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Lessons Learned: North Atlantic Treaty Signing

Speaker: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
April 3, 2012

On April 4, 1949, the United States and eleven European countries met in Washington, DC, and signed the North Atlantic Treaty. By helping to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States signaled that it would not retreat into "Fortress America" as it had after World War I.

The decision to remain engaged was made in part because U.S. policymakers feared an expansionist Soviet Union, particularly after Moscow orchestrated the overthrow of Czechoslovakia's democratically elected government in March 1948. U.S. participation in NATO offered European nations protection from Soviet encroachment, and marked the first time in its history that the United States had made a peacetime military commitment to Europe.

James M. Lindsay, CFR's senior vice president and director of studies, argues that U.S. participation in NATO marked a fundamental shift in the course of U.S. foreign policy. However, he notes, undertaking such a shift can often prove difficult. "Countries at times do change the fundamental direction of their foreign policies," he says, "but usually only after much delay and in response to epic events." In NATO's case, he points out, the "United States abandoned its nineteenth century foreign policy only after two world wars." As U.S. policymakers today face a world that is "very different than the one that led to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty," he invites us to consider whether another "fundamental rethinking of American foreign policy" may be necessary.

This video is part of Lessons Learned, a series dedicated to exploring historical events and examining their meaning in the context of foreign relations today.

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