Fragile alliance — is Nato still up for the fight?

In February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In doing so, the Russian president committed, in the words of one senior western diplomat, “a breach of civilisation” as he sought to remove Ukraine’s right to exist. He also brought Nato back to life.

Defending Europe against Soviet aggression is why the military alliance was created in 1949. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, Nato had lost its way. It had struggled to find fresh purpose as a UN-style task force operating “out of area” in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan. It had also been variously criticised by its members.

The veteran US diplomat George Kennan, architect of the west’s policy of Soviet containment, described Nato’s eastward expansion in 1997 as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era”. In 2016, US president-elect Donald Trump called Nato “obsolete” and complained it cost the US too much money. Most damning of all, French president Emmanuel Macron described the alliance as “brain-dead” in 2019.

As Russian tanks rumbled across Ukraine’s borders, Putin therefore had good reason to believe he was pushing against an open door. Six months earlier, Nato forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan with the Taliban hot on their heels. By breaking Ukraine’s statehood, Putin may have thought he could break Nato too.

But, as the former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once remarked, Nato has the lucky habit of being “saved” every decade by a new crisis between the Kremlin and the west. Today, the alliance has re-found its purpose, and is now more often invoked as the most powerful and successful military alliance in history, a bulwark against Russian aggression and autocracies everywhere. But how strong is it, really?

As Nato prepares to commemorate its 75th birthday at a summit in Washington DC in July, there is no shortage of ideas of where the alliance is now and what it needs to do next. Two new histories of Nato, as well as a science writer’s assessment of the US nuclear apparatus that undergirds its capabilities, help point the way.

In Deterring Armageddon, Peter Apps, a Reuters columnist and British Army reservist, takes us back to the beginning to unveil an impressive chronicle, rich in anecdote, of Nato’s history from its uncertain founding amid the wreckage of post-second world war Europe to the present day. The organisation was not in fact created as a tool of US imperialism, as sometimes imagined by the radical left. Its original impetus instead stemmed from a group of European socialists — particularly UK foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, a former trade union leader chosen by prime minister Clement Attlee to stand up for Britain and Europe against the Kremlin. In Attlee’s words, the moment required “a heavy tank . . . rather than a sniper”.

Several themes recur in Apps’ well-paced narrative of the backroom deals, political posturing, big personalities, and recurring crises that have tested Nato ever since. Among the most prominent are the fragility of the project, and how unclear it has often been who is in charge. In fact, given the war in Ukraine and the prospect of a more isolationist America, Apps argues that the alliance may now be facing its most difficult years, even as it remains a “conflicted, flawed protagonist of a multi-decade struggle to stop a global war beginning once again in Europe”.

The biggest unresolved tension lies between the mighty US and its allies. President John F Kennedy asked his National Security Council in January 1963, “Why should we have in Europe supplies adequate to fight for ninety days when the European forces around our troops have only enough supplies to fight for two or three?” Trump is far from being the first US leader to complain about freeloading Europeans.

US president John F Kennedy at a Nato military parade in Hanau, West Germany, in 1963 © Bettmann Archive

There have also been persistent tensions between Nato’s European members. France has often been a reluctant participant, especially under president Charles de Gaulle, who kicked Nato out of its first Paris headquarters and withdrew his country from the organisation’s military command structure in 1966. Britain has meanwhile periodically asserted a leadership role despite, as Apps slyly observes, “widespread speculation — largely consistent since 1945 — that its influence is terminally in decline”.

Putin’s war on Ukraine has reconfigured many of these tensions. Macron has recast himself as the alliance’s biggest Russia hawk. Military spending by Nato’s European members has also grown by more than a third since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to $380bn. What has not changed, Apps details, are persistent European worries about US commitment, combined with European resentments about American domination. Apps calls it Nato’s “permanent paradox”.

Book cover of ‘Nato’

While Apps’ book is an account of the people that made the alliance tick, Sten Rynning’s Nato, which bills itself as a “new history of the world’s most important alliance”, examines the ideas that inform its purpose. It is also a prescription for how the organisation needs to change.

