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NATO is a Danger, Not a Guarantor of Peace

The New York Times scored a serious scoop when it revealed on Monday that President Trump had questioned in governmental conversations—on more than one occasion, apparently—America’s membership in NATO. Unfortunately the paper then slipped into its typical mode of nostrum journalism. My Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “nostrum” as “quack medicine” entailing “exaggerated claims.” Here we had quack journalism executed in behalf of quack diplomacy.

The central exaggerated claim is contained in the first sentence, in which it is averred that NATO had “deterred Soviet and Russian aggression for 70 years.” This is wrong, as can be seen through just a spare amount of history.

True, NATO saved Europe from the menace of Russian Bolshevism. But it did so not over 70 years but over 40 years—from 1949 to 1989. That’s when the Soviet Union had 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops poised on Western Europe’s doorstep, positioned for an invasion of Europe through the lowlands of Germany’s Fulda Gap.

How was this possible? It was possible because Joseph Stalin had pushed his armies farther and farther into the West as the German Wehrmacht collapsed at the end of World War II. In doing so, and in the process capturing nearly all of Eastern Europe, he ensured that the Soviets had no Western enemies within a thousand miles of Leningrad or within 1,200 miles of Moscow. This vast territory represented not only security for the Russian motherland (which enjoys no natural geographical barriers to deter invasion from the West) but also a potent staging area for an invasion of Western Europe.


The first deterrent against such an invasion, which Stalin would have promulgated had he thought he could get away with it, was America’s nuclear monopoly. By the time that was lost, NATO had emerged as a powerful and very necessary deterrent. The Soviets, concluding that the cost of an invasion was too high, defaulted to a strategy of undermining Western interests anywhere around the world where that was possible. The result was global tensions stirred up at various global trouble spots, most notably Korea and Vietnam.

But Europe was saved, and NATO was the key. It deserves our respect and even reverence for its profound success as a military alliance during a time of serious threat to the West.

But then the threat went away. Gone were the 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops. Gone was Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Indeed, gone, by 1991, was the Soviet Union itself, an artificial regime of brutal ideology superimposed upon the cultural entity of Mother Russia. It was a time for celebration.

But it was also a time to contemplate the precise nature of the change that had washed over the world and to ponder what that might mean for old institutions—including NATO, a defensive military alliance created to deter aggression from a menacing enemy to the east. Here’s where Western thinking went awry. Rather than accepting as a great benefit the favorable developments enhancing Western security—the Soviet military retreat, the territorial reversal, the Soviet demise—the West turned NATO into a territorial aggressor of its own, absorbing nations that had been part of the Soviet sphere of control and pushing right up to the Russian border. Now Leningrad (renamed St. Petersburg after the obliteration of the menace of Soviet communism) resides within a hundred miles of NATO military forces, while Moscow is merely 200 miles from Western troops.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has absorbed 13 nations, some on the Russian border, others bordering lands that had been part of Russia’s sphere of interest for centuries. This constitutes a policy of encirclement, which no nation can accept without protest or pushback. And if NATO were to absorb those lands of traditional Russian influence—particularly Ukraine and Georgia—that would constitute a major threat to Russian security, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to emphasize to Western leaders for years. 

So, no, NATO has not deterred Russian aggression for 70 years. It did so for 40 and has maintained a destabilizing posture toward Russia ever since. The problem here is the West’s inability to perceive how changed geopolitical circumstances might require a changed geopolitical strategy. The encirclement strategy has had plenty of critics—George Kennan before he died; academics John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Robert David English; former diplomat Jack Matlock; the editors of The Nation. But their voices have tended to get drowned out by the nostrum diplomacy and the nostrum journalism that supports it at every turn.

You can’t drown out Donald Trump because he’s president of the United States. And so he has to be traduced, ridiculed, dismissed, and marginalized. That’s what the Times story, by Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper, sought to do. Consider the lead, designed to emphasize just how outlandish Trump’s musings are before the reader even has a chance to absorb what he may have been thinking: “There are few things that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia desires more than the weakening of NATO, the military alliance among the United States, Europe and Canada that has deterred Soviet and Russian aggression for 70 years.” Translation: “Take that, Mr. President! You’re an idiot.”

Henry Kissinger had something interesting to say about Trump in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history,” said the former secretary of state, “who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses.” One Western pretense about Russia, so ardently enforced by the likes of Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper (who, it may be safe to say, know less about world affairs and their history than Henry Kissinger), is that nothing really changed with the Soviet collapse and NATO had to turn aggressive in order to keep that menacing nation in its place.

