In April 23, 1999, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty, the heads of state of the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will gather in Washington to celebrate the creation of the Atlantic Alliance. Undoubtedly, these leaders will commend themselves for having built the most successful military alliance in history. They will look back with satisfaction on NATO's central role in the containment and defeat of Soviet imperialism and its crucial contribution to the defense, reformation and ultimate reunification of Germany. They can point to NATO's unique role in keeping the peace between Greece and Turkey over decades, in establishing the Partnership for Peace program, and in the "Open Door" for new democracies. They might also observe that NATO has served to help stave off American flirtations with isolationism and has acted as a magnet that continues to pull emerging democracies toward the West. Finally, there will be justifiable celebration of the accession of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary as NATO allies, a watershed event that can only be regarded as a major step towards the achievement of the West's historic objective of a Europe whole and free.
Ironically, however, while the allies will have no difficulty finding past achievements to toast, they will doubtless find themselves discordant on the key question now facing NATO -- the ambitious task of agreeing on a revised "strategic concept" for the alliance. Recently, the NATO members have bickered openly about the future mission of the alliance, and some have even gone so far as to wonder whether NATO deserves to live on.
Rarely in world history has such a successful military and political alliance been so lacking in self-confidence and so uncertain about political support among its constituent members. NATO's identity crisis is particularly perplexing for those who are generally optimistic that what has worked in the past will work in the future and are accordingly reluctant to tear down institutions of proven value to make way for new world orders -- that is, for those who take a conservative view of foreign policy. Why this debate? Why now?
The historical context
The problem of the "New NATO," as every writer on the subject reminds us, began with the disappearance of the Soviet threat in 1989. This wholesale change in the geopolitical landscape fundamentally altered the West's security. In the United States, standing military forces and the defense industrial base were dramatically downsized. U.S. strategic forces were reoriented, and the National Laboratory system, which had been built to sustain the U.S. nuclear deterrent, was cut back and assigned other missions. Multilateral institutions, too, such as the U.N. and the IMF, have become objects of significant criticism. They also have been forced to face reform and overhaul. The construction of a "New NATO" is therefore but one of the many transformations of previously reliable Euro-Atlantic institutions since 1989. Nor is change of this sort without precedent in the context of military strategy. The history of American foreign policy in the inter-war periods of the 20th century offers guidance on how to adapt our alliances to new strategic circumstances. To understand where the alliance is going as it redefines itself, it is useful to look at its historical antecedents. From 1919 to 1939, the United States made decisions to withdraw from "European entanglements," to limit our participation in multi-lateral alliances, and, if not to rely upon, at least to benefit from a vague association of collective security. Americans have tended to draw from the negative experience of the 1930s an appropriate prejudice against isolationism and three general lessons, which should today inform our vision of the future of NATO. First, the withdrawal of the United States from Europe is a geostrategic mistake of the first order. Second, alliances and ad hoc coalitions of the liked-minded and the willing, within the constraints imposed by American exceptionalism, are on balance prudent. …