NATO – an Expensive Self-Fulfilling Prophecy


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, created in 1949 to insure Europe’s security by making sure Germany’s might wasn’t going to rise in an unchecked way whilst countering Russia’s growing and ominous stranglehold over the East, has changed a lot throughout history. In order to adapt itself to the evolution of its rivals – the USSR being the main one – the Alliance decided, for instance, to rearm Germany. The idea of having entire columns of Leopard main battle tanks within reach to face soviet ones in case a full invasion of Europe was to happen was actually one of the first symbol of the disagreements that were yet to rise between the Allies. As long as the West had a common foe, the Allies would be willing to compromise with each other: The French Republic, which was viscerally opposed to Germany having an army again, tried to establish a European Army composed of national battalions [1], but then, got into reverse; The Red Army storming Prague was an unfriendly reminder of what could happen on a larger scale if the Allies were not to act in a commonly agreed way. France, therefore, learnt how forgetting about its national obsessions – though understandable at that time – could pay off on the long run, even if it meant giving up on strategic interests first. Yet, the soviet threat, that was very real between 1949 and 1989, is now rightly or wrongly seen as an exaggerated one. But by whom? And to achieve what? 


In order to answer those questions, one has to look at what the Alliance achieved in roughly seventeen years. If its original goal was to “keep he Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” as said Lord Ismay who led it between 1952 and 1957, NATO’s most important achievement lies within the designing and setting-up of shared procedures, requirements, characteristics and command structures. Because they are participating to joint-exercises and/or manoeuvers and exchanging about their tactics and strategies on a regular basis, all of the state-members’ armies would easily be able to cooperate in the event of a common conflict: it would be possible to mix-up detachments from different nations, or – for instance – to put an American brigade under the orders of European officers, which artificially increase the military potential of each state-member, but also to organise joint operations relying on small contingents from various countries rather than expecting a single nation to provide a vast amount of troops whilst shared interests are in the balance. Such a system prevailed upon organising the Ocean Shield Operation, an anti-piracy initiative in the Indian Ocean gathering around thirty countries, twenty of them not even being NATO’s members, and proved efficient as far as logistical considerations are concerned. It is therefore safe to affirm that the Alliance is a tactical, technical and logistical success; our armies, even mixed together, have made significant gains in terms of efficiency and ability to cooperate or, to use NATO’s own words:  Standardization within NATO has been, by any measure, a 60-year normative success story [2].

But besides those formal achievements, what is there to be said about the Alliance’s substance? Well, that is where the shoe pinches. NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) failed in many ways: despise roughly thirty countries getting involved, the ISAF was never able to put an end to the opium-trafficking which provided vast amounts of money to the Taliban fighters, nor to secure anything but key-areas in devastated cities such as Kabul ; NATO’s troops were furthermore unable to establish durable contacts with the population, such contacts being, in the event of an asymmetrical conflict, a sine qua non condition to achieve victory. Besides, the ISAF, who took upon itself to train and equipped local forces such as the Afghan National Army and Police had to eventually acknowledge this penultimate failure: used as cannon-fodder, led by corrupt officers and weakened by double agents, deserters and doubtful soldiers, the Afghan fighters indeed displayed bravery in their fight against the Taliban but were in the end unable to represent an effective force to restore stability and maintain peace in their own country. Last but not least, the Alliance failed at addressing the real reasons behind the rebellion’s strength and good health, that is to say Pakistan’s active support to the Taliban. In their War on Terror, the United States indeed decided to befriend Pakistan, thus undermining all of NATO’s expensive efforts in Afghanistan and, some would say, in the entire Middle East [3]


The Alliance, therefore, clearly failed in its most recent attempt at offering a common approach of geostrategic issues and crisis. One would argue that such failures are due to the fact that NATO’s main goals were never to get involved in asymmetrical wars, a kind of conflicts that often saw the weak overcome the strongafter all, the Soviet failed in Afghanistan in the same way the Americans did in Vietnam and the French, in Algeria and Indochina – but rather to fight classic conflicts including mechanical assaults, conquest of the aerial supremacy, management of highly valuable strategic assets and vast amount of soldiers. Such a conflict, though, never occurred in Europe and the closest thing to that NATO had to handle was the Balkans’ Crisis, mostly through bombing campaigns. Those were made possible by two things: the adoption of a new strategic doctrine during NATO’s 50th anniversary allowing it to go beyond its former defensive nature and the theorising of a new principle: the humanitarian intervention, being defined as a state’s use of military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed. Now, to theoretically provide the military with legal references in order to make helping people in distress not only conceivable but legitimate can hardly be described as an ominous idea but could in fact justify any countries’ interferences via the zealous use of the humanitarian intervention’s seal [4]. On the long run, officialising such a concept might have added another consequence: why would a country fund the United Nations’ peacekeepers if a humanitarian crisis can now be solved by resorting to the military?

