The Death of NATO

LONDON – NATO, whose foreign ministers will meet next week, is dying. Death, of course, comes to all living things. And, as NATO approaches its 60th birthday next spring, there seems no immediate urgency about writing its obituary; 60-year-olds may reasonably look forward to another decade, perhaps two or even three, of active and productive life. But perhaps it is now time for some discreet reflection on the fact that “the old man will not always be with us.”

Human institutions, like human beings, can collapse with surprising speed once they have outlived their usefulness. The dramatic dissolution of the Soviet Union stands as a reminder of what can happen to organizations when doubts take hold as to whether they still serve any real interests other than those of their own apparatchiks – and how suddenly such doubts can grow when they attempt to convert themselves into something they are not.

NATO has, of course, shown remarkable tenacity. It should have disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact evaporated; its job was done. But then came the Balkans crises of the 1990s, culminating in the realization that only American military power could put a stop to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, making the “out of area or out of business” choice seem a no-brainer. So NATO remains in business, and in Afghanistan.

But NATO’s repeated demonstrations of resilience should not blind us to the fact that it no longer provides a healthy basis for the transatlantic security relationship. As long as NATO’s raison d’être was to keep the Russians out and the United States in, NATO’s internal dynamic of American leadership and European obeisance was both inevitable and appropriate.