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On Point

Chicago Summit: Showcase for a 21st Century NATO?


by Austin Bay
May 15, 2012

The last two decades have demonstrated that NATO's post-Cold War death notices reprised a classic Mark Twain one-liner. When Twain learned that a New York newspaper had published his obituary, he wisecracked, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Next week's NATO summit in Chicago gives NATO's current leaders an opportunity to showcase the alliance as a focusing instrument for waging war and securing peace in the 21st century.

Created in 1949 and dedicated to Europe's defense, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization served as the Free World's primary military and political vehicle for containing the aggressive threat posed by the Soviet Union. In his 1946 post-World War II "Sinews of Peace" speech, Winston Churchill described the Cold War's decisive military and political battle zone: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." NATO succeeded in deterring war, in all likelihood a thermonuclear war, on Europe's central front.

Elsewhere, however, the fighting never stopped. The Soviet Union constantly probed and stoked peripheral theaters, exacerbating and in some cases igniting conflicts in the globe's less critical but still bloody corners. A short list of hot wars within the Cold War should jog hazy memories: East Asia (Korean War), sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Angola, Ethiopia, the Congo), Southeast Asia (e.g., Malaysia and Vietnam), Central Asia (e.g., Afghanistan), the Middle East (take your pick), and Central and South America (e.g., El Salvador and Nicaragua).

Soviet adventurism gave local conflicts a Cold War veneer, and to the eternal detriment of the locals, turned these terrible little conflicts into devastating Cold War proxy wars with global political implications (and often with a strategic economic angle).

In order to sap Western will and sow distrust, the Soviets always littered these proxy wars with Marxist utopian hooey ("Workers' Paradise is the future") and anti-American propaganda that reworked 19th century European autocrat and World War II-era Nazi anti-American themes in Marxist lingo.

NATO obits in the early 1990s saw NATO as a creature of a bipolar world that the obit writers believed disappeared when the Soviet Union shrank to Russia. The world, however, was never really bipolar. It has always been fragmented, with multipolar eddies. Since World War I, the fragments have been heavily armed. The fragments have also been grappling, often violently, with the terms of economic and political modernity.

 Sept. 11 was the first time NATO actually invoked its founding treaty's Article 5. Article 5 commits member nations to the active military defense of a NATO ally when that nation suffers a direct attack. It's the alliance's Three Musketeers Clause -- one for all, and all for one.

Article 5 connects this brief history to the troubled present. The Syria-Turkey border is a NATO border. After pro-Assad dictatorship Syrian forces fired into Turkish territory, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "NATO has responsibilities (to protect) Turkey's borders, according to Article 5." A rhetorical threat? Perhaps, but Bashar Assad knows NATO intervened militarily in Libya.

NATO 2012 confronts several complex belligerencies and difficult security challenges. Afghanistan, that miserable link between the Cold War and the Global War on Terror, remains unresolved. Syria also has Cold War echoes (Russian political games in the United Nations). Iran's nuclear weapons quest and nuclear threat will be a central subject in Chicago.

The 1990s' obit writers stroked their chins when fragments of the former Soviet empire clamored to join NATO. Many in the "it's dead" crowd, having bought into the decades of Soviet anti-American agitprop, failed to appreciate NATO membership's immense prestige and global influence. NATO membership enhances national status. Moreover, it makes a definitive statement about shared political and security goals that translates into diplomatic strength. As a result, NATO can focus peacekeeping power in ways the United Nations cannot and never will. The Clinton Administration used NATO, not the U.N., as the primary political and then military instrument in its Balkan intervention and peacekeeping operations (especially in Kosovo).

In the 21st century, NATO's ability to coordinate and focus political and military power is a global resource. 

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