For over two decades, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has defied the pundits who predict its imminent demise.
Recent intra-NATO debates reveal the alliance adapting to 21st century needs and economic limitations. But the bottom line is NATO still matters, to Europe and the U.S., because an alliance coordinating the defense of democratic nations still serves several critical purposes.
As the Cold War faded in the early 1990s, "end of NATO" prognosticators argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to the collapse of the military alliance forged to defeat it. They maintained that intra-alliance political frictions, no longer checked by the threat of Soviet tanks and nuclear weapons, would inevitably fracture the complex organization.
Moreover, Western Europe, re-cast as the European Economic Community and preparing for life as the European Union, could do it alone, militarily and economically. According to these seers, the outbreak of peace in Europe meant Europeans no longer needed to fret with those overbearing Americans.
However, European peace didn't break out, not quite. Instead, Yugoslavia broke up, a USSR in Balkan miniature, its dissolution sparking a series of dirty wars on European soil.
U.N. peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans failed to prevent massacres like Bosnia's Srebrenica genocide. When Kosovo exploded, the Clinton Administration, Britain and France sidestepped the U.N. To fight the Kosovo War, they used a democratic political alliance capable of waging war on behalf of a better peace: NATO. By doing so, they reinvented NATO as a global actor for the North Atlantic democracies.
Balkan troubles still plague Europe, but NATO's Kosovo intervention staunched the bloodshed. European diplomats also quickly learned that (excepting Serbia) the ex-Yugoslav Balkan states regarded NATO and the European Union as classy clubs. Diplomatic clout is one of NATO's continuing utilities. Membership has prestige. Dangling NATO and European Union membership still encourages better, if not quite good, Balkan behavior.
In the last decade of the 20th century, former Soviet satellites, especially Poland and Romania, looked east and saw an old nemesis, Russia. Both actively petitioned NATO for admission, arguing they and the Baltic nations were NATO's new front line. Poland became a member in 1999 and Romania in 2004.
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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