Updated: 06-Nov-2003 NATO Speeches


6 Nov. 2003

How did NATO survive the Cold War?
NATO's transformation after the Cold War
from 1989 to the present

Video lecture by Jamie Shea,
Deputy Assistant Secretary General for External Relations
and acting NATO Spokesman

A very warm good afternoon to friends and colleagues down there in Garmisch at the Marshall Centre, and to the audience here at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

This is a first, the first lecture that I've been invited to give, not just for the audience who is here today, but for all those who log on to the NATO Web site, on current issues facing the Atlantic Alliance.

Over the next few weeks, it will be my honour and pleasure to comment directly with you some of the recent developments in NATO's history, but also to try to answer some of the questions that are out there in the wider public about how successful NATO has been at transforming itself, and where the Alliance can be expected to go in the future.

It was the German 19 th Century philosopher Hegel who once said that you can only look as far into the future as you are capable of looking back into the past. And therefore today, in the first of this series of lectures, I'd like to talk a little about how NATO survived the Cold War.

It still strikes many commentators, as something of a paradox that an organization which was created by the Cold War, and in the eyes of many to uphold the Cold War division of Europe, has had perhaps its most exciting period since 1989, and since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and shows every sign, currently, of surviving the post-Cold War world for even longer than the half century that it survived during the Cold War itself.

So today I'd like to try to explain how this rather paradoxical phenomenon happened, and how NATO transformed itself after1989, and what some of the lessons we learned along the way in terms of the transatlantic relationship and our ability to deal with other states in Europe and beyond.

Paul Henri Spaak was the second Secretary General of NATO in the 1950s. He famously said that every village and town in Europe should erect a statue to Joseph Stalin because it was Stalin, even more than Churchill or Truman, or the other wartime leaders of the allied coalition in World War II, it was Stalin who was the true father of the Alliance. Had Stalin not overplayed his hand in the late 1940s, had there not been a coup d'état in Czechoslovakia in 1948, had we not had to go through the experience of the Berlin airlift, the political will in both Europe and the United States would never have been there to found the Atlantic Alliance.

The U.S. Congress would never have been concerned enough to agree to give an open-handed security guarantee against any type of threat to a group of European countries, particularly given the traditional American practice of fighting wars, of winning wars, but then retreating into isolationism at home. And even today we take the American commitment to Europe so much for granted that we forget that NATO was only the second military alliance that the United States had signed up until then in its entire history. Even then, the vote in the Congress was a close round thing; and when the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had to testify on NATO, he had to give a commitment that signing the Transatlantic Pact would not mean that any U.S. soldiers would be sent back to Europe.

Of course at that time, in 1949, Acheson was being totally sincere. But what he did not know was that within a year the war in Korea would break out, there would be worries of instability in Asia could produce instability in Europe. And American troops accordingly came back in large numbers and they've stayed in Europe, albeit in slightly smaller numbers, through this very day.

So there is no denying the fact that it was the perception of the Soviet threat to Europe in the 1940s that lead to NATO. That perception, incidentally, was based not just on overwhelming Soviet military power but on the perception that left at themselves, the European countries would be too weak economically, too weak in a security sense, too divided to able to withstand Soviet political influence domestically, as much as military pressure against their borders.

So NATO was not only a military alliance. From the very beginning it was also a political psychological confidence pact whereby the American umbrella allowed Europeans to regain their sense of identity, their sense of confidence, and to rebuild after the Second World War. There is even a case which I think can be made by historians that without the security blanket that NATO put in place, the willingness to risk both new experiments in European integration at the end of the 1950s would not have been there.

So yes, I think we have to acknowledge that NATO was the stepchild of Stalin. It was an alliance that responded to a developing cold war situation, even if it was not itself responsible for creating the Cold War. But I would argue that the Cold War circumstances were already in place before April 4 th 1949, when NATO came into existence.

But, having said that, from the word go', there was a sense from both sides of the Atlantic that if NATO were only a Cold War organization, if its focus were only directed against Stalin or the Soviet Union, it would have no future. Because once those circumstances changed, NATO would lose its raison d'être.

So at the very beginning, the Treaty was left deliberately vague. Unlike many other treaties, it contains only a dozen or so articles. Nowhere in the Treaty is there a reference to the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Atlantic Pact was designed to cover European countries from any kind of threats or instability, or to be prepared to consult on security developments anywhere in the world.

This may not have seemed very necessary at the time, but it's turned out to be prophetic because the very looseness of the Treaty, the unspecificity of the Treaty, has allowed of course NATO, since the end of the Cold War, to take on issues in other areas of the world, whether it be in the Balkans or Afghanistan, to consult on all kinds of problems, such as terrorism or weapons of mass destruction that an anti-Soviet pact, in the classical sense of the term, would never have given us the legal basis to do.

