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27 March 2019

Nato in the age of Putin and Trump

The organisation, which was originally meant to last ten years, celebrates its 70th anniversary this month. Can it survive in the new world order? 

By David Reynolds

On 4 April 2019 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation celebrates its 70th birthday. Yet its first supreme commander, Dwight D Eisenhower, hoped that Nato would not outlast the 1950s. “If in ten years,” he told a friend in February 1951, “all American troops stationed in Europe for national defence purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed.”

Eisenhower insisted that, “We cannot be a modern Rome guarding the frontiers with our legions.” His philosophy was similar to that of Paul Hoffman, the US administrator of the Marshall Plan, namely “to get Europe on its feet and off our backs”.

Why, then, has it been so hard for Europe to stand on its own feet? And why has America chosen to keep Europe on its back all this time? With Nato now at pensionable age, it is worth tracing the alliance’s evolution during the Cold War and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Where does Nato fit in the unnerving world of Putin and Trump?

It all began with a treaty, not an alliance. That distinction, often ignored, is important. The Truman administration had hoped that Marshall aid would restore western Europe’s prosperity and self-confidence in the face of the communist threat – both from the USSR and from Western communist parties, notably in Italy and France. The British had already forged an alliance with France and the Benelux countries (the Brussels Pact) and were keen to draw in the US. Ernest Bevin, Labour’s foreign secretary in the Attlee government, called the pact “a sprat to catch a mackerel”. The crucial hook was Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin from June 1948. The hazardous British-American airlift to keep the city supplied all through the winter alerted Washington to the need for some kind of security pact.

Signing the North Atlantic Treaty was indeed a revolution in US foreign policy. It reflected not just the alarming state of Soviet-American relations in 1948-49 but also the sea-change in American official thinking since 1940-41. The fall of France and the attack on Pearl Harbor persuaded a generation of policymakers that, in the dawning era of airpower, the United States was no longer safe behind its traditional oceanic barriers and, in particular, that it must play an active role in the affairs of Europe.

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A brief window of bipartisanship helped get the North Atlantic Treaty through the Senate. Yet the isolationist tradition remained strong. The 12 original signatories – America, Canada and ten Western European states – agreed to treat an attack on one as an attack on all: the principle of collective security embodied in Article 5 of the treaty. But each state was allowed to “take such action as it deems necessary” to honour that obligation: there was no automatic commitment to use force. On closer inspection, therefore, the alliance seemed somewhat hollow. Dean Acheson, the US secretary of state, remarked wryly that, at the signing ceremony, the US Marine Band added “a note of unexpected realism” by playing two tunes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.

What helped to convert the treaty into a military alliance was the Korean War. The North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950 was (rightly) recognised as something Stalin must have authorised and backed. There were fears that western Europe could be next. At this time the US had only two army divisions in Europe – neither of them fit for more than police duties – and what passed for Western strategy if the Red Army attacked was in effect a combination of Dunkirk and D-Day. In other words, retreat to Fortress Britain until it was possible to liberate the continent.

After intense political debate during the winter of 1950-51, the United States decided to commit four combat divisions to western Europe and it also established a proper command structure under a Supreme Allied Commander Europe – who would always be an American. As Averell Harriman observed, the Korean crisis “put the ‘O’ in Nato”, turning it from a paper pact into a military alliance. And while beefing up the US presence in Europe, Atlantic-minded policymakers headed off pressure from the Asia-first wing of the Republican right to focus on fighting “Red China” in Korea.

 In return for this unprecedented American peacetime commitment to the security of Western Europe, the Truman administration leaned hard on the allies to do their bit. In particular, it demanded rearmament of West Germany, but this was anathema to the French after three horrendous wars against the Germans in 80 years: 1870, 1914 and 1939. The debate over this issue dragged on for four years and proved a decisive moment for transatlantic relations.


One option was to apply to European defence the integrationist logic of the Schuman Plan of 1950, which eventually opened the way for the Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community (EEC), which came into being in 1958. But the idea of a European Defence Community (EDC) had proved a step too far: it was blocked in 1954 in the French assembly by an unholy alliance of Gaullists and communists. In the end, West German rearmament went ahead on condition that its armed forces were wholly dedicated to Nato and that it renounced atomic, biological and chemical (ABC) weapons.

The Federal Republic was formally admitted to Nato in May 1955; the Soviets responded by forming their satellites into the Warsaw Treaty Organisation. So, ten years to the month after Allied victory in the Second World War, Europe had been divided into two military blocs: Nato and the Warsaw Pact. From the perspective of western Europeans, Nato’s underlying rationale was pithily expressed by Lord Ismay, its first secretary general: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”.

