NATO, Then and Now


Post-Cold War NATO might be the first "serious" military alliance in history lacking the forces to defend itself, or even any real plans to do so. But is the threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia forcing a change? Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports:

With Russian forces entering into Ukraine, NATO is putting together a plan to place the alliance’s troops in bases behind the former Iron Curtain. One U.S. official who was not authorized to speak to the press said the presence of U.S. troops inside these bases in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would act as a “tripwire for Russia. If Putin considers any military action in these countries, they will know that they will be involving U.S. forces too.”

There are really two NATOs, and I don't mean the original Western European members and the new members from behind what was once the Iron Curtain. No, the dividing line is a date -- specifically, November 9, 1989, the day East Germany opened the Berlin Wall and the inter-German border. And more importantly, it’s the day when the Soviet Union acquiesced to the end of the Warsaw Pact.

The old NATO was a serious military alliance with large and well-trained forces. We took our responsibilities seriously, too. Major exercises like REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) demonstrated our resolve and our abilities to Moscow, and to each other, on an annual basis. NATO was at its most effective in the 1980s, when the British PM, the West German Chancellor, and the American President functioned in harmony as political allies, too. It took less than a decade of increased NATO military spending and deployments (think of the Pershing II missile) for Moscow to call it quits.

That's no exaggeration about the importance of the Pershing II. Never fired in anger, it helped win the Cold War more than any single weapons system -- for reasons both military and political. West Germany at the time was in the grips of a vocal no-nukes movement, which Chancellor Helmut Kohl faced down to deploy the nuclear-tipped American missiles in West Germany. The political message was clear: Bonn and Washington stood together, even against domestic opposition. Militarily, the Pershing II could put a bunker-busting nuclear warhead with unequaled accuracy into any underground Soviet military or political HQ west of Moscow -- at Mach 9 and with very little warning. The Soviet military leadership was personally threatened by such a capability, forcing the first-ever treaty (INF) to reduce nuclear forces. The other guy blinked; the rest is on the ash heap of history.

NATO didn't win because it was nice countries being nice together about nice things. NATO won because it was a serious military alliance, and it acted like one. Yes, we had our differences, and yes, we would have preferred it if our European allies had committed to higher levels of spending -- but we made it work long enough to secure victory without having to fight WWIII.