The second aspect was that in the 1950s, the allies had a report by the so-called Three Wisemen, in 1956, three Foreign ministers that clearly said that if NATO were to thrive, it had to go beyond simply an American military guarantee, but to develop political institutions and a habit of political consultation, which would underline the permanent common values and common interests of the members.

And this led directly to the developments of the political side of the alliance, which has kept on growing and has become so important in dealing with problems today.

And then, throughout the Cold War period, NATO was constantly trying to adapt its strategy and its doctrine to deal with different times. And particularly in the 1960s, the prospect of the détente with the Soviet Union. In 1967, NATO's Harmel Report clearly spelled out that security could not simply reside in nuclear weapons, or nuclear deterrents, or high-level of defence spending, even if at the end of the day they were the ultimate guarantee. Security required a political tract trying to defuse tensions through transparency and engaging the other side. The détente aspect, the dialogue aspect, which NATO pursued at the end of the 60s by seeking with the Soviet Union reductions in conventional military forces in Europe.

And that, of course, led NATO into this whole business of dialogue and partnership, albeit in a rather tentative way, which has become so important in the tasks of this organization, since the end of the Cold War.

Having said that, it's true that the Cold War was a comfortable time for many people. When I was a student, one of the key books was written by a State Department's official, Anton DePorte. It was called : Europe between the super powers. And it expressed the common view at the time, which was ultimately that the division of Europe may not be morally a good thing, but it procured many advantages. The West did not have to worry about the problems of the East. The American security umbrella gave Western European the ability to survive on low levels of defence spending, which without the Americans, would have been impossible. And that money, of course, was applied into economic and social development creating the Wirtschaftswunders, the economic miracles of the time, or to pursue European integration without needing to worry too much about what was going on in the rest of the world.

It seemed also to others that no matter how much they may have wanted the Soviet system to disappear, or Eastern Europe to be returned to a democratic government, but because of the division of Europe, because of the balance of power, the two scorpions in the bottle that Winston Churchill memorably described, there wasn't really much that we could do about it. According to George Kennan, the father of containment, the most we could hope to do was to maintain the and wait for the Soviet system to gradually change from within, or even to mellow, or to fade away, which of course was ultimately was what happened.

But above all, even if there was a sense that the Cold War was not something that could be challenged through military power, through a roll-back strategy, NATO had to be ready when change suddenly began, and to be in a position, not to take military advantage of that change, but to seize the political opportunities. And of course, in 1989, suddenly the unthinkable happened on a night in November, the Berlin Wall was breached. People power had made itself felt and heard throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

And therefore, we come to the next question: Can NATO take any credit for the ending of the Cold War?

In one sense, no. The end of the Cold War was visibly the result of the popular, the velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, people power being expressed directly, and the Soviet Union realizing under Gorbachev that history was not on its side. Those that go against history are defeated by it, Gorbachev told the leader of East Germany, and therefore the ability not to stand in the way of necessary change.

So I'm not claiming that therefore NATO should take all of the credit for what happened. But it's difficult to believe either that that change in 1989 and 1990 would have happened had the Alliance not existed in the first place.

For one thing, as I said, NATO in the 60s and 70s was able to establish the practice of détente, of a contract between the two alliances alliances, the beginning of transparency for openness in the relationship, which was a powerful driver of all the change in Central and Eastern Europe.

Secondly, NATO made it impossible for the Soviet Union to expand further in Europe after World War II thereby delivering a response to those that argued that the future of communism lay in a world revolution, or the ability to carry on expanding around the globe. Once NATO had blocked that expansionism, the belief that communism represented necessarily the future was dealt a powerful, psychological blow.

The next thing is that NATO helped Western Europe to grow economically, as I've said. And therefore, increasingly in the 1960s, the success of the Western model in delivering the goods of human happiness was visibly a powerful magnet on the peoples in Central and Eastern Europe, not to believe that they lived necessarily in a worker's paradise.

And then NATO too, also, created a situation in which it became pointless for the Soviet Union to try to win advantages through an arms race or a military competition with the West, given NATO's ability to respond. The decisive moment, in this respect, undoubtedly occurred in the 1980s, during the saga over the deployment of cruise and Pershing weapons, nuclear weapons, in Europe. This of course, today, in an age when nuclear weapons are so less important in NATO's strategy, seems like a long, long, long way away. But at the time, the NATO governments had a difficult time facing down very strong anti-nuclear protest movements, and a great deal of Soviet political opposition, demonstrating that despite the costs, they were capable of in fact going ahead with the deployment strategy.

