NATO Is 75: The Haunting of the Present by the Past

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is marking its 75th anniversary. Created in 1949 as a defensive alliance against an expansive Soviet Union, the alliance should have ceased to exist when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Instead, it continued to expand to the very border of Russia. Talk of Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics, joining NATO contributed to tensions that led to the Russia-Ukraine War, now in its third destructive and deadly year.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO expanded greatly. The specter of communism remains strong. Since this map was created, Finland and Sweden have joined NATO.

NATO’s resilience (perhaps “endurance” and “inertia” are better words) in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse demonstrates the power of institutions to sustain themselves long after they’ve lost their reason for being. While President Biden recently claimed to have created NATO, the alliance was really about containing communism in the aftermath of World War II. As European and American leaders openly admitted at the time, NATO kept the U.S. military in Europe while also shoring up U.S. imperial power around the globe. Few Europeans wanted a revived German military after the colossal destruction in part caused by German militarism in World Wars I and II.

A strong U.S. military presence in Europe wasn’t meant to be permanent. President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it as temporary and lasting only as long as it took European countries to get back on their feet after World War II. Surely, Europe was sufficiently strong to see a U.S. withdrawal beginning in the 1960s, but it was not to be. The Soviet threat was consistently exaggerated to justify a vast and permanent U.S. military presence in Europe.

Outsider that he is, Donald Trump had the temerity to ask: Why NATO? when he served as president. Why indeed? Why does the U.S. continue to spend colossal sums predicated partly on defending Europe from a Russian attack when Europeans themselves have spent far less (based on GDP) on their own defense?

Russia remains dangerous, especially considering its nuclear arsenal. But only a Russian fool would attack NATO, and Vladimir Putin is no fool. NATO has become a sort of grab-bag of nations, dominated by the United States, spending larger and larger sums on military weaponry to corral and contain a Russian bear that is not looking to roam from its territory.

Of course, there are those who claim Putin is trying to recreate the Russian Empire or even revive the Soviet one, but if he is, he’s doing a poor job of it with Ukraine. The Russian military has improved over the last two years, but I don’t see a military configured for a major invasion of Europe. Putin doesn’t want World War III. Again, he’s no fool.

But the specter of communism remains, and thus NATO itself will remain, even though the organization has been largely chasing ghosts for the past three decades. Ghosts too can be real, if we let them haunt our minds. Especially if the haunting is profitable for all the wannabe ghostbusters out there, who charge handsomely for their services.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.