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NATO Hasn’t Been a “Defensive Alliance” For a Long Time

Bret Stephens makes [1] a number of absurd claims in his latest column, but this may be the most ridiculous:

NATO is a defensive alliance.

If Stephens had written this twenty years ago, he would have been right. Unfortunately, NATO hasn’t been a purely defensive alliance in a long time. Between its unnecessary “out of area” missions, its unlawful military intervention in Kosovo, and its latest unwise adventure in Libya, NATO has been much more than a “defensive” alliance for most of the last two decades. It has also been an anti-Russian alliance by design, no matter what alliance officials and Western politicians have said about this since the end of the Cold War. Had NATO stayed as nothing more than a defensive alliance to protect its members against attack, it probably wouldn’t have seemed all that threatening. Instead, it has fought offensive wars for reasons that have nothing to do with allied security, and it has attacked governments that have not threatened any of its members. If NATO had not made a point of incorporating almost all of Russia’s neighbors as new members, its historically anti-Russian character might have been less provocative. Taken together, NATO’s unnecessary wars and its constant push to expand into eastern Europe were bound to alarm Moscow, and so they have. If NATO had at least remained as the defensive alliance that it was supposed to be, the U.S. and Russia would probably not be in the positions they are now.

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23 Comments To "NATO Hasn’t Been a “Defensive Alliance” For a Long Time"

#1 Comment By Ken Ward On March 25, 2014 @ 2:21 am

To look at another organ of mainstream opinion, it’s been instructive to see that none of the New York Times’ ever-growing chorus of critics of Putin’s actions have mentioned NATO’s expansion. Cohen, Douthat, Friedman, Kristof and McFaul, in their haste to condemn Russia’s Hitler, have all galloped past and ignored this major factor influencing his behaviour.
NATO’s transformation into an offensive alliance has made it a convenient substitute for the United Nations, because no rogue members veto US decisions. NATO is now virtually synonymous with that other useful, non-vetoing entity, the ‘international community’.

#2 Comment By Puller58 On March 25, 2014 @ 6:13 am

One might also question why NATO got involved in Afghanistan? The shorthand answer is that George Bush prevailed upon NATO to go in so as to allow him to play avenging son in Iraq. The results have been to sacrifice NATO servicemembers in a pointless military adventure that is a failure.

#3 Comment By Reader John On March 25, 2014 @ 6:53 am

I was astonished to hear All Things Considered committing a freudian slip Friday night.

For the last decade or so, NATO’s single biggest focus was Afghanistan. That combat mission ends this year, and so the military alliance had been trying to figure out “what next?”
Judy Dempsey is a NATO Expert with Carnegie Europe:
NATO comes home and has to decide “Oh, now what do we do?” But it’s clear now that there’s a threat against the alliance, and that threat is called Russia.

How very, very convenient!

#4 Comment By Johann On March 25, 2014 @ 9:31 am

NATO lost its mission when the Soviet Union crumbled, but like most large organizations, it won’t go away. Too many people owe their livelihood to NATO, so they invent new missions. Unfortunately, their new missions result in people dying. The EU should organize their own joint defense organization if they believe no one of them could repel Russia, but NATO should be euthanized!

#5 Comment By Johann On March 25, 2014 @ 9:39 am

Britain is a big part of the problem and is a driving force to keep NATO. Its like they are frightened that they will be deserted by their big brother and eternal savior the US. Keeping NATO alive keeps the US involved in Europe. And doing quaint little wars together strengthens and cements the alliance.

#6 Comment By Dennis On March 25, 2014 @ 11:10 am

NATO should have been disbanded after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the USSR in 1991. But, it had become not merely an alliance of states pledging to defend one another from attack, but an extensive organizational bureaucracy with many people dependent on its continued existence for their livelihoods. Once these bureaucracies become entrenched, they take on a life and mission of their own and prove very difficult to disband.