This then gave the Soviet Union more of an incentive to negotiate these weapons away through arms control negotiations, than through confrontations. And in 1987, we had the INF Treaty, the forerunner of a whole series of arms control agreements in East-West relations that came thereafter.

So NATO's strength ultimately pushed the Soviet Union into forms of political cooperation that were not originally envisaged.

Finally, NATO undoubtedly committed the United States to the defence of Western Europe which had the advantage of anchoring Germany in the West, and solving, up until then, what historians have described as the problem of Germany, whith its central location swinging between East and West.

And in fact, even the Russians ultimately recognized, despite a previous policy of seeking German neutrality, that Germany in NATO anchored in the West, integrated was better for their security and everybody's security than the Germany which was somehow unhinged.

Indeed, when Chancellor Kohl went to Russia, to the Caucuses in 1990 to negotiate German unification with Gorbachev, Gorbachev at the end agreed that it would be best for everybody if a united Germany remained in NATO, and a German unification would not come at the expense of the alliance.

So in other words, NATO's great contribution was to be a factor that created a durable political order in Europe where one had not previously existed.

Now, after 1989, of course the question immediately was on everybody's mind: Would NATO, despite a very impressive record, survive? Why should it survive, particularly as its so-called counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, disintegrated in the winter of 1990 and the spring of 1991. If no Warsaw Pact, what need for a counterpart in the West?

But strangely, there was never a debate about NATO suddenly disappearing. Yes, there was some hesitation among the NATO staff. I well remember a meeting that Manfred Woerner, the then Secretary General had to have with his staff reassuring many anxious staffers who feared for their future that NATO would be in business. He had more confidence than many of them at the time.

But there were fundamental differences between NATO and the Warsaw Pact that had been there from the very beginning. The Warsaw Pact was a forced alliance based on the limited sovereignty of its members, exemplified, of course, in the crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in August of 1968. NATO was a free alliance. Nobody had ever been forced to join. Indeed some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, had a very difficult domestic debate in the 1940s before deciding to go ahead and join in the first place. But having won that hard fought contest, thereafter they did not look back.

Others like Greece or France had left the military structure at various times. Others were quite happy to work out their own individual form of alliance membership in line with their political traditions, some contributed troops, other didn't. Some stationed these forces over seas, some didn't. Some hosted nuclear weapons on their territory, others didn't. NATO therefore was clearly an alliance which combined solidarity with a high degree of self choice at home. And NATO had always allowed any member that wanted to leave to give one year's notice and leave.

So NATO could, yes, have gone the way of the Warsaw Pact technically after 1990. So why didn't it?

Well, I think the first thing is that there was right then a sense that the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the Warsaw Pact, did not mean the end of security problems. Nobody suddenly believed that the disappearance of communism had created a nirvana, a golden age in which the allies would be able to live without armed forces, or to live without protection. Indeed, at the time, in the early 1990s, there were considerable fears that the collapse of the Soviet Union could not be peaceful any more than the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, or the Ottoman Empire at the same time, had been peaceful affairs.

And at a time of instability in the East, the key thing is to have stability and predictability in the West, and therefore to keep NATO. There was also the factor, as I said before, of making sure that Germany remained anchored in multi-lateral institutions provided by NATO and the EU. Nobody wanted to give up the U.S. link. Sure, in 1990 the idea of needing Americans for nuclear protection might have looked less urgent than in 1960. But everybody realized that if you gave up NATO and the American security guarantee, a Congress, perhaps in a more isolationist mood, might not be willing to grant that again in a future time of uncertainty. And having got it, the best thing was to keep it.

It's true, ladies and gentlemen, that certain intellectual figures in Eastern Europe did believe that NATO could be replaced with a collective security organization resembling the CSCE, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has now become the OSCE, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe.

But interestingly enough, many of the key figures in Eastern Europe, like Vaclav Havel, who became subsequently the President of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic, did not believe that that was the way to go. Havel came to NATO in 1990 and made one of the greatest speeches ever made in this building, apologizing on behalf of the Czechs for the propaganda that had been spread about NATO in his country for many years, and making it clear that he much preferred the predictability of a functioning security alliance to keep peace in Europe, than to go back to a League of Nations style collective security system, in which theoretically everybody is responsible for the security of everybody else; and in reality, nobody is responsible for anybody's security, a system which would come onto the domination of one or two great powers.

So the notion which was popular for a time that NATO could be dissolved in a new pan-European system did not hold for very long.

