The first Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the sober and judicious British Lord Ismay, famously remarked that the purpose of the controversial new postwar alliance would be “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Over the next sixty-six years of NATO’s existence, most in the Atlantic Alliance assumed that the first commandment was obvious, the second one was taken for granted, and the third would soon be irrelevant. No longer.
With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, few worry anymore about an invasion from a shrinking Russia. America’s recent loud announcements of a shift in strategic focus to Asia, coupled with continual cutbacks in troop levels within Europe, reflect, in trans-Atlantic terms, a new American desire to “lead from behind.” We saw that shift in the recent Libyan war, when the Obama administration outsourced America’s historic leading role in NATO to a militarily weak Great Britain and France, while predicating the legitimacy of the alliance’s intervention on United Nations directives (which were almost immediately exceeded when found bothersome to operations).
The alliance has recently not fared too well elsewhere. The effort in Afghanistan was to be the Obama administration’s “good war” (compared to Iraq) that would showcase NATO solidarity. Instead, we saw bickering European nations seeking to either evade or end their participation in the war. Note that Germany did not participate in Libya, and at home is facing fierce opposition to the continued presence of its shrinking contingent in Afghanistan.