Trump clearly doesn’t buy that pretense. He said during the campaign that NATO was obsolete. Then he backtracked, saying he only wanted other NATO members to pay their fair share of the cost of deterrence. He even confessed, after Hillary Clinton identified NATO as “the strongest military alliance in the history of the world,” that he only said NATO was obsolete because he didn’t know much about it. But he was learning—enough, it appears, to support as president Montenegro’s entry into NATO in 2017. Is Montenegro, with 5,332 square miles and some 620,000 citizens, really a crucial element in Europe’s desperate project to protect itself against Putin’s Russia?

We all know that Trump is a crude figure—not just in his disgusting discourse but in his fumbling efforts to execute political decisions. As a politician, he often seems like a doctor attempting to perform open-heart surgery while wearing mittens. His idle musings about leaving NATO are a case in point—an example of a politician who lacks the skill and finesse to nudge the country in necessary new directions.

But Kissinger has a point about the man. America and the world have changed, while the old ways of thinking have not kept pace. The pretenses of the old have blinded the status quo defenders into thinking nothing has changed. Trump, almost alone among contemporary American politicians, is asking questions to which the world needs new answers. NATO, in its current configuration and outlook, is a danger to peace, not a guarantor of it.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.

65 Comments (Open | Close)

65 Comments To "NATO is a Danger, Not a Guarantor of Peace"

#1 Comment By Andrew P On January 22, 2019 @ 12:01 am

If NATO cracks, the action will probably be on the Southern flank. The Turks are drifting away from the USA, and could enter a formal alliance with Russia and China. It is just that their interests are no longer coincident with ours, and better aligns with Russia’s.

#2 Comment By John Smithson On January 22, 2019 @ 12:22 am

“The only coercion involving Ukraine is what started in 2014 and is still going on.”

NATO nations fomented a bloody coup d’etat in Ukraine that forced its Russia-friendly president to flee for his life. The citizens of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea voted almost unanimously (over 95%) to join Russia, with that percentage confirmed both before and after the vote by Western polling companies. A recent poll found that only 2% wanted to return to a relationship with Ukraine.

The revolution also enraged many in the Donbass region of Ukraine, and the resulting military fight has dragged on for several years now and seems likely to drag on for longer. Russia shows no sign of invading the Donbass region or escalating the conflict.

Ukraine continues to be a poor, corrupt country that needs help both from the west and the east to make any progress. With both sides continuing to fight, it is not likely to get any help. Both sides are to blame.

Russia now has the best government it has ever had in its history. Vladimir Putin has his faults, but we should not focus on those and treat Russia as an enemy. We should instead treat the country as a friend, and try to draw on its strengths and counter its weaknesses.

Instead of blabbering about American exceptionalism, we need to realize we too have our faults and have made mistakes. The invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq among the more recent.

Donald Trump seems to see this and be ready to move ahead. Too bad less clear-sighted people won’t let him.

#3 Comment By Ripping Tales On January 22, 2019 @ 1:30 am

““NATO was trying to annex Ukraine???” The crazy on this thread is running high. The only coercion involving Ukraine is what started in 2014 and is still going on.”

You might want to revisit the definition of “annex”, which does not require coercion. That NATO is annexing Ukraine is uncontroversial, really. It was given aspiring member status in 2017. In other words, “the crazy” on this thread isn’t running as high as “the illiteracy”.

#4 Comment By Charles W Kinsella On January 22, 2019 @ 5:16 am

Whether NATO deterred Russia for 40 years or 70 years is speculation. What is nor speculation is that we have since the formation of NATO seen the longest prod of sustained peace in the history of Europe.
England, Russia, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, none have gone to war against each other since the formation of NATO. That’s an amazing thing given their long history of frequent war going back centuries to before any of them were even formed into countries.
In there most recent wars the United States joined in the conflicts. We would no doubt be drawn in again if there was a war in Europe.
There has been peace there for most of our lives. We forget history if we ignore and turn away from what has uniquely in history worked.

#5 Comment By Sandy Sanders On January 22, 2019 @ 7:58 am

You left out the attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 by NATO after the UN refused to authorize it. Serbia was attacked for no reason but to make Albright and Bill Clinton feel good. Now the NATO question is a serious one. It deserves serious answers.

#6 Comment By Tom S. On January 22, 2019 @ 11:31 am

Mark VA,

The world has changed a little bit since Washington was President of a small, economically weak, and barely united country.

We have seen what happens when the United States withdraws into itself. The world–and the United States–is not the better for it. Trump, whose ignorance of anything other than how to sell himself is indefatigable, proposes to do it again. Do you really want to abdicate world leadership to China?

#7 Comment By Phil Schummer On January 22, 2019 @ 1:59 pm

sb’s comment about NATO possibly allying itself with Russia to contain the Islamic threat may be a little tongue-in-cheek but, unfortunately, it does contain a kernel of truth. And deserves serious consideration.

As regards NATO as threat to Russia, well I do know how I’d view things if I were in Putin’s shoes. First, the Warsaw Pact, Russia’s buffer against invasion from the west (see WW2), dissolves.