#7 Comment By Paul On March 25, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

Here is a nice visual image of the problem–NATO’s new financially troubled, billion-euro headquarters outside Brussels:

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#8 Comment By carl lundgren On March 25, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

“The EU should organize their own joint defense organization if they believe no one of them could repel Russia, but NATO should be euthanized!”

Agreed. There is such an organization now, the European Defense Agency. It mostly deals with standardization, and pooling transport and training resources. However it does have some true military elements that could easily be expanded.

#9 Comment By icarusr On March 25, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

Bret Stephens has been nothing but an absurdist performance artist for the entire Obama presidency. “NATO is a defensive alliance” ranks right up there with “Freedom is Slavery” and “Arbeit macht Frei” as dangerous idiocies.

#10 Comment By James Canning On March 25, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

Nato’s military adventure in Afghanistan was not an “offensive” war, in my view. An unwise adventure, one easily can argue.

#11 Comment By EarlyBird On March 25, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

What always irks me about this is how completely helpless the Western Europeans have made themselves since WWII. NATO is hardly an aggregation of North Atlantic militaries. It has always been an American operation.

While the US (and to a lesser exent Great Britain and Canada) underwrote their security, the Euros enjoyed the luxury of building socialist cafe societies for the past 50+ years while sneering at American brutishness. Of course, they have equal says in how and where to go to war on behalf of the “alliance.”

With the exception of Great Britain, no Western European nation can field an independent offensive fighting force, by their own generals’ admission. So, when Putin (or Milosevic) wants to play Risk in their back yard, they can only threaten to sick Uncle Sam on them.

Disgusting.

#12 Comment By EarlyBird On March 25, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

Puller58 asked: “One might also question why NATO got involved in Afghanistan?”

Because we were attacked from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001, and NATO members are bound to come to the defense of other NATO member if they are attacked. That is exactly what NATO exists for.

Sure, we could ask why it wasn’t disbanded after the Cold War, but there’s your answer to the Afghanistan question.

#13 Comment By Ken Hoop On March 25, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

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this trash makes me wonder about Dreyfuss. you get more wisdom in the comments.

#14 Comment By Ken Hoop On March 25, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

Puller58 says:

March 25, 2014 at 6:13 am

One might also question why NATO got involved in Afghanistan? The shorthand answer is that George Bush prevailed upon NATO to go in so as to allow him to play avenging son in Iraq. The results have been to sacrifice NATO servicemembers in a pointless military adventure that is a failure.

Failure, yes. Speaking of which, Karzai just came out for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
(which bothers me not one whit.)

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 25, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

Early Bird:

“Puller58 asked: ‘One might also question why NATO got involved in Afghanistan?’

“Because we were attacked from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001, and NATO members are bound to come to the defense of other NATO member if they are attacked. That is exactly what NATO exists for.”

Actually, the International Security Assistance Force was formed by the UN, in consultation with various Afghani factions, at the Bonn Conference, to help establish and secure a transitional, post Taliban government in Afghanistan, in December 2001. The United States, along with its Afghani allies, had already deposed the Taliban, chased them from Kabul, and occupied most of the entire country by that time. And the ISAF forces were not deployed until January 2002, after the fall of the last Taliban city (Kandahar) and the operations against Al Qaeda stronghold of Tora Bora. The ISAF itself was not technically a NATO operation until August 2003. Prior to that, while NATO countries were involved in ISAF (on a six month, rotating basis), NATO itself was not part of the mission.

So, arguably, NATO operations in Afghanistan actually have very little to do with the initial US actions allegedly taken in self defense viz a viz the Nine Eleven attacks. NATO was not implicated until nearly two years after the attacks, and more than a year and a half after the fall of Taliban Kabul and Kandahar. Rather, NATO was authorized by the UN to continue the ISAF mission which was necessitated by the US/Northern Alliance destruction of the Taliban regime. And, of course, as time goes by, US and NATO actions in Afghanistan, one would think, have ever less to do with responding to the Nine Eleven attacks.

