Austin Bay
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The last two decades have demonstrated that NATO's post-Cold War death notices reprised a classic Mark Twain one-liner. When Twain learned that a New York newspaper had published his obituary, he wisecracked, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Next week's NATO summit in Chicago gives NATO's current leaders an opportunity to showcase the alliance as a focusing instrument for waging war and securing peace in the 21st century.

Created in 1949 and dedicated to Europe's defense, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization served as the Free World's primary military and political vehicle for containing the aggressive threat posed by the Soviet Union. In his 1946 post-World War II "Sinews of Peace" speech, Winston Churchill described the Cold War's decisive military and political battle zone: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." NATO succeeded in deterring war, in all likelihood a thermonuclear war, on Europe's central front.

Elsewhere, however, the fighting never stopped. The Soviet Union constantly probed and stoked peripheral theaters, exacerbating and in some cases igniting conflicts in the globe's less critical but still bloody corners. A short list of hot wars within the Cold War should jog hazy memories: East Asia (Korean War), sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Angola, Ethiopia, the Congo), Southeast Asia (e.g., Malaysia and Vietnam), Central Asia (e.g., Afghanistan), the Middle East (take your pick), and Central and South America (e.g., El Salvador and Nicaragua).

Soviet adventurism gave local conflicts a Cold War veneer, and to the eternal detriment of the locals, turned these terrible little conflicts into devastating Cold War proxy wars with global political implications (and often with a strategic economic angle).

In order to sap Western will and sow distrust, the Soviets always littered these proxy wars with Marxist utopian hooey ("Workers' Paradise is the future") and anti-American propaganda that reworked 19th century European autocrat and World War II-era Nazi anti-American themes in Marxist lingo.

NATO obits in the early 1990s saw NATO as a creature of a bipolar world that the obit writers believed disappeared when the Soviet Union shrank to Russia. The world, however, was never really bipolar. It has always been fragmented, with multipolar eddies. Since World War I, the fragments have been heavily armed. The fragments have also been grappling, often violently, with the terms of economic and political modernity.

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Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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