The outcome of the 1950s debate on European integration – “Yes” to the EEC, “No” to the EDC – would prove definitive. Throughout its long and often tortuous odyssey from the original six to the current 28 minus 1 in the EU, “Europe” has never developed a viable foreign and security policy – let alone a collective defence capability. The enduring fear among Germany’s neighbours, and in that country itself, of a revival of German military power has always limited Europe’s military capabilities. This was one reason why Eisenhower’s optimism in 1951 about Nato’s planned obsolescence proved wrong.

But even more important was the nuclear question. In the era of two “superpowers” with a near monopoly of nuclear weapons, western European leaders felt they had no choice but to shelter under the American umbrella. The presence of US troops in Germany constituted the “tripwire” that would supposedly ensure an American nuclear response if the Red Army attacked.

For the United States, in turn, its commitment to Nato helped keep European nuclear pretensions under control. The British had to abandon their project and buy American hardware: first Polaris and then Trident. The French were more obstreperous, but their much-vaunted Force de frappe ultimately depended for its viability on Nato’s early-warning system. Some critics claimed that Nato was a form of American imperialism but if so, as the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad argued, this was “empire by invitation” rather than the “empire of coercion” embodied in the Warsaw Pact.

Despite regular obituaries from strategic pundits, Eisenhower’s temporary alliance went on to “contain” Soviet pressure and outlive its superpower rival. Along the way it overcame two major Cold War crises, each of them revealing Nato’s problems but also its strengths. The first came from Charles de Gaulle, president of France between 1958 and 1969. Determined to rebuild the country’s grandeur after the humiliating defeat of 1940, he challenged American-British dominance of the alliance and, when rebuffed, gradually extracted France from Nato’s military command structures. And then in March 1966 de Gaulle told President Lyndon B Johnson that by 1 April 1967 all Nato HQs and troops must be removed from the soil of France.

LBJ was furious. “Ask him about the cemeteries,” he ordered secretary of state Dean Rusk. So at the end of a difficult meeting with de Gaulle, having confirmed that the US would duly remove its troops, Rusk asked if they should also remove from French soil the bodies of some 60,000 US soldiers who had died there fighting for French freedom in two world wars. According to Rusk, de Gaulle was too embarrassed to respond.

But, despite almost Trumpian rants at times, Johnson had no intention of getting into a public “pissing match”: that would serve only to “build de Gaulle up”. He managed to turn what could have been a major crisis into a relaunch of the alliance, reminding his allies, in his reply to de Gaulle’s letter, that “reliance in crisis on independent action by separate forces” had “proved disastrous in the past”. Nato accomplished the pull-out within the year, moving its supreme headquarters from Versailles to Mons in Belgium.

LBJ also understood the small print of de Gaulle’s letter. France was withdrawing only from the command structure: in other words leaving parts of the “Organisation” not tearing up the “Treaty”. The French would still honour their obligations for collective security. And they intended to engage in such alliance activities as suited them – what one Belgian diplomat sardonically called a policy of “Nato à la carte”. (France did not rejoin the command structure until 2009, and then only under “conditions” that effectively preserved its independence.)

Not surprisingly, de Gaulle’s free-riding provoked a reaction on Capitol Hill. In 1966 the Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield – a Democrat and an internationalist – introduced a resolution proposing a substantial cut in US forces in Europe. The “Mansfield Amendment” became an annual event. Initially it seemed innocuous, but in 1973, amid the backlash against the “Imperial Presidency” and the Vietnam War, it was passed by the Senate before the Nixon administration twisted arms on Capitol Hill and had it voted down. US troops remained in Europe.


Nato’s other great internal crisis of the Cold War focused more on the Federal Republic of Germany. By the 1970s there was no longer any pretence that the defence of western Europe against a Red Army attack would involve a controlled escalation to eventual nuclear war: because of battlefield, tactical and short-range nuclear missiles the struggle would be nuclear from the start and the effects would be catastrophic. If Nato went to war against the Warsaw Pact, Europe would be “defended to death”, with the two Germanies at the centre of the nuclear black hole. Yet by the late 1970s, Nato leaders feared that deterrence was failing. The alliance seemed vulnerable to nuclear blackmail with the deployment of new Soviet intermediate-range SS-20 nuclear missiles in Europe. Crafting a response, both military and diplomatic, tested Nato’s cohesion to the limit.

