Today, the most important military alliance in the world turns 72. After four decades of defending Western Europe against the Soviet threat, in the 1990s NATO halted and rolled back some of Europe’s worst atrocities since the Holocaust. After 9/11 brought the alliance into missions far from its normal sphere of operations, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought home just how important its original mission still is. Today, while a man who foolishly treated NATO with contempt is out of the White House, the alliance must still make clear why it is needed.
The threats Donald Trump posed to NATO during his four years in office pale in comparison to some of the challenges it faced during the Cold War. Aside from the ever-present threat of a nuclear exchange, relations between the allies were sometimes quite tense, often in ways that seem strikingly similar to events of the last few years. U.S. presidents as far back as John F. Kennedy have pressed Western European countries to increase their defense spending, and have struggled mightily when trying to fix the problem themselves. Charles de Gaulle’s disagreements with Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in this regard likely contributed to his decision in 1966 to remove France from NATO’s unified military command structure (though this probably had more to do with de Gaulle’s refusal to accept how weak France had become in the post-World War II world). When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed, it was an open question whether NATO even needed to exist anymore.
The alliance may well have crumbled under the weight of its members’ own uncertainties had it not been for a humanitarian tragedy. In July 1995, three years into a fierce ethnic and sectarian war in the Balkans, Bosnian Serb troops stormed the city of Srebrenica (officially a “safe area” protected by the United Nations) and massacred eight thousand Muslim men and boys, while UN peacekeepers stood by helplessly. While Bill Clinton had promised to use American military force to stop Serb aggression during his 1992 presidential campaign, when he came to power he fell into indecision. Both he and his European counterparts theoretically wanted to intervene, but the Europeans would only be willing to act if America took the lead. Dealing with domestic economic and political concerns (as well as the October 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia where eighteen U.S. soldiers died), Clinton couldn’t bring himself to act. (Clinton’s indecision had much deadlier consequences in 1994, when he and the rest of the world stood back as eight hundred thousand people were killed in the Rwandan genocide.)
While it should not have taken the Srebrenica massacre to spur Clinton to act, when it happened he finally overcame his indecision. In Operation Deliberate Force, NATO airstrikes stopped the Serb onslaught, enabling a ceasefire in the Balkans after three and a half years of war. American-led negotiations then led to the creation of an independent Bosnia. In 1999, after Slobodan Milosevic — the Serb leader of Yugoslavia who had empowered the genocidal actions of Bosnian Serbs — responded to insurrections in Kosovo with a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and negotiations failed to stop him, NATO intervened again. In Operation Allied Force, an even larger air campaign forced Milosevic to halt his aggression and accept the presence of a NATO stabilization force in Kosovo. In the decade that followed, Milosevic fell from power, was arrested for war crimes, and died in prison in The Hague, while Kosovo became an independent country. The world should be thankful NATO did not decide to call it quits when the Cold War ended.
When an institution has stood tall and proud for a very long time, it becomes easy to take it and its benefits for granted. But no institution created and maintained by human beings stands of its own accord. It requires human actions, the wise and confident actions of people who believe in the institution and its mission, to continue providing its benefits. Until Trump came to power, it was inconceivable, in the minds of most observers, that a U.S. president would be so hostile to NATO in front of the whole world. It was a norm that, while American leaders might fiercely criticize allies in private, and might express occasional annoyance in public, overt hostility simply did not happen. Norms are not enough; no great tradition can hold if those charged with keeping it do not believe in it.
As Joe Biden struggles to undo the damage of his predecessor, foil Putin’s aggressive ambitions, give the challenge of China the attention it deserves, and attend to a wide range of domestic concerns — all while the world still grapples with COVID-19 — let those of us who believe strongly in NATO resolve to keep it going in any way we can. Let those of us who have seen with our own eyes the good it has done — halting massacres, providing solidarity in the face of an authoritarian threat, giving liberal democracies values to aspire to even if they slide away from them — make sure it continues to do it. Let us keep the faith in the Atlantic alliance.