international analysis and commentary

1949-2019: Different World, Different Europe, Different NATO


“The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.
They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.
They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security”.

Preamble to the 1949 Treaty of Washington, NATO’s founding instrument


Washington blossom

It is 4 April, 1949. Dignitaries gather from twelve Allied nations in Washington for the signing of NATO’s founding instrument. It is less than four years since the death of Hitler and Mussolini respectively. Only the previous year, 1948, Britain and France had signed the anti-German Treaty of Brussels and implicit in the Washington Treaty was a commitment to ensure that Germany never again rose to threaten the peace of Europe. And yet, that same year American and British aircraft, many of them the very same aircraft that had reduced Berlin to ruins only a few, short years before, had saved Berliners from the Soviet blockade and starvation. It is still a year before Robert Schuman issues his famous Declaration and Europe sets off on the long and bumpy road to European Union. And, across the now entrenched inner-German border some three hundred divisions of Stalin’s Red Army peer across the River Elbe at their Western counterparts in the cold, uneasy peace that has stutteringly held since the May 1945 end of World War Two. The United States is for the moment the world’s only atomic power…for the moment. Within a year both Britain and the Soviet Union will demonstrate their own destructive mastery of the atom.

1949: East Berlin is still divided from the Western part of the city only by a barbed-wire barricade


The story of NATO is in fact two stories. Yes, there is the well-known story of military defence, military adaptation and military balance that kept the peace from some forty years before the end of the Cold War in 1949. It is also the story of redemption, of political promises finally fulfilled, of wrongs righted. It is also a story without end.

NATO’s military story

NATO’s military story is one of an Alliance struggling to cope with the acceleration in the nature, pace and complexity of warfare. It is also the story of the short for a shared burden between rich America’s global over-stretch and broke Europe’s regional under-stretch. With the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War and Washington’s insistence that the Allies join United Nations forces therein NATO faces its first outbreak of the German question – what to expect of the West’s Germans in the defence of Europe and their own territory. The Americans want German military manpower, the French, in particular, do not want German divisions. In 1954 it is finally agreed that West German can rearm but only after an exotic and failed journey into European defence integration that resonates to this day.

L’Humanité, a French communist newspaper, salutes the rejection of the European Defence Community by the French parliament.


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s NATO faces what it sees as a terrifying equation in which the Alliance’s relative weakness in conventional forces and personnel can only be offset through the threatened first and overwhelming use of nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet invasion. However, as Moscow first gains nuclear parity with the US in Europe and then from the late 1950s onwards begins to threaten the hitherto invulnerable continental United States NATO’s military story settles into a pattern, albeit an at times dangerous one.

The Soviets, having effectively neutered American nuclear superiority, then use the threat of their conventional forces to effectively blackmail the Alliance Europeans. The aim is to decouple the American nuclear guarantee from the defence of Europe. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Soviets repeatedly try and fail to break the cohesion of the Alliance. With the Euromissiles crisis in the wake of the 1975 deployment of the SS20 Europe-buster nuclear system they come perilously close.

(Source: NATO declassified)


However, the cost of maintaining such an effort also begins to weight heavily on the Soviet people and state, not least because of the cost of subjugating the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO’s political story

It is NATO’s political story that in the end proves most compelling. From its outset NATO is open to old enemies to join. Italy is one of the founding signatories. The Federal Republic of Germany eventually joins in 1955. However, it is the promise of freedom enshrined in NATO membership that is the light at the end of a very long tunnel for Europeans to the east of Germany that rots the countering Warsaw Pact from within.

By the late 1980s brave Czechs, Hungarians and Poles faced down the oppressive Soviet security state and forged their own freedom. There was nothing a failing Soviet Union could, in the end do to counter the narrative of freedom that the Alliance represented. In 1989 when the Cold War defining Berlin Wall was torn down by people power the fundamental principle enshrined in NATO from Day One – self-determination and the right of free peoples to choose their own alliances – was ultimately realized.

“Solidarity” Chairman Lech Wałęsa with US President George H. W. Bush at a demonstration in Gdańsk, July 1989


Many thought that with the end of the Cold War President George H. W. Bush’s vision of a Europe whole and free was a question of time, especially as the idea of ‘Europe’ and its union marched towards its seeming destiny. It has proven anything but. With a resugent, angry Russia and a host of fundamentalist threats around and within Europe NATO must again redouble its efforts and reconceive its twenty-first century role as the shield of a free Europe, and the legitiamat sword of free peoples.

It is a very different NATO to that of 1949. Its military story is now a digital story that must stretch across the 5Ds of contemporary warfare to counter disinformation, deception, destabilization, disruption and implied destruction. Alliance forces must act across the seven military global domains of air, sea, land, space, cyber, information and knowledge.

NATO’s political mission remains the same – ensuring free people have the freedom to make free choices.