Rynning, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark, has written about Nato for over two decades, and his crisp, authoritative treatise is more for insiders than general readers. Even so, his conclusions coincide with Apps’ — chief among them that the biggest threat to Nato’s future is “poor political management” rather than external aggression.

Rynning argues persuasively that Nato, after its “big and soft” post-cold war years, needs to rediscover its classical mission of Euro-Atlantic defence instead of shifting its focus to China. Moreover, this mission needs to be “fit for purpose”. That requires reinforcing Nato’s forward defences on Europe’s eastern borders, an expensive task. It also needs to provide a clear route to membership for Ukraine at the Washington summit in July.

As for Russia, Nato should develop a mechanism to start carefully calibrated dialogue with Moscow. Rynning stresses this would not be part of a “grand vision of peace . . . the trust is simply not there” but rather talks on limited issues, such as nuclear arms control.

Book cover of ‘Countdown’

That is a particularly timely topic given the anxious possibility of nuclear war which has resurfaced lately, largely thanks to Putin’s occasional nuclear threats. Even the US nuclear scientists and officials interviewed by Sarah Scoles in Countdown seem ambivalent about nuclear deterrence, while claiming to believe strongly in the concept.

Scoles, a journalist whose two previous books were about UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence, takes a gee-whizz and very US-centric approach in her exploration of the “megadeath intellectualism” of nuclear deterrence. Even so, she puts in valuable reporting footwork, interviewing the laboratory technicians and officials who ensure that America’s nuclear arsenal is “always, never” — the phrase used to describe bombs that will explode when they’re supposed to, but not when they’re not.

Nuclear deterrence rests on an assumption of rationality — that the threat of retaliation and mutually assured destruction ensures no state will ever use nuclear weapons to attack another. It also costs billions.

But does it work? In one striking anecdote, Scoles interviews Brad Roberts, a senior director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which oversees the safety and effectiveness of the US nuclear deterrent. Roberts says he isn’t sure. “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I feel one way. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, another,” he tells Scoles. “Sunday. I drink.”

Nuclear deterrence is central to Nato’s key concept of mutual defence — that an attack on one country represents an attack on all. That famous pledge, contained in Article V of the founding treaty, is why Sweden and Finland, left feeling vulnerable by Russia’s war on Ukraine, abandoned decades of neutrality to join the alliance this year. It is also why Ukraine seeks Nato accession. The pledge has only ever been invoked once: by European countries in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, somewhat to Washington’s bemusement, according to Apps.

However a reciprocal invocation of Article V — if, say, Europe was attacked by Russia — is at best untested and, at worst, a bluff. It rests on the unknown willingness of the US to shelter Europe under its security umbrella. As de Gaulle put it: would a US president really be prepared to sacrifice New York for Paris? In fact, the treaty requires only that a member state provide an attacked ally with the assistance “it deems necessary”. Bevin called the wording “feeble”. This year, Trump openly questioned whether the US would enforce it.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has prodded Nato to undertake its most ambitious military reforms in decades. Meanwhile, Putin is reconstituting the Russian army faster than many expected, after much of it was shredded in Ukraine. Putin may not want to confront Nato directly, but there are many non-military means he can use to undermine his western enemies — such as weaponised migration from north Africa, and other so-called “grey zone” operations below the threshold of war, including misinformation, espionage and attacks in the domains of cyber or space.

For 75 years, and despite its many failings, Nato members — originally 12, now 32 — have lived in relative peace without ceding an inch of territory to a foreign power. If Nato continues, the alliance will hold its 100th birthday in 2049. Apps suggests that if it does not exist by then, it will be because it has collapsed, been superseded by something else, or failed to stop the catastrophic war it was built to prevent. “The history of Nato has never been easy to predict,” he concludes.

Still, on the eve of a possible second Trump presidency, and with the US looking increasingly towards the Pacific and China, the first possibility seems the more likely cause of any demise. Nato’s history is a sober reminder that the alliance is only ever as strong as its members choose it to be.

Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of Nato by Peter Apps Wildfire £25, 624 pages

Nato: From Cold War to Ukraine, a History of the World’s Most Powerful Alliance by Sten Rynning Yale £20, 368 pages

Countdown: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons by Sarah Scoles Bold Type Books £25/$30, 272 pages

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s security & defence editor

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