Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reenergized the Trans-Atlantic alliance in a manner unthinkable just two years ago. President Donald Trump entered office in 2017 with a deeply skeptical view of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the role of the United States as the world’s policeman and guarantor of European and Pacific security. He deliberately kept vague his administration’s commitment to uphold Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which commits member states to treat an attack on any one of them as an attack on all of them and to take appropriate action “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
President Joe Biden entered office last year intent on reestablishing the credibility of the Trans-Atlantic alliance and reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO. Two weeks after taking the oath of office, Biden stated unequivocally that “America is back…we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.” At the 31st summit of NATO leaders in June 2021, Biden reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to NATO, while alliance leaders highlighted the challenges posed by a strengthening China and resurging Russia.
Perhaps because they did not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would go so far as to roll the iron dice and invade Ukraine, alliance leaders did not issue a declaratory statement, or create a “red line,” on what would happen if he actually did so. When as many as 200,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders and then invaded, Biden sent thousands of additional U.S. troops to Eastern Europe but explicitly stated that they would not enter Ukrainian territory to assist in the defense of that country. Biden, along with other NATO leaders, fashioned a set of responses to Russian aggression to include a commitment to “defend every inch of NATO territory,” severe economic sanctions (albeit not against Russian export to Europe of badly needed oil and gas), arming Ukraine with defensive weapons such as Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, diplomatically isolating Russia, and going after the assets of Russian oligarchs who benefitted from Putin’s rule. The response by Western leaders has been united and forceful, which undoubtedly surprised Putin, who viewed the West as weak and divided. Instead of making Russia great again, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine made NATO essential again.
The modern idea of a united alliance of great powers intent on deterring conflict is a century old, an outgrowth of the catastrophic Great War that nearly destroyed Europe’s faith in Western civilization. In the aftermath of that titanic struggle, the Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles—French Premier Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—agreed to create a League of Nations, an international body that would adjudicate and resolve international disputes, thus preventing a repeat of the seemingly accidental plunge into world war in 1914 and the resulting slaughter of a generation of youth in the trenches. The United States, however, never joined the League, with the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles resulting in the retreat of the United States into isolation in the Western Hemisphere, seemingly protected by two great oceans.
The League of Nations, nevertheless, appeared to hold promise. The Locarno Pact of 1925, which resolved Germany’s western borders, led to the inclusion of Germany into the League the following year with a permanent seat on the League Council. Nevertheless, the era of mutual security in Europe was short-lived. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 led to the subversion of the Versailles Treaty, which became a dead letter upon the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 by German forces. In Asia, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 after a League commission found Japanese forces had illegally occupied Manchuria. An Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 led the League to invoke economic sanctions, but France and Great Britain rescinded their support early the next year and allowed Italy to annex its illegally confiscated African possession. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, enacted three Neutrality Acts designed to prevent the United States from slipping into war as many believed it had done without much thought in 1917. Lacking widespread support for the hard decisions required to ensure collective security and without the support of the United States, the League withered and died with the onset of World War II.
The victory of the Grand Alliance in that second and even more cataclysmic worldwide conflict led to another and more successful attempt at establishing collective security. The United Nations charter was signed in San Francisco on June 25, 1945, with the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China holding permanent seats on the Security Council. The onset of the Cold War and the defeat of Nationalist forces in China, however, made consensus in that body difficult, with the lone exception of the Korean War, when a Soviet boycott of the United Nations in protest against Nationalist China maintaining its seat in the body enabled the United States to sponsor a resolution condemning the North Korean attack on South Korea and authorizing the use of force to repel the invading army. UN forces remain on guard along the 38th Parallel to this day.
Given the inability of the United Nations to maintain collective security, the United States and its European and North American allies established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 to provide for collective defense, to prevent the reemergence of militaristic governments in Western Europe, and to stimulate political integration of member states. Bilateral U.S. defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and Australia likewise provided a degree of collective security in the Pacific. These defense pacts prevented the outbreak of global hostilities and provided security for the global commons, leading to a new era of globalization and massive economic growth.
