NATO flag by Sgt Paul Shaw (Crown Copyright, 2014)

NATO at 70: Can it Still Defend the West?

NATO’s founding treaty was signed in Washington, USA, 70 years ago today. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded on April 4 in 1949, with 12 founder members.

A Shield Against Aggression

On that day, US President 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 was created by people who had lived through two devastating world wars.
They knew only too well the horror, the suffering, and the human and material cost of war.
They were determined that this should never happen again.

NATO grew out of everal post-WWII treaties. The Treaty of Dunkirk was signed by France and the United Kingdom as a Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance in the event of a possible attack by Germany or the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II on 4 March 1947. This alliance was expanded to include the Benelux countries, in the form of the Western Union, also referred to as the Brussels Treaty Organization (BTO), established by the Treaty of Brussels in 1948. Talks for a new military alliance which could also include North America resulted in the signature of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949 by the member states of the Western Union plus the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

Since its founding in 1949, NATO has grown from 12 to 29 countries, all bound by the shared purpose of peace, democracy, freedom and co-operation.

UK’s Unwavering Commitment to NATO

“As a founding member, the UK has had a leading role in NATO for seventy years,” said Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. “Today on NATO’s 70th anniversary more than five and a half thousand British personnel are deployed around the globe helping to preserve peace, prevent conflict and to protect our people. Our world is changing, but one thing remains unchanged. The UK’s commitment to NATO is unwavering and we stand together with our allies to safeguard our security for the future.”

UK personnel are serving on operations around the world. From helping to train the Afghan National Army to working alongside allies in Estonia and flying air policing missions in Romania, the UK Armed Forces help to keep Britain safe through their role in NATO.

On the eve of the meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Washington D.C., a “NATO Engages” conference took place on Wednesday (3 April 2019) to discuss “the Alliance at 70”. Addressing the conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg celebrated the alliance, saying “the NATO alliance is not only the longest lasting alliance in history. It is the most successful alliance in history.”

Mr Stoltenberg also pointed to a “paradox”: while questions are being asked about the strength of the transatlantic bond, Europe and North America are actually doing “more together than in many decades”. Pointing to the “historic success” and enduring value of NATO, Mr Stoltenberg also stressed the importance of Allied unity in addressing security challenges ranging from terrorism to a more assertive Russia.

Russia Still Tops NATO’s Agenda

Mr Stoltenberg drew attention to the role NATO still plays in facing Russia, despite the end of the Cold War. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea. This was, said Stoltenberg, “The first time in Europe that one country had taken part of another by force since World War Two.”

He pointed to pattern in Russian behaviour, involving “a massive military build-up from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Black Sea to the Baltic. The use of a military-grade nerve agent in the United Kingdom. Support for Assad’s murderous regime in Syria.
Consistent cyber-attacks on NATO Allies and partners, targeting everything from Parliaments to power grids. Sophisticated disinformation campaigns. And attempts to interfere in democracy itself.”

Stoltenberg also pointed to pattern in NATO behaviour: “NATO has responded with the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence in decades. For the first time, we have combat-ready troops deployed in the east of our Alliance. We have increased the readiness of our forces. Tripled the size of the NATO Response Force. Modernized our command structure. Bolstered our cyber defences. And we have stepped up support for our close partners, Georgia and Ukraine, sovereign nations with the sovereign right to choose their own path.”

Stoltenberg argued that this was to preserve peace, but the build up of military forces also brings us closer to the possibility of war, with the world still at two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock.

US Vice President Mike Pence provided a keynote address earlier in the day, and Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller opened the conference, pointing to the evolution and increased capability of the Alliance over time. “NATO is evolving and NATO is adapting. And NATO looks a little bit different than it did on April 4th of 1949,” she said.

NATO’s Foreign Ministers are meeting in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday (3-4 April 2019) to celebrate 70 years since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, and to ensure that NATO remains a modern Alliance fit for modern challenges.

This month the UK is hosting over 10,000 personnel from across NATO as part of Exercise Joint Warrior. Taking place on land, at sea and in the air, the exercise allows allies to train together to protect mutual interests and maintain their ability to prevent conflict.

Mr Stoltenberg thanked US President Trump for his “strong leadership,” but with US criticisms of European defence funding, Stoltenberg ending his speech with an appeal for continued alliance. “Europe and North America are not separated by the Atlantic Ocean,” he said, “We are united by it.”

But we will always be united differently: for Europe, the USA is the strong arm that props up dwindling military capability; for the US, Europe is the expendable buffer zone where it hopes to contain and, if necessary, fight Russia.


Sources: NATO; MOD

Image: NATO flag by Sgt Paul Shaw (Crown Copyright, 2014).