NATO ALLIANCE has kept countries safe since WWII – Trump & Putin wants it gone

Heather Cox Richardson

Seventy-five years ago today, on April 4, 1949, representatives from twelve countries in Europe and North America—Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States—signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. This defensive security alliance has been a key institution for world stability since World War II. 

In the wake of that war, the U.S. and its allies recognized the crucial importance of peacetime alliances to deter future wars. To stop the spread of communism across war-torn Europe, the United States backed a massive financial investment into rebuilding Europe. President Harry S. Truman signed the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, into law on April 3, 1948. 

Quickly, though, it appeared that economic recovery would not be enough to protect a democratic Europe. The expansion of Soviet-style communism prompted officials to consider a pact that would enlist the United States to stand behind the security of Western Europe. Crucially, though, they wanted it to stand outside the United Nations, where the Soviet Union could exercise veto power. The outcome was the NATO alliance. 

NATO guaranteed collective security because all of the member states agreed to defend each other against an attack by a third party. Article 5 of the treaty requires every nation to come to the aid of any one of them if it is attacked. That article has been invoked only once: after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, after which NATO-led troops went to Afghanistan. 

Over the years, the alliance has expanded to include 32 countries. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, all former satellites of the USSR, joined NATO over the protests of Russia, which was falling under the control of oligarchs who opposed western democracy. More countries near Russia joined NATO in the 2000s, and Finland and Sweden have joined in the past year—Finland a year ago today, in fact.  

When NATO formed, the main concern of the countries backing it was resisting Soviet aggression, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russian president Vladimir Putin, NATO resisted Russian aggression instead. 

In 1949, when he signed the treaty, President Truman called the pact a positive influence for peace. That peace was, first of all, among the nations signing the agreement. They were, he said, agreeing “to abide by the peaceful principles of the United Nations, to maintain friendly relations and economic cooperation with one another, to consult together whenever the territory or independence of any of them is threatened, and to come to the aid of any one of them who may be attacked.” If such an agreement had been in place “in 1914 and in 1939, supported by the nations who are represented here today,” he said, “I believe it would have prevented the acts of aggression which led to two world wars.”

With NATO, Truman said, “we hope to create a shield against aggression and the fear of aggression—a bulwark which will permit us to get on with the real business of government and society, the business of achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens.” 

NATO countries agreed to stand together to withstand aggression from outside the pact. Truman emphasized the difference between the NATO countries and the authoritarian system against which the alliance stood. The NATO countries could stand together without being identical. “There are different kinds of governmental and economic systems, just as there are different languages and different cultures. But these differences present no real obstacle to the voluntary association of free nations devoted to the common cause of peace,” he said. “[I]t is possible for nations to achieve unity on the great principles of human freedom and justice, and at the same time to permit, in other respects, the greatest diversity of which the human mind is capable.”

The experience of the United States “in creating one nation out of…the peoples of many lands” proved that this idea could work, Truman said. “This method of organizing diverse peoples and cultures is in direct contrast to the method of the police state, which attempts to achieve unity by imposing the same beliefs and the same rule of force on everyone.”

The NATO countries did not believe that war was inevitable, Truman said. “Men with courage and vision can still determine their own destiny. They can choose slavery or freedom—war or peace. I have no doubt which they will choose. The treaty we are signing here today is evidence of the path they will follow. If there is anything certain today, if there is anything inevitable in the future, it is the will of the people of the world for freedom and for peace.”

For many decades, the stability of NATO made it seem secure. When he was in office, though, former president Trump told aides he didn’t care about NATO, and he has vowed to take the U.S. out of the organization in a second term. 

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is also pressuring NATO. According to the Institute for the Study of War, on March 31, Russian prosecutor general Igor Krasnov said that Russia would continue to assert what it says is its right to enforce Russian laws “on officials of NATO and post-Soviet states for their actions taken within the territory of their own countries where Russian courts have no jurisdiction.” This effort contradicts international law, but the ISW assesses that the Kremlin is trying to deny the sovereignty of those states and that its attempts to enforce Russian laws on their territory “are part of Russian efforts to set informational conditions justifying possible Russian escalations against NATO states in the future.”

Today, President Joe Biden celebrated the success of NATO’s seventy-five years of history and noted that it is up to the current generation of Americans to protect the pact and to build on it. “We must remember that the sacred commitment we make to our Allies—to defend every inch of NATO territory—makes us safer too, and gives the United States a bulwark of security unrivaled by any other nation in the world. And like our predecessors, we must ask ourselves what can we do—what must we do—to create a more peaceful future.”

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