So even though maybe in 1990 it wasn't very clear where NATO would be going in the future, in a world without the dominant Soviet threat as the glue that would hold the allies together, there was still the sense that this had been an effective insurance policy, that it was based on a habit of cooperation and consultation and sharing of risks, of responsibilities and integrated military structure, and like an insurance policy, better to keep it and adapt it, and wait for the new threats and challenges to come along, to give it a meaning, than to do without it, but then try to have to reinvent it at a moment's notice, when those threats re-emerged.

But certain people did predict a boring future. I remember Lord Carrington, when he was Secretary General, telling his incoming Secretary General, his successor, Manfred Woerner, Oh, I feel sorry for you! You're going to have such a boring time! And of course, Woerner then had all of the excitement of having to deal with the collapse of communism and the reshaping of NATO after the Cold War. Carrington once telephoned him and he said My God! Manfred! If I had known this was going to happen, I would have never have let you take over!

But of course, by then it was too late, and Manfred Woerner, one of the greatest Secretary Generals, was firmly in the saddle.

Georgi Arbatov, who was a very famous Soviet strategist, the Head of the U.S. and Canada Institute in Moscow, made a reputation for himself by going around saying We, the Soviets, have done something dreadful to you, NATO. We've taken away the threat, and you won't be able to survive without us.

Taking this formula to heart, Manfred Woerner then set out to prove that the security alliance can indeed survive without a threat by turning itself from a defence organization, upholding the status quo, into a security organization trying to, politically, not simply to protect itself, but to shape change around it.

Now, this, of course, was a tough business for the Alliance, and it dominated much of the 1990s. In essence, what NATO set out to do was to demonstrate that it could project to the East the type of stability and security which hitherto for only NATO members in the West have been able to enjoy. But unlike the Cold War where if you were in, you had everything, but if you were out, you had nothing, that NATO, in various stages, could extend security, different degrees to all of the many, many countries in the Euro-Atlantic area; not as an act of charity, although these programs, of course, considerably assisted NATO members themselves, but also because this would help to keep at a distance potential new threats, or potentially by stabilizing the hinterland of the Alliance make NATO's own military efforts be able to be considerably reduced, so that we could generally reap, as everybody hoped for, at the beginning of the 1990s, the peace dividend.

This story, I think, is well known to most of the people who would be tuning in to this particular lecture. The first thing, of course, was to make it clear at the end of the Cold War that NATO would not seek to take advantage of Soviet discomfiture. In Turnberry in 1989, we extended a hand of friendship to the East and made it clear that for us the time of confrontation was over, we were not going to pursue it, and that we wanted a dialogue with former adversaries. At the NATO Summit, in London, in 1990, we invited Gorbachev to visit NATO headquarters, something which, unfortunately, he never did. But his successors, hopefully, will do in the future. Certainly NATO has met with his successors and on many occasions.

In 1991, we created the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, because were overwhelmed with the desire of so many former adversaries to not only benefit from a dialogue with the Alliance, but to actually want to come here and seek if, for some, NATO membership, but for maybe some form of practical cooperation, as if the closer they got to NATO, the more secure and the more comfortable with themselves they would feel.

In 1994, NATO's Summit in Brussels led to some major innovations in this regard. We launched the Partnership for Peace. This has been one of the most successful ideas of the 20 th century. A tailored-made programme of cooperation based on a Chinese menu of possible cooperation activities which allows any NATO partner state to do as much as it wants according to its political will, according to its budget, according to its security needs.

This program has been so successful that it now extends to the Caucasus and Central Asia, even Serbia and Montenegro, the only country that NATO ever fought a conflict against in its history in 1989, wishes to be a part of it. And a program so successful that it's now been extended in a different shape to seven countries in the Mediterranean and the Middle-East area as well. It's a program, which has helped the Central and Eastern European countries to gain democratic control over their armed forces, the first principle of democracy. To restructure their armed forces while retraining for civilian life those military officers that no longer have a role, to be interoperable with NATO so that they've been able to join us in our peacekeeping operations, to get help with the restructuring of their Defence ministries and other institutions.

This is kind of a permanent Marshall Plan for defence, which, as it has increasingly done the job in Central and Eastern Europe with more and more countries in this area joining NATO, can be extended outwards, therefore, further a field into Asia, into Central Asia, dealing with issues there like the drugs trade, like border security, that are very very germane to that area indeed.

If for no other reasons than the Partnership for Peace, NATO will have fully justified its right to survive for the first half of the 21st century. Eventually, these arrangements became so successful that they were developed into various other forms of cooperation. A Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council involving even more regular concentrations with our partners. The European neutral ztates that normally had given NATO a very wide berth coming in and realizing the cooperation with NATO would not mean the abandonment of neutrality.

