NATO's Growing Pains

The American Holdup of NATO

Crowds in Bucharest cheer U.S. President George W. Bush
Crowds in Bucharest, Romania, cheer U.S. President George W. Bush Nov. 23, 2002, one day after the Prague NATO summit concluded and Romania became part of the alliance (Photo: Stephen Jaffe/AFP). 

Founded in 1949 to combat the communist threat to Western Europe, NATO will soon stretch all the way to the Russian border. At the NATO meeting on Nov. 21 in Prague, seven nations, formerly in the Soviet orbit, were invited to join an institution whose original goal was to keep “the Americans in Europe, the Soviets out, and the Germans under control.” These new nations include former members of the old Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and also the Baltic states annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and freed at its dissolution in the early 1990s. That former Soviet republics would become members of NATO without Moscow’s lifting a finger would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. The Cold War is truly over. The European continent is moving faster toward reunification through the Atlantic Alliance—and under the aegis of the United States—than through the European Union, whose conditions for membership are more difficult to fulfill.

The situation is paradoxical: The newest members of NATO are coming into an organization that is no longer the one they sought to join 10 years ago, when they wanted insurance against an eventual threat from the East. Today they find themselves part of a “fire brigade” that could be called upon to extinguish conflicts that might appear within Europe or even farther away. For if the specter of a massive attack has disappeared, the security of the Old World could be endangered by international terrorism or through an alliance of terrorists and rogue states, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Bush isn’t entirely wrong when he urges his European allies to come to agreement and arm themselves against the new dangers, instead of preparing for yesterday’s wars or sitting back to dream about uses for the “peace dividend.”

If NATO doesn’t build its ability to respond to tomorrow’s threats, the organization will surely wither slowly, even if it continues to grow in numbers.

This is why the United States is urging its Atlantic allies to increase their military spending, to reshape their armies, and to create forces with equipment that is both ultramodern and compatible with the weapons and technology the American troops possess. Without modernization, the Europeans will become useless, even burdensome, allies in the eyes of Washington. Such a program would be more persuasive if it arose from a vision shared by Americans and Europeans, if it were founded on a common analysis of risks and solutions. But such is not the case. From the U.S. viewpoint, NATO is there to serve American policy. It’s understandable that Europe might deplore this American holdup of the alliance.

But as long as the Europeans fail to devote the resources necessary to make themselves heard, their protests will be in vain.