Second, the countries start being absorbed by NATO. Recall here the makeup of the German Army that invaded Russia; 25% were non German.

Third, Germany wasn’t the first large scale invasion of Russia from the West; recall that France was there first (Napolean).

So two large invasions within app. 130 years of each other. And right now we’re at 75 years and counting. So, yea, from Putin’s point of view, what NATO is doing is very provocative.

#8 Comment By Dave Acklam On January 22, 2019 @ 5:20 pm

The author falsely presumes that letting a 3rd Russian Empire (the USSR being the 2nd) arise will be a harmless event.

It is in the US’ best interest that no nation or group of nations ever gain the sort of power the USSR held – the ability to challenge us directly.

While we may not be able to do much about China, we can prevent both Russia AND the EU from ‘getting there’.

Keeping Putin’s regime poorly fed & well caged is in our best interest…

#9 Comment By David Acklam On January 22, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

“NATO possibly allying itself with Russia to contain the Islamic threat”

There is nothing positive that the Russians can contribute to efforts against terrorisim.

Most people who talk of such an alliance do so in rather imbecilic terms, believing that Muslims can somehow ‘conquer’ the world through immigration, if not so-opposed…

Which is an inane & stupid concept – not to mention completely disconnected from the actual terror threat….

#10 Comment By Mark VA On January 22, 2019 @ 6:16 pm

Tom S:

Yes, I agree with you 100%, the US engagement with the world is a net plus for most countries;

Just look at Europe: under US guidance, they haven’t been at each other’s throats since WWII. Such a long period of peace (74 years) is unprecedented in European history!

Middle East maybe less so, but it was the British Empire that drew unstable boundaries there, on purpose, in my opinion. Perfidy! That place remains a minefield;

I don’t think China should be left alone with its global New Silk Roads initiative. The US should be a full partner and a counterbalance;

Regarding the George Washington quote, I don’t interpret it as advising isolationism. I see it as advocating a principled, but flexible engagement or disengagement with other countries;

Somewhere along either the threads got mixed up, or I didn’t express myself clearly. Sorry. Take a look at my previous posts.

#11 Comment By William livingston On January 22, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

NATO was established to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The Soviet Union ceased to exist 29 years ago. Therefore, NATO has outlived its purpose. It is today a boondoggle

#12 Comment By Pierre Pendre On January 23, 2019 @ 8:16 am

The Europeans have themselves put a question mark over Nato’s future with their plans for an EU army which Mrs May’s UK wants to join, Brexit or not. No one needs both. Nato is redundant not only because the Soviet Union – it’s raison d’être – is history but because Russia is an important economic partner to the EU which is heavily dependent on Russian energy. It could literally cripple large parts of the European economy at the turn of a tap.

Putin called Nato’s bluff decisively with his 2014 invasion of the Crimea. It’s been functionally dead since. The Europeans no longer have the military capability to fight him and nor will their toothless European army. EU defence spending can be guaranteed to remain pitiful because the Europeans think smart power – diplomacy and economic sanctions – is protection enough.

They may change their minds if an expansionist nuclear Iran starts blackmailing them or the Chinese cut them completely out of resurgent Africa. But for the moment, they’re happy wearing their anti-American blinkers which aren’t confined to Trump. His own doubts about Nato’s future are not the main issue in European thinking.

All of this is 101 geopolitics and the derided Trump as usual has seen further than status quo Washington. The NYT never endorses any policy that isn’t approved by the backward facing State Department consensus which is still stuck in the bog that Obama left behind.

#13 Comment By delia ruhe On January 23, 2019 @ 12:33 pm

There is nothing more dangerous than an obsolete military alliance whose only raison d’être is to perpetuate itself.

Since Washington is in permanent denial of its responsibility to put an end to this danger, it’s up to Washington’s vassal states that make up the alliance to pull out of it. Unfortunately, the vassals are too comfortable with their vassalhood, not to mention fearful of the consequences of taking their future into their own hands. So we’re stuck with NATO and the necessity of perpetuating a propaganda narrative about Russia’s anti-Western aggression so that Washington can have an excuse for perpetuating NATO.

#14 Comment By randall On January 28, 2019 @ 9:34 am

Let’s remember that it is the eastern European countries have asked to join NATO…..!! NATO did not ask them to join….!!

#15 Comment By Lisa On May 7, 2019 @ 7:18 am

its responsibility to put an end to this danger, it’s up to Washington’s vassal states that make up the alliance to pull out of it. Unfortunately, the vassals are too comfortable with their vassalhood, not to mention fearful of the consequences of taking their future into their own hands. So we’re stuck with NATO and the necessity of perpetuating a propaganda narrative about Russia’s anti-Western aggression so that Washington can have an excuse for perpetuating NATO.