NATO: Why keep a boot in Europe?

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Mrs. Language Person stumbled in Tuesday’s column about acronyms and initialisms, defining NATO as the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. Turns out, that’s not entirely wrong. While the “O” indeed stands for “Organization,” NATO is also referred to as the North Atlantic Alliance — an alliance now comprising 29 nations.

On the heels of WWII, a battle-weary, insecure world felt another threat looming: The former Soviet Union. NATO was a military alliance formed in 1949 by 12 countries bordering (or near) the Atlantic Ocean — including the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe — as a collective bulwark against that perceived threat. It was the first time we’d joined an overseas alliance in peacetime.

Why did we do that? The U.S. viewed an economically strong, re-armed and integrated Europe as vital to the prevention of communist expansion across the continent, especially after Hitler’s attempt at such an expansion. Hence the Marshall Plan of large-scale economic aid to Europe to help them rebuild — an effort the Soviets did not join. Yes, they’d also fought Germany in WWII, but in addition to philosophical differences, the U.S.S.R. was seriously struggling economically, facing widespread famine.

Soviet failure to either participate in the Marshall Plan or allow its satellite states in Eastern Europe to accept the economic assistance reinforced a growing east-west division. A series of other political events increased such western wariness, and led to the formation of NATO.

Funding its common budget (there are also separate expenditures for NATO projects and activities, not necessarily made by all its nations) is based on a gross national income formula; as one of the world’s wealthier nations, the U.S. portion is highest, and currently exceeds the minimum agreed to in the Treaty. The fact that we fund the majority of NATO’s standing budget is a situation the president continues to question. There are other types of contributions, such as equipment expenditures — Romania contributes the highest share in military equipment, for example.

The USSR is long gone. So why isn’t NATO? Because addressing worries over Soviet expansion in Europe was only part of NATO’s point. From the beginning NATO had two other purposes: preventing the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe (through a strong North American presence there), and encouraging European political integration to encourage stability. In short, since 1949 we’ve seen the benefits of coming out of isolation and participating on a world stage, for mutual security.

After the Berlin wall came down in 1989, NATO went through an existential self-examination. Should the Atlantic Alliance continue? In short, as “Europe” continues to redefine itself, shifting and forming economic and other unions, the answer was yes. Since the 1990s, NATO continues to focus on European security in a variety of ways, including (especially since 9/11) joint efforts to combat terrorism.

This week’s headlines describing the president’s comments about Russia, warning NATO against possible attack, would seem to bring us full circle. To learn a lot more about NATO’s activities, see NATO.int.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network with degrees in international studies and law. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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