What emerged from long and often bitter discussions was the so-called dual-track decision of December 1979. Nato leaders agreed to deploy new US intermediate-range weapons – Cruise and Pershing II missiles – in response to the SS-20s. But they also maintained their readiness to continue arms control negotiations with the USSR – in other words, balancing deterrence with détente in these “two parallel and complementary approaches”. When superpower nuclear arms reduction negotiations collapsed, pushing through the deployment proved an immense task in the face of intense anti-nuclear agitation. Only four of the 12 European members of the alliance were willing to accept the missiles, such was the storm of domestic protest. German opinion was particularly divided and the issue brought down the coalition government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the principal European architect of the dual-track policy. It took two strong conservative leaders – Helmut Kohl in Germany and Margaret Thatcher in Britain – to drive through the deployment in those two key countries in 1983.

The successful implementation of the dual-track strategy in the early 1980s helped hold Nato together. Yet the basis of the alliance remained asymmetrical and problematic: western Europe was sheltering under an American umbrella while contributing relatively little to its upkeep. Key countries, notably France and Germany – for different reasons – were not pulling their full weight. And if deterrence failed, any defence action would be suicidal.

Fortunately for Nato, deterrence theory was never put to the test. Why precisely the Cold War did not end in a big bang remains a matter of debate. Of critical importance was the appearance in the Kremlin of a maverick leader. Mikhail Gorbachev talked a new language – about a “Common European Home” rather than two blocs, about “reasonable sufficiency” in defence, not “massive superiority”. He urged Soviet satellites in eastern Europe to follow his path of “restructuring” (perestroika) and “openness” (glasnost). And when these satellites spun out of the Soviet communist orbit in 1989 he did not employ force to keep the bloc together. By the end of 1991 the USSR itself had disintegrated as economic reform undermined the command economy, democratisation hollowed out the one-party state and devolution to the republics undermined the union.

Gorbachev was a critical factor. But it also mattered that Nato held together long enough to see off the old guard in the Kremlin. And that the policy of strength and dialogue was continued, albeit erratically, by Ronald Reagan, who forged a most unlikely rapport with Gorbachev: two leaders who both concluded that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was literally “mad”. Their passionate crusade resulted in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 – the first time the superpowers had actually reduced their stock of nuclear weapons. By removing Cruise, Pershing and SS-20 missiles, the treaty could also be seen as vindication of Nato’s 1979 dual track.


Reflecting in 1999 on Nato at its 50th anniversary, British historian Michael Howard likened the alliance to “a highly successful marriage” though “not a happy one”. Like “the arranged marriages of earlier centuries, it was entered into with a specific purpose” – memorably encapsulated by Lord Ismay. And, added Howard, another characteristic of arranged marriages was that “they did not dissolve even after the children had grown up”.

What now was its rationale for continuing to exist? In some ways, ironically, much the same as in the heyday of bipolarity. First: to keep the Germans under control. Helmut Kohl, no less than George HW Bush, agreed that unified Germany must remain a member of Nato. Within this structure – and within the new European Union created by the Maastricht Treaty – the enlarged Federal Republic would be perceived by its neighbours as less of a threat. Secondly, Nato also provided a framework to maintain America’s commitment to and presence in Europe. This seemed vital at a time of uncertainty, particularly with the break-up of Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992.

But what about the original top priority: keeping the Russians out? That was more testing. As the Warsaw Pact crumbled, Nato talked about turning itself into more of a “political organisation”. Its London Declaration in July 1990 spoke of building “new partnerships with all the nations of Europe”. Yet there was never any question of removing US conventional and nuclear forces from the continent. The declaration also stated that as the alliance “looks ahead to a new century, it must continue to provide for the common defence”.

At this point there was no public discussion about Nato enlargement, beyond agreement that the former East Germany would become part of the Nato area once it was incorporated into the Federal Republic. During the hard-bargaining about German unification Gorbachev failed to insist on any binding commitments that Nato would not expand eastward.

After the Soviet collapse, this issue became urgent during the presidency of Bill Clinton (from 1993) – at a time of deep splits within his administration. Clinton’s National Security Council was sensitive to demands from various east European countries – and their political backers on Capitol Hill – to save them from the clutches of the “Russian Bear” and to secure the process of democratisation. But the priority of the State Department and the Pentagon was to sustain the fragile process of reform in Russia and assist the re-election of Boris Yeltsin in 1996. Washington’s balancing act was reflected in the offer of Partnership for Peace status for aspirant members in 1994 and the establishment of a Permanent Joint Council between Nato and Russia in 1997.