#16 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 25, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

And, to follow up on that, while the operations in Afghanistan are arguably not “aggressive,” they are hardly defensive either. No NATO nation is currently threatened by the Taliban or any other Afghani rebel group. Fighting to maintain the Afghani government might be seen, by some, as a worthwhile thing to do, but that does not automatically make it “defensive.” Moreover, one might question the notion of a supposedly “North Atlantic” defensive alliance working so far from home. Even if the Taliban did constitute a threat to a NATO nation, it is still not axiomatic that NATO is the proper vehicle for meeting that threat.

#17 Comment By Theodore G. Karakostas On March 25, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

NATO showed signs that it was not necessarily
defensive in 1974 when Turkey, a NATO member
invaded Cyprus, a non aligned country. Turkish
forces ethnically cleansed the both Greek
and Turkish Cypriots, the former for their
ethnicity, and members of the latter
community who were opposed to the Turkish
invasion.

Ted Karakostas

#18 Comment By Netzach On March 26, 2014 @ 6:10 am

carl lundgren,

“Agreed. There is such an organization now, the European Defense Agency. It mostly deals with standardization, and pooling transport and training resources. However it does have some true military elements that could easily be expanded.”

And there lies the problem for USA. At the average of 1,7% of GDP, EU nations spent about 274 billion in 2012 for defense, compared to 682 billion US did. This doesn’t give a true picture of EU’s capabilities, since a lot of structures are replicated on national level, standardization doesn’t go far and so on, meaning EU gains little from economies of scale. However, these structures could indeed be expanded and defense budgets given a boost to, say, 340 billion alltogether, if there’d be a pressing reason such as USA saying goodbye.

Then EU could not only defend its borders from any conceivable threat (Russia doesn’t exactly have Red Army anymore), but run an independent foreign policy as well. Right now, its capabilities for foreign interventions and giving security guarantees are so weak that it has to coordinate with Americans just about whenever it wants to get anything done. I think being primus inter pares suits their establishment just fine, even if it carries some financial costs.

#19 Comment By EarlyBird On March 26, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

Good points, Philly Lawyer.

To my earlier remarks, in the early stages of the conflict, US generals didn’t want the kind of help that most European NATO militaries could provide. They moved too slowly, were too uncoordinated, and not oriented to the kinds of offensive operations required.

It was only when the mission became something very different – an occupation – that the European NATO members’ abilities were of value. That meant mostly hunkering down in heavily fortified barracks playing soccer and smoking cigarettes, and going on the rare patrol outside the wire. In other words, perfect to establish the NATO and “alliance” figleaf.

#20 Comment By James Canning On March 26, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

@Ted Karakostas – – Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus was of course, not a Nato operation.

#21 Comment By Derek Leaberry On March 26, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

A bipartisan lack of imagination after the demise of the USSR has helped cause the current predicament. Had the Clinton Administration been wise, NATO should have been folded into a European Non-Aggression Zone which would have included Russia and the recently freed captive nations. A suitable arrangement of post-USSR borders could have been negotiated at that time that recognized true cultural and linguistic borders. Instead, we have Russia shocking European and America sensibilities by taking what is historically theirs. Fortunately, it looks as if little blood will flow and the situation in the Crimea is fait accompli.

#22 Comment By crf On March 26, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

Crimea is not a fait-accompli until it is “legalized”. The US and NATO could attempt to try to find some common ground between Ukraine and Russia on this issue, or provide the space for others to do so. Instead NATO members doing absolutely nothing constructive about the situation.

There are probably incentives Russia could offer to Ukraine to make them accept this fait-accompli. Because Ukraine is going to flounder if it has Russia as an enemy. Russia has been making obvious noises that it is willing to pay some price for resolving the issue of Crimea.

#23 Comment By cornel lencar On March 26, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

Hi Daniel,

I am afraid that The Economist is giving you more fodder on this topic…
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