What’s NATO to Do?

April 21, 1999 • Commentary
This article appeared in Copley News Service.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Having successfully deterred Soviet aggression, what next for the alliance?

To help answer that question more than 40 presidents and prime ministers, accompanied by legions of aides and innumerable journalists, are swarming into Washington for city‐​wide festivities from April 23rd to 25th. But all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men will have trouble developing a new role for NATO.

There is no longer a Soviet Union. Even a hawk like the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol admits that no comparable threat “is likely to emerge for many years, if not decades.”

Moreover, the Western Europeans are fully capable of dealing with Moscow now and in the future. The British, French, and Germans alone spend more than Russia on the military. The European Union has a combined population in excess of 400 million, a GDP of more than $8 trillion, and a military of over one million. Add the polyglot nations of central and eastern Europe and the task of even a revived Russia becomes insurmountable.

So NATO advocates are busy devising new duties for the alliance. They believe the organization should promote democracy in the former Soviet satellites and ensure peace throughout Europe. NATO enthusiasts foresee further expansion into Eastern Europe and closer connections throughout North Africa and the Transcaucasus.

Indeed, without NATO, it has been said, we would have war in the Balkans. Conflict would threaten surrounding states. There would be massive ethnic cleansing and disruptive refugee flows. Instability would stalk the continent.

Er, never mind.

In fact, NATO’s blundering assault on Yugoslavia has created every condition it was supposed to prevent. Diplomatic intervention on behalf of the Albanian rebels strengthened Serb resolve to retain the province of Kosovo.

Military intervention convinced Belgrade to brutally suppress the guerrilla movement and drive out native Albanians. Chaos, instability, and suffering have spread throughout the region.

Images of destitute Kosovar refugees, Yugoslav factories in flames, and Serbs being killed by NATO airstrikes have dampened what was supposed to be a joyous celebration. Ironically, it was fear of intruding on NATO’s anniversary that caused some analysts to originally propose intervention in Kosovo.

For example, earlier this year Robert Hunter of the Rand Corporation complained that “If fighting in Kosovo goes on unabated at the time of NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in Washington this April, the focus will not be on its new strategic concept or grand visions. Kosovo will overshadow both celebration of the past and plans for the future.”

Hunter’s sentiments were widespread, but it is hard to imagine a poorer rationale for military action. Which helps explain why NATO blundered so badly.

The allies intervened in a conflict not their own. They started bombing for the wrong reason. They ignored history and acted hastily. They failed to develop contingency plans to cope with unexpected results. They gave no thought to the ultimate consequences of their actions.

As tragic as is NATO’s experiment in Wilsonian warmongering, it at least answers the question as to the alliance’s future role: none.

The organization has demonstrated that it is incapable of maintaining peace in the historically unstable and strategically unimportant periphery of Europe. This was never a sensible goal: the causes of ethnic fratricide run deep and decisions to kill, maim, and displace one’s neighbors are rarely rational.

Until now NATO adopted the sensible policy of nonintervention. All of the major powers erected firebreaks to war, limiting the Bosnian civil war to Bosnia.

In contrast, the allied decision to intervene in Kosovo spread conflict to surrounding states and confronted Russia. Indeed, as in World War I, alliances have acted as transmission belts of war from the Balkans outward to the rest of Europe.

NATO’s disastrous mistake now starkly presents the question of the organization’s future. Its old purpose has disappeared and the proposed new ones are beyond its capability. “If NATO cannot meet this challenge and defeat it,” asks William Kristol, “Why does the alliance still exist?”

Rather than concocting new duties–or undertaking new wars– to preserve an organization that has fulfilled its original role, the Europeans should construct a new security regime. NATO without the U.S., the Western European Union, EuroCorps, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe all provide potential frameworks for a European‐​organized, -funded, and — manned security organization.

Of course, America should remain culturally, economically, diplomatically, and politically involved in Europe. But on defense Washington should merely remain warily watchful for the development of a potential hegemon that cannot be contained by the Europeans.

Americans spent some $13 trillion (in current dollars) to win the Cold War. They deserve to reap the benefits of their victory, no longer subsidizing the populous and prosperous Europeans. NATO’s 50th anniversary should double as a well‐ deserved retirement celebration.

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