviet Union was based upon a looter’s mentality. One other thing that NATO has done is to prevent the stronger European nations from selling out their weaker neighbors to the Russians for some sort of temporary truce. As Churchill said when Chamberlain returned from Germany, you will neither have peace, nor honor. (paraphrase)

    I am not actually new to Ricochet, I have just returned after a 3 month hiatus. Thank you for your compliment and I do agree that NATO has been a success. I think it’s possible that NATO has become a victim of it’s own victory. And to quote Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, “Victory has defeated you.”

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  3. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    It has certainly moved beyond the original purpose of “keeping the US in, the Germans down and the Soviets out”.

    I am somewhat inclined to let it die. But then my sense of history tells me the Germans lack the will, the French lack the judgement and the British lack the resources to make a go of it without us.

    If we want to retain any influence in Europe, we will have to remain the shirked and the sword.

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  4. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    I can think of several proactive steps that the US could undertake in NATO. Rather than retire the A-10 we could start training Polish pilots to fly it as well as Ukrainians. The Russians depend upon armor. With AWACS providing targeting and F-22 air cover it would make Russian armor movements close to suicidal. There is a new problem in the Baltic Sea and that is Russian development of a new class of diesel electric submarines. While running on batteries unlike a nuclear submarine there is no heat signature. This new class is capable of long distance travel on batteries.

    The North Atlantic and Iceland will be the key, if we lose control of Iceland we will lose control of Britain, and the Scandinavian countries. Losing control of the Baltic will ensure the loss of Poland and part of Germany.

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  5. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Steve C.:It has certainly moved beyond the original purpose of “keeping the US in, the Germans down and the Soviets out”.

    I am somewhat inclined to let it die. But then my sense of history tells me the Germans lack the will, the French lack the judgement and the British lack the resources to make a go of it without us.

    If we want to retain any influence in Europe, we will have to remain the shirked and the sword.

    I’m not sure I do.  The Europe of today is not the same Europe the United States fought for in World War II.  I don’t think Europe’s people think their way of life is worth defending.

    We should leave NATO.

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  6. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    NATO made sense and yes, it worked. It was the platform the US used to check the Soviets right on Europe’s  doorstep.

    Now, NATO extends right to Russia’s front porch. The roles are reversed.  Rather than ‘occupied Germany and Poland’ NATO is in the Baltics right on the Russian border.

    So it comes down to this. Will we go to thermonuclear war to defend the Baltics? We were ready to do it over France, England and Germany.

    Are we ready to keep forces deployed on the Russian border to deter Russian aggression?

    When we answer those two, ask me about NATO.

    Retooling it for ‘terrorism’ is a lost cause.

    It is for homeland defense of the European continent. Doing more with it will muddle it worse.

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  7. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    NATO should have been handed off to the Europeans as a Combined Arms command, a kind of “Pentagon” for the Europeans, after 1991. The preparations for this turnover could have been made during the 90s, with its first test being the Balkans. Now it is just another transnational organization that is inept and in search of purpose, which costs the United States money while many of the other memberstates get to free-ride. We should withdraw from NATO as an official partner.

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  8. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Holy cow!

    This thread just proves the real threat of Trump. Trump expresses disdain for NATO and people a year ago that would have never questioned NATO are now ready to throw it under the bus.

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  9. Hercules Rockefeller Inactive
    Hercules Rockefeller
    @HerculesRockefeller

    Z in MT:Holy cow!

    This thread just proves the real threat of Trump. Trump expresses disdain for NATO and people a year ago that would have never questioned NATO are now ready to throw it under the bus.

    Trump has not been mentioned in the post or the comment thread.  I’m just trying to start a conversation about the future of NATO. What specifically do you find most objectionable?

    The conservative movement needs to get better at making arguments for the things we believe instead of just saying we believe them and lashing out at those who don’t.

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  10. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Putin is every bit as expansionist as the Soviet Union, except that he feels he is starting all over having to expand Russia just to get back to the borders of the Soviet Union. The weakening resolve of the US is seen by Putin as an invitation. The main thing constraining Putin now is economics, if or when oil goes back to 100+ dollars you will see Putin really start to throw his weight around by annexing more of the Ukraine and the Baltic states. Talk of abandoning NATO makes this much more likely.

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  11. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Hercules Rockefeller:

    Z in MT:Holy cow!

    This thread just proves the real threat of Trump. Trump expresses disdain for NATO and people a year ago that would have never questioned NATO are now ready to throw it under the bus.

    Trump has not been mentioned in the post or the comment thread. I’m just trying to start a conversation about the future of NATO. What specifically do you find most objectionable?

    The conservative movement needs to get better at making arguments for the things we believe instead of just saying we believe them and lashing out at those who don’t.

