Old Allies Seek New Purpose Anniversary Comes amid New Questions about Kosovo and NATO's Future

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Old Allies Seek New Purpose Anniversary Comes amid New Questions about Kosovo and NATO's Future


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On April 4, 1949, foreign ministers from 12 nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty in the blue-and-gold splendor of the US Departmental Auditorium on Constitution Avenue in Washington. The goatskin-clad text promised mutual defense against armed attack. The Marine Band program for the occasion included - inappropriately, some thought - the songs "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty Of Nothin'."

Thus NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was born. Arguments began immediately. Who was going to pay for this thing? What kind of strategy would it have? Should new members be allowed in? Where would armed forces come from?

Fifty years on, the arguments continue. As dignitaries return to Washington for this week's celebration of NATO's 50th anniversary, critics are raising hard questions about the alliance's purpose in today's post-cold-war world. The Kosovo crisis could yet split allies apart. But it may be worth remembering that NATO has had hard times before. And somehow, something that began as a hollow shell did not turn out too badly. "The Alliance faced challenges and met them, however imperfectly," writes National Defense University Prof. Richard Kugler in a recent NATO history. "Its ... actions and strength in times of turmoil are a key reason the West won the Cold War. If the past is prologue, it can rise to the occasion again." One thing NATO has not been is particularly fast-moving. Its 1949 creation was fully two years after the beginning of the long stand- off with the Soviet Union. Its initial geopolitical goals, to paraphrase its founding secretary-general, Lord Ismay, were to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out. Each of these goals, in turn, handed NATO leaders challenges that were precursors of the problems of today. In the years immediately after World War II, it was not clear the Americans would stay in - would remain engaged in Europe. At NATO's founding, Truman administration officials promised Congress the move would not lead to permanent stationing of US troops on European soil. Then the Korean War, which raised fears of communist expansion, and the explosion of the Soviet Union's first atomic weapon changed the equation. President Truman raised the military budget and sent five Army divisions to Europe. NATO formed an integrated command, and a long accretion of armed forces began. Keeping the Germans down - making sure they remained a committed European partner - has similarly not always seemed foreordained. …

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