Istanbul — April marked the 65th birthday of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, formed at the height of the Cold War to stop the huge post-war Red Army from overrunning Western Europe.
NATO in 1949 had only twelve members, comprising Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. Its original mission was simple. According to the alliance’s first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO was formed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Western Europeans were terrified of the Soviet Union, which had just gobbled up all of Eastern Europe. They feared that the American army would go home after World War II, just as it had after World War I, consistent with its isolationist past. And the war-torn democracies were scared that Germany might quickly rebound to prompt yet another European war for the fourth time in less than a century.
Sixty-five years later, the Cold War has been won and has now been over for a quarter-century. Germany is quite up. The Russians are not so out. America seems not to want to be in anywhere.
Those paradoxes prompt some questions. Is NATO even needed in the 21st century? Can it survive its new agendas and missions?
Article 5 of the NATO charter calls for all members of the organization to come to the aid of a fellow member if it is attacked. Article 4 is a watered-down version that obligates NATO members to consult on mutual defense when asked by a threatened member.
Oddly, these two articles were never put into play during the nuclear dangers of the Cold War. They have been invoked only fairly recently — mostly for terrorist attacks, Middle East crises, and fear of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
An aging and tired NATO now suffers from three existential problems. Perhaps none are fatal in isolation. But when they are taken together, it is easy to see how NATO might soon unravel or be rendered irrelevant.
First, the military weakness of Europe has long meant that for all practical purposes, NATO is ATO — the American Treaty Organization. The European Union may have a gross domestic product and population larger than the United States, but on average its members spend far less than half of what America budgets for defense.
American protection of Europe has made Europeans reluctant to sacrifice some of the good life for their own defense. Being rich and weak is a dangerous combination. Worse, the subsidy has created European feelings of resentment toward the more powerful American big brother.
Second, Putin has compromised many NATO members through Russia’s many lucrative gas and oil deals. What would happen if Russia spread its aggression from Georgia, Ukraine, and Crimea to other former Soviet republics? Tiny NATO member Estonia, with its large Russian minority, would seem a likely next candidate for Putin’s machinations.
Russian intervention in Estonia probably would not prompt NATO to invoke Article 5. Or, if it did, it is dubious whether all NATO members would go to war to save an independent Estonia, which is nestled right next to St. Petersburg.
It is said that Putin fears provoking NATO. More likely he will soon seek to wreck it by deliberately bullying weak and distant NATO members like Estonia, over whose independence Europeans are unlikely to start a war.
Third, the expansion from twelve to the current 28 members vastly complicated the alliance’s responsibilities — and vulnerabilities. To paraphrase Frederick the Great, protecting everything now means often protecting nothing. Turkey is now becoming an obvious problem.
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in his eleventh year of undermining Turkish democracy and Islamicizing the country. Erdogan is a friend of anti-American and soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. He despises democratic Israel and is unashamedly pro-Hamas.
Erdogan also has had various beefs with war-torn neighbors Syria and Iraq. Occasionally he has intervened against semi-autonomous and pro-American Kurdistan.
Turkey still has territorial disputes with fellow NATO member Greece in the Aegean and over Cyprus. Erdogan still resents being turned down for European Union membership.
If Erdogan’s growing rivalries ever escalated into real wars, it is likely that many NATO members would more readily sympathize with his enemies. Yet Erdogan has exercised Article 4 more than any other NATO member.
NATO is not fully supported financially or militarily by its own members. Its expansion has created obligations that it has no intention of honoring, nor the ability to do so. And it has members whose politics and policies are becoming antithetical to the original idea of defending the liberal values of democratic Western Europe.
One day soon we will wake up and NATO will have simply vanished with a whimper.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.