    Hercules,

    Not you or your OP. But there is a clear difference of opinion here in the comments between the Trump enthusiasts and NeverTrump.

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  12. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I have long advocated a transition away from NATO, WTO and many UN roles in favor of a new League of Nations That Don’t Suck.  Membership is contingent on being a stable, tolerant secular democracy with respect for markets and property and a willingness to contribute proportional dollars and or manpower to the common defense.

    The League would only intervene in a nation that does suck if (a) it were in the overtly affirmed interests of the League to do so and/or (b) it was a viable action in support of viable efforts by its people to create a nation that did not suck.

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  13. Kofola Inactive
    Kofola
    @Kofola

    TKC1101:NATO made sense and yes, it worked. It was the platform the US used to check the Soviets right on Europe’s doorstep.

    Funny thing these arguments. The Soviet sympathizers in the US after Wold War II made all of the exact same claims. Go read the “revisionist” historians of the Cold War still prevalent in academia today. You’ll learn all about how the Cold War was America’s fault because we were being aggressive right along the natural, historic Soviet sphere of influence. We unnecessarily put the world at risk of a nuclear war. We could have cooperated with Joseph Stalin to establish a stable, cooperative world order. You know, because Stalin was just a rational actor looking to assure his country’s security. His actions in Eastern Europe were just a reaction in defense of the bellicose Americans who wanted to inflict their way of life on the poor Russian people. Ok, but NOW these arguments are real, because its only Estonians, and not Germans and French who don’t want a Russian occupation.

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  14. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Kofola:

    TKC1101:NATO made sense and yes, it worked. It was the platform the US used to check the Soviets right on Europe’s doorstep.

    Funny thing these arguments. The Soviet sympathizers in the US after Wold War II made all of the exact same claims. Go read the “revisionist” historians of the Cold War still prevalent in academia today

    I fail to see how stating a basic fact that NATO did work leads you to your desire to impress us with the ability to lay out a righteous tirade against an argument that was not made. Look, sonny, some of us lived through it. Please say where in my comment I offered anything approaching a ‘revisionist’ view.  NATO is based on a basic fact- that the US Nuclear trigger applies to members. Now that the battlefront has moved, I asked the question if that still applies to places like the Baltics.

    It is a valid question given the fecklessness of many here to get people like Obama and Hillary Clinton into the White House. Or Gary Johnson.

    We cannot deal with the future of NATO until we resolve the question. If that makes you uncomfortable, thermonuclear war should.

    Now go slander somebody who has no clue about the subject you are ranting about.

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  15. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Z in MT: This thread just proves the real threat of Trump. Trump expresses disdain for NATO and people a year ago that would have never questioned NATO are now ready to throw it under the bus.

    NATO has been under question for decades.  It is a fair topic to ask if it needs to change.  To impute some split based on the current election cycle is both silly and naïve.

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  16. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    In the medium term, the main strategic threat to U.S.  security interests is China, not Russia. If the old patterns of U.S. strategic behavior hold, sooner or later (probably sooner) the U.S. will shift its attentions away from Europe and focus laser like on China. Obama in his thumbless and blundering way has started this process, but the next administration or two will be forced to seriously reorient our strategic posture to address China.

    Two things to say about this. First, where China is concerned, U.S. and Russian interests are closely aligned. Both countries would like to see China contained. This is even a more immediate concern for the Russians than for us, because the Chinese view their Siberian and Far Eastern territory, which is very sparsely populated, as a tempting target for expansion.

    Second, where China is concerned, U.S. and European interests seriously diverge. As the U.S. gets more and more serious about China, we will put more and more pressure on the Europeans to limit their trade with the Chinese, particularly in technology. But the Euros would sell their own mothers to the Chinese, so this pressure will not be well received. Also, European strategic interests are not threatened by China in the same way that ours are.

    So in the medium term, the U.S.-European strategic relationship will seriously weaken.

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  17. Kofola Inactive
    Kofola
    @Kofola

    TKC1101:

    Now go slander somebody who has no clue about the subject you are ranting about.

    How did I misrepresent your argument? You said that the NATO alliance is threatening Russia. You said it has high potential to lead to thermonuclear war. I pointed out that you’re making very similar arguments that revisionist historians of the Cold War made. You seem to think this point of view was illegitimate when it came to the Cold War, but think such arguments are legitimate now because Nato’s defense refers to the Baltics and Eastern Europe instead of Germany and France. In fact, you make this statement  again quite clearly above.

    Now that the battlefront has moved, I asked the question if that still applies to places like the Baltics.

    I’m sorry if pointing out the similarities between the revisionists and your own argument is such as great slander. Someone with your great, first-hand knowledge, I figure, would have come to that realization on his own.

