NATO foreign ministers attend a meeting for the alliance’s 70th anniversary in April 2019

Opinion: NATO at 70 – where does the alliance go from here? (part 1)

  • NATO was originally a tool to stabilize Europe and keep it out of Soviet hands
  • As the military situation heated up, it was used to contain the USSR
  • Mutual deterrence fed stability, which helped cause the Soviet Union’s decline

This is the first in a two-part series on NATO at 70. In this installment, GIS Expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich recounts how the alliance’s role transformed from a means of stabilizing postwar Europe into an instrument of “mutual deterrence.” Part two, publishing on May 31, will focus on the future of Atlanticism and the U.S.-Europe relationship.

On April 4, 2019, the foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met in Washington to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance’s founding. The meeting was preceded by a statement from United States Vice President Mike Pence, whose unpopularity within NATO was made clear during the Munich Security Conference in early February.

During the April meeting, his sole message to NATO allies, above all Germany, was that they should strive to spend the equivalent of 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. At the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, members of the alliance had agreed they would aim to reach that goal by 2024.

Unlike the pledge members made in 1977 to increase defense spending by 3 percent per year for five years, which was understood as a compromise solution to get a long-term defense program (LTDP) implemented, the Wales declaration was not related to any specific common defense initiative. After all, NATO had failed to agree on its future mission, in particular during the 2006 Riga summit.

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric often makes it sound as if the 2 percent figure is an offset payment to the U.S. for its defense outlays in Europe, but most of America’s defense expenditures are unrelated to NATO and Europe. Besides, President Trump insists on a vague declaration of intent, while he himself ignores one binding agreement after another.

The political rationale for the defense of Europe is hardly within the focus of informed public debate

Defense spending is clearly within national responsibilities, and Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, is obviously underfunded. The political rationale for the defense of Europe is hardly within the focus of informed public debate.

Needless to say, President Trump was not present at the ceremony.

Europe divided

How different that scene was from the one 70 years ago in the White House Rose Garden. That too was preceded by a special meeting the day before, on April 3, 1949. Then, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and, even more forcefully, President Harry Truman, had to use harsh language to convince the French and the British foreign ministers, Jean Monnet and Ernest Bevin, that Germany would eventually need to join the new alliance, if only to avoid another post-Versailles situation. The two grudgingly agreed, though France continued to try to block direct German defense links with the U.S. through its proposal for a European Defense Treaty. That initiative failed, however, when the French Parliament failed to ratify it in 1954.

The North Atlantic Treaty thus became the beginning of a process to establish a political framework for constructing a post-World War II Europe. While the treaty combined economic cooperation (Article 2) and collective defense (Article 5), the two domains were separated institutionally, with Washington at the center of both. This turned out to ease European integration. Tying Germany’s recovery together on both levels drove institutional progress.

The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson signs the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. Standing behind him are U.S. President Harry S. Truman (M) and British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin (L) (source: dpa)

The shadow of the Korean War certainly was a motivation for creating such an alliance, and the outcome of the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949) had just demonstrated that Russia might give in if it faced resistance. But what was agreed upon 70 years ago was also reflected in the songs that the U.S. Marine Band played during the Rose Garden ceremony on April 4, 1949: “I Got Plenty of Nothing” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

The alliance was founded just after the U.S. had realized that it did not have a single nuclear weapon in place that could reach the Soviet Union. There was a total of about 50,000 American troops deployed in Europe, mostly performing military police functions, while the Soviet forces in Eastern Europe had remained almost unchanged after 1945. The main goal at that time was not to let a despairing Europe, with its huge industrial potential, turn communist.

It was in response to a presumed Soviet role in Korea that President Truman used a narrow window of opportunity in 1950 to order the return of four divisions to Europe to boost morale and create the core of the European defense forces. It took, however, until 1954 before a force of 100,000 was in place out of a total of 3.5 million U.S. soldiers, under what became NATO’s military organizational structure in 1955. It was joined by the German Bundeswehr. This U.S. presence was supposed to continue for as long as was considered politically necessary. However, John F. Kennedy, then a member of the House of Representatives, warned in 1951 that “our commitments will continue to grow in far greater relationship than the European efforts will grow.”

To be sure, for the U.S., NATO was but one alliance within a global system that included commitments in the Middle East and Asia. But NATO had a stronger bearing on U.S. interests – and promised to remain more sustainable – than any of the others.

Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty

Today, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the agreement that established NATO – is considered its key provision. However, Article 2 was crucial, especially in the mid-20th century, for fostering economic cooperation between the members and recovery in Europe. It reads (emphasis added):

The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.

Above all, it included a political commitment to collective defense, although Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty does not include obligatory military measures. In fact, Article 5 was derived from similar wording in the 1947 Treaty of Rio. Given that Europe’s pool of skilled labor – considered the greatest in the world at the time – was thought to be at stake, Article 2 was presumably more important to U.S. interests than Article 5. The latter acquired a sense of automaticity only much later, due to characteristics of the military confrontation in Europe.

Mutual deterrence

The containment of the Soviet Union as originally envisaged ended with the 1956 Suez Crisis. The U.S. considered the event “a precursor of some kind of global arrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union for which Europe would end up paying the price,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote. In his view, the crisis displayed that “the congruence of interests between Europe and the United States was at best only partially valid,” whereas the U.S. had “landed in a position of having to assume the burden of protecting every free nation in every region on the globe.”


The alliance responded by reinforcing political cooperation, codified in a Wise Man’s Report in December 1956. This worked during the Berlin Crisis (1958-1962) by preserving access to Berlin through East Germany, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), which led to the Soviets eventually backing down. However, only a few years later, the Vietnam War diluted the transatlantic military alliance (by forcing the redeployment of some U.S. troops from Europe to Vietnam) and split it politically. After the unprecedented internal turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, the alliance could no longer shape the political mainstream.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a hasty, abortive Soviet attempt to head off the emerging asymmetry created by a new generation of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. In anticipation of the Soviets eventually gaining similar capabilities, the U.S. sought strategic stability through mutual arms control. The move had obvious implications for Europe’s deterrence capabilities.

This caused European nations to increasingly enter bilateral relations with Russia. NATO sought to maintain coherence through the so-called Harmel Doctrine, which declared that defense and deterrence should be supplemented with negotiations, an approach the U.S. had adopted early on, in 1950, with the NSC 68 policy paper.

Based on the stability derived from mutual deterrence, the divisive military confrontation was increasingly superseded by a network of open and tacit agreements that seemed to cement the geopolitical status quo.

But the growing openness drove change, as both sides began to understand better what they were up against. Beneath a facade of managing strategic stability, detente became a way to manage the Soviet bloc’s decline.

By clicking "I Agree" below, you acknowledge that you accept our Privacy Policy and Terms and conditions. Feel free to check out our policies anytime for more information.
I agree