Mending NATO: Sustaining the Transatlantic Relationship

By Kwok, James | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Mending NATO: Sustaining the Transatlantic Relationship

Kwok, James, Harvard International Review

In a recent interview with a reporter from Le Monde, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder pointed out that NATO is "no longer the primary means for dialogue in the transatlantic relationship." While this is hardly surprising in a contemporary context, it would surely have shocked the US and European representatives who negotiated the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Indeed, the US-European relationship has come a long way since the Cold War began. What started as a shield against possible Soviet aggression has transformed into something of an albatross around Europeans' and Americans' necks. However, assuming that NATO is in its death throes is spurious. The Cold War is over; and Europe is no longer under the clear danger it once was from the Soviet Union. Yet NATO remains the touchstone of the transatlantic relationship. While the current state of the bond between Europe and the United States is anything but rosy, US-European collaboration is a fundamental ingredient not only in their liberal ideals and freedom, but also in the stability of the world order.


NATO is not dead because it was never intended as a purely strategic relationship based solely on self-interested security policies. It was during the immediate post-World War II years that NATO was established, ostensibly to protect Europe from a possible Soviet invasion from the East. However, US Senate testimony by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Senator Warren Austin before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in 1949 seemed to deny NATO's "balance of power" underpinnings. Rather, Acheson stressed that NATO was not geared toward resisting the Russian state precisely because "it is aimed solely at armed aggression." NATO was not defined as a marriage of convenience between a weak, war-torn Europe and a militarily strong United States. While substantively the alliance may have been a facet of Cold War containment policy, it took on a type of high-ground morality that has sustained the alliance very well. The key to understanding this type of mentality behind NATO lies in the North Atlantic Treaty itself. Signed initially in 1949 by Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the Treaty provides no mention of the Soviet Union. Importantly, Article 2 of the Treaty states that:

"The parties will contribute toward further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being."

NATO cannot be placed in the tradition of realism, with its shifting alliances and balances of power. The North Atlantic Treaty, in its content and proponents, took on a tone of sweeping moralism that transcended the realm of pure geopolitics. While some articles of the treaty, like Article 5, are somewhat outdated--Europe, for example, is not in any danger of armed aggression--the fundamental goals of the Treaty were crafted so as to be without end or fulfillment.

Power and Polarity

The goals of any country do not always match up with those of its multilateral institutions, but the European Union as it stands has not rendered NATO obsolete. If anything, the European Union needs to rely on NATO for the military force that underpins any sort of cultural or "soft power" that Europe can lend to international politics. Currently, the military expenditures of the three largest countries in the European Union--the United Kingdom, France, and Germany--hover around US$40 billion. In stark contrast, the United States spent roughly US$370 billion equipping its military forces in 2004, more than the aggregate of the three countries' military expenditures. Close association with the US ability to marshal massive resources is necessary if Europe wishes to invoke the threat of military force to back its diplomacy; it inevitably will need to when its influence and voice grow. …

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