Having failed at both resolving humanitarian crisis and leading asymmetrical wars, NATO now has to consider another factor: The Russian Federation’s return on the international level and its own ambitions in the world. Under Vladimir Putin’s ruling, Russia is indeed displaying its desire not only not to make do with the US’ unmatched power, but to challenge it by offering what is to be considered as an alternative to the American way of dealing with the world. Considering the US’ smart power and the roughly thirty years of indisputable supremacy it’s been through, one would have thought that Washington had enough allies to deal with this situation; unfortunately, the foolish way the US acted ever since the USSR went down has allowed its many enemies to gather support. In the Middle East, but also in South America and in Western Europe, public opinions tend not to tolerate the arrogance showed by the US whilst handling their relations with allies and partners or unilaterally intervening in foreign countries; the way the US chose to befriend countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Pakistan also made it possible for its rivals, Russia and Iran ahead, to virtually assert themselves as relatively wiser powers. Last but not least, the way Washington organised a worldwide surveillance program targeting European citizens and leaders achieved to tarnish an already severely damaged reputation and, through it, all that is considered linked to the US, the Northern Alliance Treaty Organisation being amongst them. Long story short, NATO’s rivals cautiously reaped what the American carelessly sow and by doing so, introduced within its members’ mind an existential doubt: what if we, by siding with NATO, really supported another imperialist enterprise? And even worse: are we still on the good side of history? In order to make those hesitations disappear and clarify things, the US should have done two things: to adopt a coherent international policy which would have allowed Washington to appear again as our legitimate ally, and to actively work towards cooling off the relations between the West and the Federation of Russia. Sadly, and as explained by Bertrand Badie, a political scientist and international relations specialist, emeritus professor at Sciences Po Paris, “we forgot that a military alliance is about fabricating an enemy” [5] and that the Alliance is still resorting to Carl Schmidt’s thesis stating that one cannot exist without an opponent. What are then the reasons behind NATO’s survival?

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, following the fall of Berlin’s wall in 1989, all the countries of Eastern Europe suddenly got rid of the soviet yoke and thus, had an historical occasion to practice their national sovereignty; they immediately asked to join both the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union. Such a choice for which they can hardly be blamed seeing how they had been treated by their eastern neighbour had two major consequences: the fall of Europe’s military expenses and the quiet subjugation of our continent to Washington’s interests.  The way Eastern Europe’s countries casually gave up to the US the responsibility to protect them, is understandable considering how traditional allies such as France or the United Kingdom failed to rescue Poland in 1939 but represents a mistake of unheard magnitude: despise shared desires to appease tensions and promote a Paneuropean approach of defence [6], war became, with NATO’s progress towards Russia’s boarders, more than an accepted risk: a sinister certitude. The Alliance, which had lost its traditional nemesis with the fall of the Warsaw Pact and failed to designate a new one before Russia’s return could finally legitimate its existence again. War is Peace! But by doing so, NATO only creates crisis it was meant to prevent: an everlasting cycle of infecund confrontations making it easier for Moscow and Washington to sell weapons whilst pretending to be reacting to each other’s actions. NATO has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and an expensive one. How could Europe react to that?


When NATO was created in 1949, the necessity to resort to the US’ help was not to be demonstrated. The traditional armies of Europe were in ruins: France’s army – or what was left of it – was already wasting money and men in Indochina, the Great Britain’s one was exhausted, the Wehrmacht dismantled alongside the nation it was meant to protect and serve and there was therefore virtually nothing to oppose to the almighty Red Army. Things, however, have changed: with a military budget of 80 billion euros, Russia is spending roughly as many money as France and the United Kingdom put together. But if we add to that sum the military budgets of Italy, Germany and Poland, the amount of money spent on the military by Europe’s traditional powers reaches 126 billion euros and that, without even considering the military budgets of Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Denmark and so on. Truth being said, the only field in which Russia has an overwhelming advantage is the one of nuclear weapons, but who would be delusional enough to believe that our eastern neighbour would use them on Europe’s soil? Probably the one keen to deploy antimissiles batteries in Europe. But if Russia was not a threat, if Europe had the means to defend itself, how would the US use fear to make European countries buy their weapons in exchange of their protection? To prevent that kind of blackmail to be used against Europe again [7], which only damages its ability to develop a strong and independent military industry insuring its security and freedom, our Union is left with only one choice: to establish its own defensive alliance built around cooperation, joint industrial and military programs, solidarity in both producing and buying weapons, alongside the creation of transnational corps insuring our protection without having to take into considerations what Moscow or Washington want from us. Now more than ever, our independence is at risk; peace won’t exist in Europe as long as we consider ourselves vassals or victims of foreign powers.  Thus, we have to assert ourselves as a third power able to show both determination and will to cooperate with all of our neighbours in order to see reconciliation prevail and that, to improve our reputation at home and abroad, so that we can finally have a level playing field with the Russian bear and the American eagle.


As many people are now convinced that the Alliance is nothing but a tool dedicated to improve the US’ military influence, NATO seems to be offering the world only two choices: submission or confrontation. Yet, this situation is only benefiting two participants: Washington and its ability to use the fear of Russia – though somehow justified by its recent actions in the East and in Syria – to insure its own strategical interests, and Moscow, overjoyed by the perspective of appearing as an alternative power. Considering that such a state of affairs benefit the world’s stability and security, the wise nations of the world shall rally behind a common ambition: to change NATO, or to leave it. [8]


Written by Hugo Decis, international relations student and Mercoeur’s funding member.  It was originally published on the Graduates of Democracy‘s Blog.


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