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Standing Firmly on a Precipice?: The Commitment of the United States to the NATO Alliance and the Fate of the Baltics

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Standing Firmly on a Precipice?: The Commitment of the United States to the NATO Alliance and the Fate of the Baltics

Douglas V. Mastriano

Image 1: Allied and Partner Nations in action, US Army LTC Douglas Mastriano conducting negotiations in Afghanistan, supported by Master Sergeant Gilbert Bosschaerts of Belgium on his right and Major Peter Ohlstenius of Sweden.  NATO Photo

There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them

- - Winston S. Churchill

The relevance of NATO was recently thrust onto the political scene in the United States were remarks were made regarding America’s commitment to the NATO Alliance.  This has far reaching ramifications and no place is more greatly impacted by such a discourse than Baltics where weakness in Washington could spell the horrors of another Russian invasion and occupation.  The story of NATO is rooted in a century of conflict.  The Alliance emerged after two bloody World Wars.  World War One, 1914-1918 witnessed the transformation of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at an appalling price in blood and treasure for people around the globe.  Although entering the war late, the United States made a decisive contribution to making the Allied victory possible.  A horrific price was paid by all of the lead nations in that war.  Yet it was higher than it ought to have been due in large part to emerging technologies (i.e. tanks, chemical warfare, air power) and the failure of the Allies to accept unified command under one supreme leader.  It took four painful years for the western nations to finally embrace the idea of a Supreme Allied Commander in the person of French Marechal Ferdinand Foch.  It was Foch who led the Allies to victory in 1918.

During the Versailles Treaty discourse on how to resolve the causes of war, the United States led the discussion of forming international organizations and institutions to prevent such another catastrophic conflict.  Thus was born the League of Nations that would serve an international forum to peacefully resolve disputes.  However, the United States abandoned the lessons of the First World War and decided to adapt a form of isolationism (non-interventionalism).  Meanwhile, in Europe, the recovery from the horrors of the First World War were difficult to overcome.  Entire generations of men had perished and the rapid withdrawal of the United States from Europe seemed to weaken the resolve of the fledgling League of Nations.  Europe was besieged by hostile ideologies ranging from Bolshevism to Socialist Fascism.  The Russian led Soviet Union was the first to threaten the post First World War peace by invading its neighbors in the Baltics and Poland.  Although the Soviets were beaten back, peace would not endure for long, as fascist governments emerged in Spain, Italy and Germany. 

The resolve of the Allies and the League of Nations was put to the test throughout the 1930s.  This included the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and others.  Yet, the greatest challenge to peace and the Alliance came with the rise of Adolf Hitler.  Hitler challenged the mandates of Versailles and the resolve of the League of Nations and Allies.  The first challenge to the status quo was the rearmament of Germany.  This was followed by the seizure of the demilitarized (international zone) of the Rhineland.  Despite these flagrant violations, the League and Allies took no action, emboldening Hitler to annex Austria in the 1938 Anschluss.  This was followed later that year with a demand be given the border lands (Sudetenland) of Czechoslovakia so that he could protect ethnic Germans.  In the now infamous Munich Conference, the Allies, led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain granted Hitler this demand (without consulting the Czechoslovakians), in exchange for a pledge for peace.  Hitler promised peace and Prime Minister Chamberlain returned to Great Britain saying he had achieved “peace in our time.” 

The “peace” lasted less than six month with the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Yet, the Allies and League of Nations did little more than utter long speeches of condemnation and disapproval.  Seeing nothing but weakness with the Allies, Hitler continued his expansionist agenda with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  At long last, the Allies declared war, but did nothing until Hitler unleashed his machines of war against the Low Countries and France in the spring of 1940.  The United States would enter the fray in 1941, and at considerable cost in blood and treasure worked closely with the Allies to defeat the Nazi and Fascist forces.  The second Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower seemed to have adopted the strategy and approach of Marechal Ferdinand Foch in winning the Second World War, demonstrating the value of learning from the past.

