The Western Alliance is in disarray.

Americans are sick of picking up the tab for protecting a rich Europe from a communist threat which no longer exists. Europe is terrified at being abruptly left in the lurch facing a corrupt, authoritarian Russian threat which has replaced the communist one.

In the meantime, Britain, the traditional number two in the Western Alliance, voted Brexit and pulled the rug out from under the EU–the political and economic arm of the alliance’s European end.

It is time for a refresher course in the Western, or Transatlantic, Alliance. It is time for a re-examination of the purpose of the alliance. So here goes, Alliance 101.

Franklin Roosevelt had a vision of a post-war world run through a United Nations headed by World War Two allies—America, Britain, China and Russia. France was a reluctant afterthought.

Each of the “great powers” was given a permanent seat in the newly-formed UN Security Council. With the seat came implied responsibility for a slice of the world—America was the Western Hemisphere; Britain (with French help) Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East; Russia Eastern Europe and Central Asia and China the Far East.

Unfortunately, the dream was nothing more than that.  A Britain prostate from two world wars still had to organise a peaceful retreat from empire.  The French were in a mess. The Chinese were in a bigger mess and faced a civil war. Only the Russians and Americans emerged better off.

Wartime Britain pawned everything but the crown jewels to the US.  America was amazingly generous with its repayment scheme but still ended the war with half of the world’s GDP and the only nuclear arsenal.  The war cost Russia 20 million lives, but it was in control of Eastern Europe and a huge army poised to roll into a defenceless Western Europe.

Britain did its best to hold back the ideologically-driven Kremlin. It intervened in the Greek civil war and stopped Russian incursions into Turkey and Iran. But it needed help and turned to the wealthiest country in the world. America responded first with the Marshall Plan and then agreed to join in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Four months later, in September 1949, the Soviets tested first atomic bomb. They were quickly followed by the British in 1952 and the French in 1960. But as far as nuclear weapons were concerned, it quickly became apparent that that the only member of the Alliance that could compete with the Russian-controlled Soviet Union was the United States. And that applied to conventional forces as well.

So why did Washington abandon 150 years of isolationism to march to Europe’s rescue. There is the kith and kin argument. Most Americans came from somewhere in Europe and there is much talk about cultural, social, historical and philosophical links. There has also been—until recently—a perceived common liberal global goal of encouraging representative democracy, international cooperation through multinational organisations, free trade and the rule of law.

Of course there are other reasons.  America needs European markets for its goods—worth $270.3 billion in 2016. And last—but certainly not least– it has been painfully proven that wars in Europe quickly escalate to a global dimension which cost American money and lives.

So, since 1947 America has extended its conventional and nuclear umbrella to Europe; encouraged European unity and worked with Europe at the United Nations and its international agencies. At the same time, both sides of the Atlantic have coordinated their policies to insure the biggest possible positive impact in every corner of the globe.

Overall, the result has been good. The Soviet Union collapsed and the world as a whole has seen the longest period of peace and prosperity since modern man emerged 35,000 years ago—especially in Europe. Things are so good that people have dared to forget history and dream of a post-conflict Europe. Such dreams are more dangerous than the Soviet threat.

Tom Arms is the editor of and the author of The Encyclopedia of the Cold War.



4 Comments on "The What and The Why of NATO"

  1. “Europe is terrified at being abruptly left in the lurch facing a corrupt, authoritarian Russian threat which has replaced the communist one.”

    Why then is Germany, which today announced a budget surplus of 23.7bn euros, not planning to spend the nominal (and less than optimal) 2% of GDP on defence until 2024. That even after the recent veiled threats from Washington about it’s commitment.

    Could it be

    1) They don’t believe that Russia is actually an immediate military threat to Germany, which by definition means they don’t believe they will invade any nations bordering them either in the next 7 years.

    2) They are perfectly satisfied that no matter what, the USA will defend them, so why stump up for something that somebody else is stupid enough to provide for free.

    3) They are stupid.

    Number 3 can be discounted, so it leaves us with 1 or 2 which in either case would see Trump being correct, either NATO is obsolete or most of the European members are taking the piss. If a country like the UK, with our pothole covered roads, cancelled operations and crisis in social care can pay 2% (and let’s face it the state of our forces is shocking at that level) then surely so can Europe’s biggest and most successful economy.

  2. Just want to add a subnote. Although the above is very broadly true, there are some interesting sub plots. Although allied, the above misses out on some vexxing problems that took place. Britain -basically bankrupt, or near bankrupt was forced to make its own nuclear programs, after being cut out of the ones it played a full part in WW2 (and huge expense) developing. Almost all UK work/research in the area was folded into the American program in WW2, and later the UK got blocked. US congress folks later said had they known the full details, they would never have blocked the UK from that access.

    That block led indirectly to the V bomber forces and nuclear weapons programs (Vulcans, Valiants, Victors)

    You had Suez, and you also had the US playing its hand in the basic destruction of things like the UK aero industry. There is an amazing record of a heated phone call by a US president, PAN AM, and the question of buying UK jets over US ones. So not all plain sailing by any means. But broadly speaking, the alliance is a bedrock.

    Lastly, with regret, when you have the EU actively destroying itself, there is little point in crying over spilt milk. The migrant crisis and its mishandling has created a national security problem and a huge 5th column. Your city and your fancy city walls mean nothing if its being burned down and destroyed from the inside.

    Trump was correct. The US for too long has had to carry the can, the cost,and others have been taking the piss. And at all times I have seen rampant anti- american-ism present across and in the EU. I’m in mt late 40’s. I regard the fact that I am free and have liberty not to the EU. But to GI’s and Tommies from WW2 through to this day who have guarantee’d it, and who still guarantee it.

    The idea it was ever done by ‘EU’, or that EU stopped any war (Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kossovo, Ukraine, Georgia) – and bluntly the EU has created huge problems in what was Yugo and in Ukraine.

    I’d even go so far as to say good luck trying to get EU states to have a war between themselves. Most can barely raise tiddlywinks in terms of men or kit and are well sub of 2% gdp on defense (let alone offense).

  3. First of all, let me just say that I think that every NATO should py at least two percent of its GDP for defence
    Having said that, we must consider political, social, social and cultural elements when debating the issue– especially the role ofGermany. As a country it remains very conscious– almost frightened– of its Nazi past.
    It is easy to dismiss their fears with a wave and the comment “that is all in the past”. But the pastg has shaped our present and wiill shape shape our future. Just any England football fan who chants “two world wars and one world cup” everytime England plays Germany or the Greek newspaper who printed a picture of Angela Merkel with a Hitler moustache.

  4. I have heard the argument about Germany’s past, raised most recently by Sigmar Gabriel, and I would have sympathy with it if I thought it were true, but history suggests otherwise. West Germany showed little in the way of nervousness about it’s past during the cold war when it had conscription, armed forces of half a million, 4,000 tanks and the strongest army in Europe. The war was a more recent memory then and a touchier subject, the difference was that the USSR posed a real and present danger and the Germans reacted accordingly.

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