Most Europeans are familiar with the NATO defensive alliance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1948 to protect Western Europe from an attack by the Soviet Union.
In reality, it was designed to tie the United States and Canada to Europe, ensuring Europe’s security while keeping America as the dominant global power. In that way, it worked, spectacularly.
Europe grew stronger and certainly for a while, more cohesive. Germany became united in 1990 and in one of the greatest diplomatic achievements, a reunified Germany became part of the Alliance. Europe’s economy and the EU, under the umbrella of NATO protection, became the largest trading bloc in the world.
As peace and prosperity spread across the Continent, NATO became a victim of its own success. With no Soviet superpower to defend against, NATO lost its raison d’être. If peace had broken out…some Americans rationally questioned why so many men, women, material and funds should be spent on the defence of Western and Central Europe.
Then…the idea of out-of-area operations began to take shape. NATO began to assume an increasingly proactive role within the international community.
Before long, NATO conducted several military operations:
- After Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August, 1990, NATO AWACS aircraft deployed to Turkey to provide coverage in case of an Iraqi attack during the first Gulf Crisis/War, later providing air defense systems.
- Ironically, in February 1992, the aptly named Operation Allied Goodwill, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, NATO assisted with an international humanitarian relief effort.
- Since 1999, approximately 3,500 Allied and partner troops have operated in Kosovo as part of NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR)
Many Americans may forget that our NATO allies came to our defence in the first and only invocation of Article 5 Mutual Defense Provisions when AWACS aircraft patrolled the skies over the United States following the September 11 attacks. Following the terrorist attacks, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established and led by NATO from August 2003 to the end of the mission in early September 2021.
After the popular uprising against the Gadhafi regime in Benghazi, Libya.
NATO took over sole command and control of all military operations for Libya. While America may have ‘led from behind,” America’s NATO allies led, period.
Since Russia’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO has been patrolling the airspace of Allies who do not have fighter jets of their own.
NATO has deployed to the Baltics, where NATO fighters have intercepted Russian aircraft repeatedly violating Allied airspace.
Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s NATO expanded: to include the former Warsaw Pact and “Behind the Iron Curtain” nations of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland and later Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
And presciently, in 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, Allied leaders agreed that Georgia and Ukraine will become members in future. Russia says that this crosses their self-defined “red line.”
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine. Today, there are more than 100,000 Russian troops, with heavy armour massing on the Eastern border of Ukraine.
As President Putin threatens our Ukrainian friends and undermines the whole concept of self-determination, it is worth asking what fate would await our Baltic allies of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania if they were not part of NATO? It’s rhetorical. NATO helps keep them free and democratic.
What’s clear is that in 2022, what’s old is new again. NATO still matters, to America, to Europe and the future of democracies.
Howard Gold is the President of the United States Global Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization advocating for greater U.S. engagement and leadership around the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org