Commentary: NATO's atlantic heritage

By IRA STRAUS   |   Nov. 12, 2002 at 10:54 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- As NATO approaches its historic Prague summit this month, its agenda needs to be measured against its fundamental purpose. That is not easy, since its fundamental purpose has been little discussed in recent decades. But once it is done, its plans will be seen to fall short.

NATO's purpose is usually viewed merely through the prism of the Cold War. In this perspective, it is questionable whether it has any purpose left. Many fear -- or hope -- that NATO is obsolete.

But when it is viewed in a longer timeframe, going back to 1917 or earlier, NATO looks very different. It can be seen to be an outgrowth of the Atlantic Alliance of World War I and II, not just an outgrowth of enmity to Soviet Russia.

Viewed in this context, the question of NATO's obsolescence does not arise. Its purpose is to be the organizing nexus of an Atlantic civilization. And with the capabilities and interdependencies of that civilization still expanding rapidly, NATO not only has a future; it has plenty of further stages of growth ahead of it.

The Founders of NATO understood the concept of an "Atlantic civilization". It meant for them much the same thing as "Western", or European, civilization, but with a special evolutionary twist.

Western civilization had many elements -- modernized and modernizing; leading, following, and reacting -- even while the West as a whole was playing a leading modernized role in the world at large. "Atlantic civilization" referred to the leading sector of Western civilization, or, more broadly, the portion of Western civilization that accepted Atlantic leadership.

For the Founders, the purpose of NATO and its sister institutions was:

First, to organize the Atlantic countries so their leadership in Europe could be exercised in a consistent fashion, joining the cause of freedom with the cause of international order and stability, depriving their enemies of hope of victory, and gradually drawing all of Europe in tow.

Second, to salvage European leadership in the world at large and render it, too, more consistent and sustainable, until the day when all the world could be drawn in tow.

This purpose -- organizing Atlantic leadership Europe-wide and renewing it worldwide -- is the one against which NATO's plans for the future have to be measured. The plans for the Prague summit were not drawn up with this purpose in mind. Not surprisingly, the plans therefore fall short. To do adequate planning, the Atlantic countries will have to remind themselves of the sources of their leadership and the role that their unification was meant to play in enhancing it.

The leading sector in Western civilization had in medieval times lain in Southern and Central Europe. With the age of exploration it shifted over to the Atlantic coastal area. The Atlanticization of European civilization got under way. A New Europe was planted in colonies on the other side of the ocean. Atlantic Europe became entrenched on both shores of the Atlantic. The leadership of European civilization has remained in the Atlantic area ever since, even if the leading Atlantic countries have often quarreled and put their leadership at risk.

The Atlantic civilization evolved intellectually as well as economically. It became the center of the Enlightenment, which gradually radiated outward from the Atlantic to other areas, as if in confirmation of its own theories of a common human nature and a universal natural law.

This fact of civilizational radiance was seized upon by the Founders of NATO; they saw that it made the Atlantic grouping a dynamic one, destined to expand from its initial geographical nucleus. They themselves widened the alliance from its World War I and II nucleus, adding a number of new members. They wrote into NATO a provision for its eventual extension to all "European" countries (Article 10). "Europe" was understood here broadly, like "Atlantic" itself: it included America and Turkey, and potentially Russia, Australia, Japan, and still other countries.

The Atlantic civilization had by 1949 passed through a complex history. Born in the Renaissance with exploration, trade routes, and colonial implants, it divided in the Reformation into a Catholic South Atlanticism and a Protestant North Atlanticism. South Atlanticism was led by Spain, North Atlanticism by Britain. A French Atlanticism lay in-between, Catholic yet modernist. Through incessant conflict, the center of gravity shifted from the South to the North Atlanticism.

With the defeat of France in 1763, the North Atlanticism of Britain came out firmly on top. Then it split in half with the Anglo-American divorce of 1776. Its two separated halves continued expanding in the 1800s, with British capital financing the development of the American half.

These North Atlantic halves of the same civilization were gradually put back together in new forms as America grew more confident of itself: the Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s -- a de facto Anglo-American alliance against Spain, the "Great Rapprochement" of the 1890s, the World War I and II alliances.

This great long-term partnership became conscious of itself as something called "Atlanticism" during the period of the World Wars. Plans were made in the interwar years for its institutionalization as a nucleus for global leadership. In 1949 it was institutionalized in NATO.

Once institutionalized, the Atlantic Alliance began to implement the program of serving as a nucleus for rebuilding global leadership. It absorbed its former enemies from the two World Wars -- Italy, Turkey and Germany. It fostered mutual collaboration among the Atlantic countries on global issues.

That collaboration was always incomplete. Americans still nursed their old hatred of the British Empire; Europeans nursed a new resentment of American superiority. But in contrast to previous centuries, there was more mutual support than undercutting.

It was between NATO and the Soviet bloc that mutual undercutting continued. Competing for allies in the Third World, the two sides nurtured nuclear proliferators, Islamist fanatics, rogue regimes, and terrorists. This ended only when Communism, impressed by the success of Euro-Atlantic integration compared to its own brand of internationalism, gave up the ghost. There opened up before the Atlantic countries their best opportunity ever to organize the global leadership.

And none too soon. The dangers from terrorism and weapons proliferation were about to metastasize. What was needed was an urgent effort, by Russia and NATO together, to clean up as much as they could of the mess they had jointly made.

But this was the path not taken. Serious Atlanticist thinking had faded into the background in the West. Instead of organizing joint global leadership for dealing with the emerging dangers, NATO concentrated on mopping up its Cold War victory over Russia. The only rogues the United States worked against were the ones connected to Russia; for most of the 1990s it still coddled its own rogues -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, even the Taliban.

The price was paid on Sept. 11, 2001. To avoid its repetition, a genuine Atlanticist strategy is needed, one in which global leadership is consciously pursued, Russia is reconciled into the leadership as Germany had earlier been, and rogue elements from both sides of the cold war are put out of business. This is the strategy that flows from the history and goals of Atlanticism. Some fragments of it are presently getting onto the NATO agenda.


Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.

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