NATO is arguably the most successful alliance in history. For forty years it deterred a Soviet attack on Western Europe and provided a defense umbrella under which Europe grew both peaceful and prosperous. Germany was allowed to rearm under NATO auspices, and by the 1980s NATO possessed significant conventional capabilities to accompany its nuclear deterrent forces. It more than achieved its purpose, according to Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, led some to question the necessity for or viability of the alliance. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the descent of Bosnia and Herzegovina into civil war eventually led to a NATO-sponsored intervention that halted the fighting and stabilized the Balkans. NATO’s purpose, it turned out, was what it had always been—to keep the European continent stable and at peace. After terrorists launched attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty was invoked for the first time ever, and NATO aircraft patrolled the skies over U.S. cities for a short time.
For more ambitious American and European policy makers, NATO was seen not as a relic of the Cold War past, but as an avenue to the future. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO sought a new purpose in expanding the zone of democracy in Europe. Several rounds of enlargement expanded NATO relentlessly to the east, until it ran into the Russian border. Although Russian leaders were powerless to stop the advance, they were as it turns out less than enthralled by the prospect of having the world’s most powerful military alliance on their doorstep.
In 2005 Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in a speech to the Duma that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Putin’s desire to make Russia great again by rebuilding its military capabilities, linking the former Soviet Socialist Republics with Moscow, and dominating what Russian leaders refer to as the “near abroad” was clear enough. Putin directed invasions of Chechnya in 1999 and Georgia in 2008, ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and created puppet governments in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine after sparking a Ukrainian civil war in 2014. The purpose of the latter actions was to create “frozen conflicts” that would prevent NATO from admitting Georgia or Ukraine, as the alliance has never before embraced new members that had outstanding border disputes.
As the world discovered just a few weeks ago, these measures were insufficient to assuage Putin’s ambitions. He desired not just a neutered Ukraine, but a subservient one. Putin never reconciled himself to the ousting in 2014 of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow government in a struggle over whether Ukraine would join the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, or the Eurasian Economic Union, headquartered in Moscow. Ukrainians overwhelmingly wanted to look west for their future and took to the streets in massive numbers to make their point. To Putin, the Maidan Revolution was a western-inspired coup that severed Ukraine from its rightful place as the largest entity in Russia’s orbit.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has smacked Western leaders over the head with a two by four of reality. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced an increase in defense spending in his country to more than 2 percent of GDP, a figure that would put Germany ahead of Russia in military spending and which shows how deeply unsettling the Ukraine War has been to one of the most pacifist nations in Europe. President Biden has also earmarked increased funding for the U.S. armed forces, requesting $813B for national defense in FY 2023, with additional increases in the out years. Other NATO countries are likely to follow suit and strengthen their militaries.
Of course, the world has seen this emphasis on defense and deterrence come and go before. After World War II the United States demobilized, only to reverse course and maintain sustained high levels of defense spending from the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 to the Gulf War of 1991. The peace dividend of the 1990s ended in 2001 with the crash of airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Europe’s peace dividend lasted longer, but with Russian tanks rolling onto the Ukrainian steppes, the Continent is rearming. The West is united in opposing Russian aggression and is willing to back up that position with substantial resources and diplomatic clout. This posture has its limits, mainly in Asia, where China is taking a muscular stance towards Taiwan and its neighbors in the South China Sea but maintains significant economic leverage over its trading partners to temper their responses. European nations have also yet to wean themselves off of Russian oil and gas, which places limits on their ability to deter Putin’s adventurism.
Unless the West can come together economically in a manner that complements their military prowess, the current state of unity might be fleeting. At stake is the future of globalization, the prospect of collective deterrence of state-sponsored aggression, and the fate of the world’s democracies. Western policy makers must act decisively to ensure the Free World remains strong and united, even as the iron dice roll across the Eurasian heartland.