From a Russian perspective, what mattered was the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic on the 50th anniversary of Nato in April 1999. The existing members welcomed this “new chapter in the history of the Atlantic Alliance” at the dawn of the 21st century. In Moscow, however, the enlargement was widely depicted as a challenge to Russia’s status as a great power, just when fellow Slavs in Belgrade were being bombed by Moscow’s Nato “partners” in an effort to stop the bloodbath in Kosovo.

Even more galling for the Kremlin was the admission of seven more east European states in 2004, including the Baltic trio, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which had been forcibly incorporated into the USSR from 1940 until 1991. President George W Bush pointedly welcomed the admission of these former “captives to an empire” who had endured “bitter tyranny” and “struggled for independence”.

Vladimir Putin – Yeltsin’s successor since 2000 – did not make any vocal protest, and Russia continued to participate in various partner activities with Nato, such as joint military exercises. In fact, Putin was trying to work closely with Bush on the “War on Terror” after the attacks on 11 September 2001. He hoped to rebuild Moscow’s great-power status and secure a free hand in Russia’s “Near Abroad”, particularly in suppressing “terrorists” in Chechnya, by supporting US efforts to hunt down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Amid the shock of 9/11, America’s allies also rallied around – invoking Article 5 of the treaty for the first time – and Afghanistan became formally a Nato mission. This seemed to mark a real change in the scope and character of the alliance, building on its “peace enforcement” in 1999 to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo. It suggested that the alliance’s main role was now stabilisation and humanitarian activities, often way outside the Nato region. But the protracted Afghanistan mission against the Taliban – today in its 18th year – showed how testing such operations were for an alliance formed to provide static defence in western Europe. The lift and logistic capacity had to come almost entirely from the United States and the task of state-building required a whole spectrum of new capabilities, ranging from civilian-affairs specialists to construction engineers, from military police to troop training – all conducted across multiple language barriers.


By its 60th anniversary in 2009, Nato seemed to have won the Cold War without settling into a new role. And in 2019 many commentators are asking if the Cold War ever truly ended, given the growing confrontation with Putin’s Russia after his occupation of the Crimea and parts of Ukraine (a Nato partner); his persistent attempts to destabilise the Baltic states; and Russia’s wider use of cyber-attacks to undermine democratic processes. A February 2019 report on Nato by Harvard University’s Belfer Center states: “Containing Russian power will be a generational challenge until Putin’s Soviet-trained leadership circle leaves power during the next decade, perhaps beyond. There is no more important external challenge for Nato.”

Containment: are we back with the same old mission, albeit in a very different era of hybrid warfare? The Harvard report repeats other familiar themes such as the failure of European allies to spend more on defence or pull their full weight. And it reaffirms the value of collective security: “On its own, the United States is a powerful nation. But America’s European and Canadian allies expand and amplify American power in ways that Russia and China – with few allies of their own – can never match… The United States is substantially stronger in Nato than it would be on its own.”

“Stronger in.” Where have we heard that phrase before? Will the value of alliance solidarity ultimately seem more appealing in Trumpist America than in Brexit Britain? Of course, the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union are very different entities, yet the underlying principle of alliance solidarity is similar: it’s better to hang together than hang separately. And for the first time in Nato’s history, we have a US president who openly questions the utility of international partnerships.

Sitting out the Putin era could take a long time. It will test the alliance’s updated version of containment but also require a subtle dual-track capacity for dialogue – in order to capitalise on the fact Russia’s society, if not its politics, has been fundamentally changed by Gorbachev’s glasnost.

But surviving the era of Trump may be even more challenging. The president has repeatedly talked of leaving the alliance, and the 70th birthday party in Washington in April has been deliberately downgraded to a foreign ministers’ event amid fears he might use a full-scale summit for more grandstanding. Even after one term of Trump, let alone two, it will be difficult to restore trust and co-operation: the mood at this February’s Munich Security Conference made that clear. Nor should one assume that when the Democrats return to power, their leaders will retain the Atlanticist orientation of earlier generations, shaped by the Second World War and the Cold War, in a party that is now being chaotically re-energised by domestic concerns such as immigration, multiculturalism and the #MeToo movement.

Yet the calls last November by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel for a European army as “a complement to Nato” ring hollow. They fail to address both the nuclear question and the German question. Nato leaders’ 2014 commitment to boost national defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP within a decade has so far been honoured by only seven of the 29 member states, with Germany one of the principal laggards.

Perhaps Nato’s biggest challenge for its eighth decade is not keeping the Russians out, but keeping the Americans in. 

David Reynolds’s most recent book is “The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt” (Yale), with Vladimir Pechatnov

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