The United States was eager to demobilize its forces after the Second World War, and it appeared that once again that it would slowly withdraw militarily from the world scene.  Yet, the impending danger of a Soviet Invasion of Central and Western Europe was rising and the United States altered its strategy and maintained a presence in Europe to maintain the peace.  The bulwark to maintain the peace was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded on April 4, 1949.  The key tenant of the NATO Alliance remains Article V, which declares that an attack upon one member shall be considered an attack upon all.  Although greatly outnumbered conventionally by Soviet Forces throughout the Cold War, this tenant, backed up by the commitment and resolve of all nations, especially the United States of America, maintained an unprecedented era of peace across Europe not experienced since the Roman Empire. 

The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War 1991 brought questions on whether there was still a need for NATO.  Yet others argued that it could play an important role in the changing strategic environment.  As deliberation continued on the future of NATO, instability exploded in the Balkans as Yugoslavia fragmented along ethnic lines.  Horrific scenes of genocide and forced migration were broadcast around the world to the dismay of modern viewers.  The United Nations endeavored to bring peace through negotiations and by deploying inadequately armed soldiers to the region.  Yet, the atrocities continued.  In the end, the bloodshed only ended when NATO deployed to the region with the power and might of its armed forces.  Even then, commentators predicted that the Balkans would prove the end of the Alliance as this was the same place where other armies were destroyed on the rugged and harsh terrain.  They were proven wrong and NATO emerged from the Balkan crisis stronger and more unified.

The world changed suddenly when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001.  For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article V and treated the attack on the United States as an attack on member nations.  It is ironic in that when Article V was adapted in 1949, the belief was that it would be invoked when the Soviets attacked the West.  Yet, Article V was used to come to the support and defense of the United States.  Soldiers from across NATO deployed to help the United States in its hour of need to deploy to Afghanistan under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The predictions of NATO’s demise endured throughout NATO’s thirteen year commitment to helping the United States in Afghanistan.  Political commenters wrote much on how the Alliance would find its demise on the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is labeled by some commentators as “the graveyard of empires,” and with such a specter in mind, the ISAF mission would put NATO to a difficult test.   Even the Taliban believed that NATO was vulnerable, and commenced their counteroffensive in Afghanistan in 2006.  The timing of their attack was not an accident.  In late 2005, the United States began to transition the southern portion of Afghanistan to the ISAF (NATO led) mission.  The idea was that some nations in the NATO’s lacked resolve and commitment to the ISAF mission.  Should the Taliban kill enough NATO soldiers from any given country, that nation would quit ISAF.  This would be a strategic blow difficult for the Alliance to overcome should a nation leave Afghanistan in the face of high casualties.    

The fighting in 2006 was the worst since the end of the 2001-2002 American led invasion.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the fateful decision to deploy as few ground forces as possible during the 2001-2002 campaign.  Because of this, many members of the Taliban leadership were able to flee to safe havens in Pakistan.  They used 2002-2006 to rearm, retrain, reequip and recruit.  When the opportunity to strike arrived in 2006, the Taliban was ready.  The spring campaign kicked off with ferocity in April 2006, with the Canadian forces receiving the blunt of the attacks.  This was arguably the greatest test of NATO’s resolve.  Yet, in the end, the combined forces of Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the United States, and their Afghan partners, prevailed.  The Taliban failed to drive any NATO nation out of the ISAF mission due to casualties.  The Alliance came out of Afghanistan stronger, more unified and resolved.  All of the NATO members fulfilled their commitment to Article V.

As the ISAF mission ended, a new challenge arose threatening both the security of Europe and North American; Putin’s Russia.  The annexation of Crimea, its war against Georgia, and Ukraine and its cyber-attack against Estonia are a threat to the peace and stability so hard won.  NATO is taking measures to deter Russian aggression from being directed against the eastern member states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  It is at this point of the geo-political discourse that the question of America’s commitment is being bantered about.

