Apr 21, 2013

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

Formed in 1949, with Berlin under Soviet blockade and the Communist world looking downright monolithic, by the usual suspects: the United States, Canada, and ten European nations (Britain, France, Italy Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Portugal). The West's bottom line in the old days, when war and rubble-strewn residential neighborhoods were still front-and-center in most people's minds, NATO was a military-defense treaty providing for mutual assistance and collective action in the event any member of the alliance was attacked - "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” is how the treaty reads – as well as a way of letting the world know what side of the geopolitical fence you were on. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, vouchsafing the "free world”'s southern flank; West Germany signed on in 1955, Spain in 1982. France withdrew its armed forces from joint military command in 1966, though sticking by the alliance in spirit, and headquarters were moved from Fontainebleau to Brussels.

NATO was, to its credit, an alliance that actually worked: It kept the Russians at bay; naturally, they had their own alliance, the Warsaw Pact. In 1991, a reunified Germany pledged allegiance to NATO and the Warsaw Pact closed up shop. Then, in one of those ironic, Days of Our Lives reversals that were a hallmark of the post-Cold War era, four former Warsaw Pact members (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), craving security just like anybody else, applied for full NATO membership. In 1999 they were invited to join. By that time the question was: With the Soviets gone, who, exactly, was the enemy and what were all those supreme NATO commanders supposed to be doing to earn their keep? Regional conflicts (the Gulf War, for example), terrorist organizations, and natural disasters had never been NATO's idea of a good time.

Yet, after dithering through a long and tortured midlife crisis, NATO undertook the biggest military action in its history - and its first-ever use of force against a sovereign state without UN approval - in 1999, when it bombed Yugoslavia for eleven weeks in an effort to stop "ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. The operation led to a truce in the Balkan war, despite the fact that the rusty NATO air command apparently missed more targets than it hit. Since then, it has been up to NATO troops to keep the peace, such as it is, in the region.

But it was the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, that finally took NATO off the endangered-species list. Suddenly, even Russia agreed that something ought to be done to maintain world peace. So the NATO-Russia Council was born, giving Russia an equal say with NATO members on policies to deal with terrorists and other security threats. NATO has made the most of its new role; in 2003, its troops left European boundaries for the first time to assume command of UN-mandated peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, and not long afterward the alliance launched a rapid-reaction force that would allow it to respond to threats anywhere in the world. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was bitterly opposed by France and Germany, provoked a NATO crisis in 2003, since several alliance members took part, even though the alliance itself did not. In 2004, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all became full NATO members. Nowadays NATO doesn't have to worry about a shortage of enemies to defend against -- its secretary general lists political convulsions in adjacent regions, jihad terrorism, failed states, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, just for starters… (Adapted from ‘An Incomplete Education’, by Judy Jones and William Wilson)