The NSDMG/War College track welcomed members to the Westin Augusta C Saturday morning to hear a talk on the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and address the question of its relevance in the 2020s. University of North Georgia Political Science Professor Craig Greathouse led those in attendance through the history of NATO with particular emphasis on how the mission and purposes of the organization has evolved through the decades.
Greathouse launched his talk by pointing out that NATO is a relic of the Cold War. It is an alliance with both political and military dimensions ultimately dedicated to the physical security of its members. In the immediate post World War II period, the victorious allies were still primarily concerned with a potential threat from Germany. The earliest post war defense alliances focused there and included Western European nations. That focus only shifted toward the threat presented by the USSR in 1948 with the Berlin Blockade. When the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device the calculus changed, and NATO was born.
Originally consisting of twelve nations, centered on the heart of Western Europe, this alliance had, according to the first Secretary General of NATO, three essential goals: keeping the Russians out, the Americans in and Germans down. The Washington Treaty officially created the organization, and it built the organization around the concept of unanimity. All members must endorse a statement or action. The most critical article of the treaty (Article 5) basically states that an attack against one member state is an attack against all. That premise, along with the presence of American military might, worked to maintain security in the west through the fifty years of Cold War.
When 1991 saw the fall of the USSR and the end of the Warsaw Pact, questions of NATO’s relevance, purpose, and continuity arose. Even with the questions and debate, NATO continued its evolution, gradually welcoming into its organization central and Eastern European states. A significant expansion of membership occurred in 1999 when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the organization. Poland is the natural invasion corridor between Western Europe and Russia. During the Cold War there was great anxiety about a possible Soviet invasion of the west through it. Admission to NATO was celebrated in Poland, and seen with great concern by Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The gradual expansion of NATO membership eastward has continued and in 2023 NATO has essentially constructed a north-south wall of member states against Russia’s western border. While the world’s focus has been on Ukraine, the admission of Finland and Sweden, along with Turkey’s reengagement with NATO has nearly completed the ‘wall.’ In 2023 NATO’s scope of “in area concern” includes Europe, the Baltic and North Seas, The Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean Sea, and all land masses that touch them. That in effect puts NATO’s interest spanning a global arc from west Asia and Africa north to the arctic then west to the Western Hemisphere. It is a massive span and the lynchpin to the projection of NATO’s power and presence within it is, obviously, the United States.
How the current crisis in Ukraine influences NATO is (literally) another conversation in itself. What Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proper has done is end the debate over the future of the organization. In fact, Putin’s invasion has resulted in the very thing he always feared the most: NATO on his front porch. Greathouse argued that in the long run this expansion of NATO will have a profound impact. Only time will tell what that looks like.