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  18. Kofola Inactive
    Kofola
    @Kofola

    TKC1101:

    Z in MT: This thread just proves the real threat of Trump. Trump expresses disdain for NATO and people a year ago that would have never questioned NATO are now ready to throw it under the bus.

    NATO has been under question for decades. It is a fair topic to ask if it needs to change. To impute some split based on the current election cycle is both silly and naïve.

    And, look, I am in full agreement that we need to rethink the purpose of NATO. I just don’t think abandoning allies to appease Russia is necessarily the right way to do that.

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  19. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Kofola: How did I misrepresent your argument? You said that the NATO alliance is threatening Russia

    For petes sake the whole idea of the NATO alliance was to threaten Russia. The NATO alliance was built to threaten and did so successfully until we put idiots into the White House. It is people like you who think it was some sort of diplomatic group that by it’s very existence kept Russia peaceful that are the same lunatics who think it needs no updates.

    NATO was built to be a military threat aimed at Russia’s throat from the very beginning , conceived by people who knew total war and what it meant to fight it. If you think the bureaucracy of membership is what kept the Warsaw pact forces at bay , do answer an email from those nice Nigerian Bankers.

    If we are not prepared to go to full and total war over the Baltics or other countries on the new battle front, NATO has little meaning.

    • #19
  20. Barry Jones Thatcher
    Barry Jones
    @BarryJones

    One of the big reasons why I believe NATO is useful to the US is that the US membership in NATO allows the US to have forward deployed units, facilities and equipment. There are hundreds if not thousands of  US service members that are alive or have arms, legs and/or eyes specifically because we were able to use well established US Military (medical and Air Force) facilities in Germany which is comparatively speaking practically in the neighborhood of the Mid East compared to Walter Reed on the east coast of the US. Some of those people (almost certainly many or even most) would have suffered very different outcomes without reasonably near and timely medical care available via Ramstein Air Base and the associated Hospital. There are other examples…an Air Force presence in Turkey that makes airstrikes in Syria more feasible, for instance or the 173rd in Italy that is much closer to where it may be needed in a pinch than US based troops.  So in many ways NATO does serve us…perhaps not in a 1949 sense, but it serves a very useful function. And it is doubtful that many of the NATO countries would be open to having US troops and facilities based on their turf without a NATO commitment.

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  21. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    NATO still keeps the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.  I think that this is a good thing, and we should continue it.  It is especially important in the former Warsaw Pact nations of eastern Europe.

    Germany remains the most potentially powerful nation in Europe.  I don’t know whether Germany would ever become militarily aggressive again, absent NATO.  We do know that Germany launched 3 major wars after becoming the most powerful nation in Europe.  I think that we should not take this chance.

    NATO, on the other hand, binds several of the most powerful nations onto our side.  Not just Germany, but also France, Britain, and Italy.  I think that this is a very good thing, and we should keep things largely as they are.  I think that we should pressure our NATO allies to increase their military spending, to better equalize the burden.

    China is now a greater potential threat to the peace of the world.  We’ll want our NATO allies firmly on our side if China continues to grow more assertive and confrontational.  To be clear, thus far China’s actions have been minor, but there is a danger of increasing aggressiveness as Chinese power increases.

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  22. Hercules Rockefeller Inactive
    Hercules Rockefeller
    @HerculesRockefeller

    Arizona Patriot:Germany remains the most potentially powerful nation in Europe. I don’t know whether Germany would ever become militarily aggressive again, absent NATO. We do know that Germany launched 3 major wars after becoming the most powerful nation in Europe. I think that we should not take this chance.

    NATO, on the other hand, binds several of the most powerful nations onto our side. Not just Germany, but also France, Britain, and Italy. I think that this is a very good thing, and we should keep things largely as they are. I think that we should pressure our NATO allies to increase their military spending, to better equalize the burden.

    China is now a greater potential threat to the peace of the world. We’ll want our NATO allies firmly on our side if China continues to grow more assertive and confrontational. To be clear, thus far China’s actions have been minor, but there is a danger of increasing aggressiveness as Chinese power increases.

    I’m leaning towards this argument. If I may play devils advocate though; do we need NATO to confront China? Our important allies for that confrontation are Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Canada. The only European power I could see making a difference would be the UK.

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  23. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Hercules Rockefeller:

    I’m leaning towards this argument. If I may play devils advocate though; do we need NATO to confront China? Our important allies for that confrontation are Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Canada. The only European power I could see making a difference would be the UK.

    More important than any of those is India. We would also want to cultivate Vietnam. And, of course, Russia.

    We can’t do both Europe and East Asia; we are going to have to prioritize. Europe will fall by the wayside. As I pointed out, the Europeans have zero interest in antagonizing the Chinese on our behalf.