From an American perspective, it is troubling that many of the NATO members have ungraciously taken advantage of the security umbrella provided by the United States to slash their defense spending to create societies rife with government benefits.  To be sure, every nation must do more.  But, is the sacrifice and commitment to NATO solely from the United States?  Commentators in North America seem to believe so.  Yet, what they do not mention is that all of the NATO Allies have made incredible sacrifices fighting America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It would be hard for the citizens of nations like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to justify their soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan from an economic of other perspective.  The simple fact is that the United States was attacked, Article V invoked and they came to our aid.  Of the 3,407 soldiers killed in Afghanistan during ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, 1,136 of these were from NATO or partner nations.  This does not include the tens of thousands more wounded.  How does one place a price tag on such a commitment?  Additionally, most of the NATO nations also deployed their soldiers to Iraq, which was not a NATO mission.  They came, and many died, to honor their commitment to the United States in friendship and in fulfillment to the ideas that it stands for. 

It has been customary throughout its history to hear questions raised about the relevance and utility of the NATO Alliance.  Yet, the outcome of the Cold War, the Balkans, the ISAF mission and the deterrence effect on an aggressive Vladimir Putin demonstrates that the Alliance is still relevant and even vital to maintaining the peace.  It took two horrific world wars for Europe and the United States to realize the need for a viable military alliance.  It would be a costly and irreversible mistake to undercut and weaken the one military alliance in world history that has so long held back the death and destruction from a continent so familiar with war.  It has been the greatest guarantor of democracy and defender of capitalism.  NATO has made it possible for both Europe and the United States to enjoy unprecedented prosperity and security.  Now is not the time to undermine our resolve or our commitment to the Alliance.  History demonstrates that weakness results in war.  It would be the greatest of calamities to telegraph weakness and doubt of America’s commitment to NATO.  How does this benefit the United States?  Howe does this make Europe safe and secure.  What Russia hears from the political discourse in the United States could be catastrophic, and may result in a risky gambit by Putin to try to seize the Baltic Region.  This would not be some far-away war, but something that would cause the collapse of the American economy and in the end lead to another horrific world war. 

NATO has immense value and enduring worth to Europe, Canada and the United States.  The Alliance has come out of difficult missions in the Cold War, the Balkans and Afghanistan stronger.  Yet, this strength came be undone by doubts on America’s commitment to it.  All twenty-eight nations must do more from a defense perspective, but such negotiations should be conducted behind closed doors.  Otherwise, a public debate could be misread in the Kremlin as a sign of weakness.  Too much is at stake to telegraph lack of resolve and could result in another war of unimaginable proportions.  President Ronald Reagan captured the importance of maintaining strength, saying in 1986;

“We know that peace is the condition under which mankind was meant to flourish. Yet peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations. George Washington's words may seem hard and cold today, but history has proven him right again and again. "To be prepared for war,'' he said, "is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.''

NATO is one of the bulwarks of strength to avert war, as long as the commitment of its members to honor Article V is believed by any potential threat, whether it be Putin or another leader with an expansionist agenda it will remain viable.  History of the last century is clear, weakness invites provocation and war.

Image 2: Opening Ceremony for Operation Saber Strike 2015 in Lithuania.  The exercise was conducted in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland and was a US Army Europe led exercise that included 6,000 soldiers from thirteen nations.  (US Army Europe Photo)

Categories: NATO

About the Author(s)

Colonel Douglas Mastriano was commissioned in the United States Army in 1986. He began his career on the Iron Curtain with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, where he served along the East German and Czechoslovakian borders. Here, he witnessed the end of the Cold War and deployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm where his regiment led the main attack against Saddam's Republican Guards. Having survived several close calls by God's grace, he went on to serve in the Pentagon, the 3rd Infantry Division "Rock of the Marne," and US Army Europe (USAREUR). He also served four years in NATO Land Headquarters, from where he deployed three times to Afghanistan, commanding soldiers from eighteen nations. Colonel Douglas Mastriano has a PhD in history from University of New Brunswick and is a faculty member at the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.