Indeed, Switzerland joined NATO's Partnership for Peace years before it joined the United Nations. The current Secretary General, George Robertson, liked to go around every time he saw the U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Anan, saying Kofi, I've got something that you don't have: Switzerland!, although he can't unfortunately use that joke any longer because, as you know, two years ago Switzerland did finally join the United Nations.

But it was under the Partnership for Peace that Switzerland sent armed troops outside its boarders for the first time since the end of the 18 th century. And vast numbers of other countries have been able to use the PfP to make a contribution to European security in a multilateral sense that they would not have been able to make alone.

NATO too opened its doors and enlarged to the three countries in 1999 to seven countries in 2002. Seven countries which will be not just de facto, but also de jure members of the Alliance next year before we have our Summit in Istanbul. At that time, ladies and gentlemen, 40 percent of our membership will be countries that used to be our adversaries, just a decade ago, ex-communist countries, which shows, I think, very graphically the extent of the transformation. That door will remain open proving a point which has never before existed in the history of European security, that a state can choose to be a member of the Alliance or not to be a member, that is its own choice. No other country can impose that choice upon it, but the small can have as much security as the big, getting away from the whole sphere of influence, arrangements that we used to have.

And finally, that history and geography are not fatalities, that because you have lived in the past in a rough neighbourhood, or because you have been part of somebody's sphere influence, does not mean that you cannot be a member of NATO tomorrow.

Some people, of course, well, how far can you expand and not lose your cohesion? The answer is we don't know. It's a very difficult question to answer. What we have learned so far is that new members coming into the Alliance have not been Delilah weakening of the powerful Samson, but in fact have constituted new blood, new ideas, new vigour for atlantism, vastly strengthening the Alliance, and putting a lot more in than so far they have had to take out.

Even Russia, the country that was for so long our adversary, is now embedded in a NATO-Russia Council where we meet to not talk about fighting each other but how we can fight together against modern problems such as terrorism.

So indeed, ladies and gentlemen, at the beginning of the 1990s, NATO had every reason to experience a degree of satisfaction. We've confounded the critics by outliving the systems that we were brought into existence to confront. The Warsaw Pact is gone, the Soviet Union had gone. We've proven that wooing adversaries instead of denouncing them could be a perfectly legitimate business for a security oganization, that expanding the zone East to finish the unification of Europe that was started in 1945 was a worthy goal. We've proven that NATO's ability to deal with the soft security aspects, retraining security dialogues, help, could be as worthwhile activities for a military structure as preparing to fight high-technology warfare.

We'd even achieve the ultimate, which was persuading Russia to bury the hatchet of the Cold War and enter into a relationship with us.

But at the beginning of the 1990s, by 91, 92, not only were people congratulating us but were wondering where the NATO's future lay in becoming a kind of security university. But perhaps, never again would we need to fight anybody. The Jaw-Jaw as Chruchil would put it, has permanently replaced War-War as the main raison d'être for the Alliance. Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, in a famous cover, even declared that we could get rid of armies, we didn't need them any longer. There would be no conceivable threat on the horizon of European security, and that therefore, NATO's business, before going out of existence sometime in the future, was really to tidy up the unfinished business of the Cold War by completing the integration of East and West.

An attractive vision, no doubt, you would all think. But at the very moment when Der Speigel was announcing that the Bundeswehr could be abolished because Germany didn't need it any longer, at the very moment where we were seeing Europe as a kind of Arcadian continent in which war had been banished to the bad memories of the first part of the 20 th century, and that Europe now would be a model of civilized behaviour, of overcoming ancestral disputes to the rest of the world, at the very moment where it seemed that NATO could be a security organization without armed forces, down in the Balkans, in 1991, ethnic conflict broke out between Croatia and Slovia, soon followed by the tragedy of the disintegration of Bosnia, and a civil war in Europe, which was soon to lead to 300,000 deaths, 2.4 million refugees and 65 percent of the entire population of Bosnia suddenly displaced.

The euphoria was dealt a very bad blow indeed. And therefore, in addition to partnership, suddenly NATO was trust into a very different light. Could the Alliance, which had maintained that status quo strategically actually deploy forces for the first time outside its border? Could it get involved in ethnic conflicts based on ethnic lines? Could it keep the peace? In other words, could it rather like the United Nations, an organization able to uphold peace beyond its boarders and effectively handle crisis?

NATO was up to the challenge of partnership, would it be up to the challenge of Bosnia? And that's what I'd like to talk about in my next lecture when I will zero in more specifically on NATO's transformation, on acccount of its involvements in the murderous wars of the collapse of Yugoslavia in the second half of the 1990s.

Questions and answers

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