    • #23
  24. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Hercules Rockefeller:I’m leaning towards this argument. If I may play devils advocate though; do we need NATO to confront China? Our important allies for that confrontation are Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Philippines and Canada. The only European power I could see making a difference would be the UK.

    If there’s a serious confrontation with China in the future, I definitely want NATO on our side.

    Here’s my rough estimate of the approximate total power of possible allies in a conflict with China, considering population, economic strength, and military muscle.  US=100 in this scale:

    100  US
    30   Japan
    23   Germany
    18   UK
    18   France
    13   Italy
    9    Canada
    8    Australia
    8    South Korea
    8    India

    The others are lower.

    Looking at that list, the combined power of NATO allies is 81 and the combined power of non-NATO allies is 54.

    • #24
  25. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Arizona Patriot: If there’s a serious confrontation with China in the future, I definitely want NATO on our side.

    OK, but why would the Europeans want to get involved? China is not a threat to Europe. It’s not the Soviet Union. What’s in it for them?

    • #25
  26. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Arizona Patriot: Germany remains the most potentially powerful nation in Europe. I don’t know whether Germany would ever become militarily aggressive again, absent NATO. We do know that Germany launched 3 major wars after becoming the most powerful nation in Europe. I think that we should not take this chance.

    You’re referring to a very different German culture.  Like much of the rest of Europe, demographically their culture is set to be wiped out.

    And the Islamic culture that will probably replace it means a culture so different than ours, we won’t want to keep ourselves hitched to their wagon militarily.

    When talking about leaving NATO, you’re actually considering some long term consequences.  Future demographics should be a big discussion point when considering this.

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  27. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Barry Jones:There are hundreds if not thousands of US service members that are alive or have arms, legs and/or eyes specifically because we were able to use well established US Military (medical and Air Force) facilities in Germany which is comparatively speaking practically in the neighborhood of the Mid East compared to Walter Reed on the east coast of the US.

    One of the things that makes our military great is logistics.  The loss of Ramstein Air Base could likely be made up in some other way, I’m sure.

    Or make a deal with the Germans to keep the hospital there.  When we started moving many of military personnel out of Germany post-Cold War, the Germans tried hard to keep them there, not because they felt threatened by our absence, but because all those military facilities were a boon to their economy.

    Even without NATO, they would probably welcome a large U.S. Military hospital remaining there.

    • #27
  28. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    TKC1101: For petes sake the whole idea of the NATO alliance was to threaten Russia. The NATO alliance was built to threaten and did so successfully until we put idiots into the White House.

    The NATO treaty is a defense treaty.  And it was put in place to defend against the Soviet Union.  And the U.S. signed it because it was in our interest.

    And yes, part of our strategy was to imply, without saying so, that if the Soviet Union attacked Western Europe there would be reprisals that could include nuclear weapons, and in that sense we were threatening the Soviet Union.

    Now the Soviet Union doesn’t exist.  We won.  And Russia is a shadow of what was the Soviet Union.  And Putin is no Stalin.  He is dangerous, but not so much to us.

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  29. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Al Sparks: And yes, part of our strategy was to imply, without saying so, that if the Soviet Union attacked Western Europe there would be reprisals that could include nuclear weapons, and in that sense we were threatening the Soviet Union.

    Sheesh Al, stop relabeling things to feel better. They threatened us, we put NATO together to threaten back. All the rest was make work for diplomats.

    The US should stop apologizing for threatening people. If you hurt us, we used to do more than issue a strong letter of note.

    • #29
  30. Tedley Member
    Tedley
    @Tedley

    Barry Jones:One of the big reasons why I believe NATO is useful to the US is that the US membership in NATO allows the US to have forward deployed units, facilities and equipment. [] There are other examples…an Air Force presence in Turkey that makes airstrikes in Syria more feasible, for instance or the 173rd in Italy that is much closer to where it may be needed in a pinch than US based troops. So in many ways NATO does serve us…perhaps not in a 1949 sense, but it serves a very useful function. And it is doubtful that many of the NATO countries would be open to having US troops and facilities based on their turf without a NATO commitment.

    Barry, you make a critical point.  Overseas military bases support the logistical requirements of the U.S. military and allies conducting operations worldwide.  The alliance hasn’t been static–NATO started out defending Western Europe, but over time, as the security environment changed, it melded into supporting operations outside of Europe, including Iraq and Afghanistan.  There’s no reason to leave NATO, it continues to be flexible to current events, it allows the member nation militaries to retain a level of interoperability, and it’s a way to make up for shortfalls in U.S. military capabilities.  Much like the alliances with Asian nations, NATO gives the president more options when considering how to respond to crises in the region.

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