NATO’s Greatest Achievement

Sten Rynning

NATO's response to the fall of communism has made it the world's most powerful alliance.
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NATO’s Greatest Achievement

Readers may rightly wonder why NATO, so pre-eminent as Europe’s security foundation, is so timid in its response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. To fully grasp this, we need to look back to NATO’s perhaps greatest achievement, namely its ability to retool itself after the end of the Cold War and how its achievement continues to shape NATO policy today.

In 1989-1990, it was clear that something cataclysmic was happening in Europe. The Soviet empire was coming apart, which raised the spectre of Soviet civil war and so-called ‘loose nukes.’ But closer to home, in Europe’s midst, East Germany was fast collapsing, and West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl was moving fast to gain control of the situation. It was no mean game.

Germany defined Europe’s geopolitical centre of gravity. Divided, Germany was a Cold War frontline, which was tense but stable. If now united, Germany might once again form a central axis against which other countries would balance. It had twice led to world war.

Amid all this uncertainty, Chancellor Kohl and US President Bush joined forces to insist that East and West Germany must unite inside NATO. In other words, NATO would be the guarantor against Europe’s return to balance of power politics and thus the guarantor that Germany could unite peacefully.

In the course of a few months, in the late spring of 1990, Bush and Kohl convinced not only their NATO partners but also Soviet leader Gorbachev of the benefit of this path. A new Europe free of balance of power politics could be had if everyone supported a new Germany inside NATO. At NATO’s July summit in London, the allies endorsed the vision and NATO’s ‘transformation’ from military bulwark to enlarged political community.

Considering reticence at the leadership level in Britain and France and among Gorbachev’s key advisors—all of whom had long memories when it came to Germany – this was a significant feat. Had Soviet politics proven less chaotic, and had Gorbachev had the wherewithal, he might have used Soviet leverage to extract concessions, and Britain and France might willingly have gone along. A neutral Germany and therefore a neutered NATO was a possibility pushed by Gorbachev’s advisors. However, he was too busy to listen, too invested in gaining Western capital for his reforms. And President Bush meanwhile proved able to persuade Britain, France, and other NATO allies.

If ‘the German question’ had thus been settled, it raised another question of how to manage Germany’s and NATO’s new eastern ‘flank.’ For a moment it seemed that the idea of ‘partnerships’ (Partnerships for Peace) might win the day. In the end, though, by 1995-1996, NATO enlargement became a driving policy.

In another facet of NATO’s great achievement, the alliance pulled beyond the spectre of Locarno – the 1925 deal between primarily Germany, Britain, and France that meant hard borders in the West and soft borders in the East. And soft borders were where Hitler’s regime went to work, leading the continent down the path to world war.

NATO enlargement ensured that Locarno would not repeat itself. In the new Europe, everyone had the right to hard borders, that is, sovereignty and the freedom to choose own alliances. Naturally, this led to yet another question, namely, how to make space for Russia.

NATO now achieved the final facet of its great achievement, namely a 1997 deal with Russia that defined how their interests were mutually compatible. NATO would on the one hand enlarge politically with new members but diminish itself militarily: Western forces, of which there were fewer and fewer, would not move east, and nuclear weapons were relegated to a status of ‘weapons of last resort.’ NATO might become bigger but would also become softer and de facto unable to defend itself militarily in any major way.

Russia would on the other hand have to continue embrace of democracy and open society. This was the explicit deal. NATO would go soft if Russia went democratic. It was an explicit deal and a charter of continental cooperation.

Left unsaid was what would happen if Russia chose a different path, arrested its democratic politics, and defined interests in opposition to NATO. In essence, this is what happened. NATO made mistakes – vaguely promising NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 and being insufficiently sensitive to Russia on missile defence policy – but the gist of the matter is that Russia chose a different path. By 2014, when it annexed Crimea and stoked civil war in the Donbas, it was plain to see.

Yet it took full-scale war in 2022 to fully turn NATO around to the fact that Russia would fight to the point of major war to overturn Europe’s security order. And so, we return to the starting point of NATO’s timidity.

Timidity has deep roots in NATO’s great post-Cold War achievement. It achieved a design for peace and stability in Europe, and for a while it worked. Letting it go is no small matter, and for some allies, it has been hard.

Timidity is also about new NATO’s geography. Its eastern border has moved far east, away from Western capitals. There is a tendency thus to conflate Ukraine with a distant and less important ‘post-Soviet’ space, when in fact it is the borderland that NATO must manage to protect its great achievement.

This is only now dawning on the allies, which are unsure of how hard to confront Russia and how solidly to back Ukraine. Allies should be in no doubt about the stakes involved. If Ukraine by force gets pulled into a Russian sphere of influence, the gates to the past will open. Spheres of influence politics will return to Europe, and it will be uncertain whether NATO, having allowed this, will have the cohesion and strength to stem its tide.

As allies grapple with what to do next, they should thus be mindful that as Ukraine goes, so goes NATO’s great post-Cold War achievement.

Sten Rynning is Director of the Danish Institute for Advanced Study, University of Southern Denmark, and the author of NATO: From Cold War to Ukraine, a History of the World’s Most Powerful Alliance, published by Yale University Press.