The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is credited with bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War and preventing conflict in the seven decades since its founding. At the core of the alliance is its collective defense provision, Article V, which stipulates that an attack on any of its twenty-nine members is tantamount to an attack on all.
But in recent years, criticism has mounted that member states are getting a free ride at the United States’ expense—enjoying NATO’s security umbrella without contributing enough to its maintenance. In this episode, experts Charles Kupchan and Alina Polyakova lay out NATO’s history, its current role, and the danger of forgetting why it was created in the first place.
“The North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Jonathan Masters
“Does NATO Still Matter?,” Council on Foreign Relations
“Seven Decades of NATO,” James M. Lindsay, Corey Cooper, and Elizabeth Lordi
“Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia,” Jonathan Masters
“Trump Warns NATO Allies to Spend More on Defense, or Else,” New York Times
Watch or Listen
“The birth of NATO,” NATO
“The Russians Are Coming: NATO’s Frontier,” Vice News
Picture it. You’re at an awesome party, making the rounds, and someone starts asking you what you know about NATO.
FRIEND: Hey, what do you know about NATO?
And maybe you know a lot. But maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve seen it in the news a bit. Maybe you’ve heard an argument over who pays for it. Maybe you have it confused with NAFTA.
Okay, let’s be honest, this doesn’t usually come up at parties... but let’s pretend that it did.
In this episode, my friend and I are gonna have a drink, listen to some experts and try to figure out what NATO is.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, what do you know about NATO?
KUPCHAN: If you drive today from Washington, where we are, up to Toronto or Quebec, you’ll have to stop at the Canadian border. You’ll show a passport. But you won’t see any tanks. The U.S.-Canadian border is largely undefended.
My name is Charles Kupchan, I’m a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Professor at Georgetown University.
If you drive today from France to Germany you may see a few sheep, but you won’t see a border guard, you won’t change money, and you will see no tanks and soldiers. That border is undefended. That border is the site of untold bloodshed. It’s today undefended because NATO and the European Union and processes of integration have made those borders geopolitically inconsequential.
FRIEND: Huh, you know what? I’ve never actually thought about it that way.
SIERRA: You know how last summer I was on that train from Paris to Berlin? I didn’t even know when I left France and entered Germany, no soldiers in sight.
FRIEND: Yeah okay wait, can we just start with what NATO stands for?
KUPCHAN: NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
CLIP MONTAGE OF OFFICIALS SAYING “NATO”.
KUPCHAN: And it is a body formed in 1949 to commit the members of the alliance to collective defense—i.e., an attack on one is an attack on all, we are in this together. It is an institution that keeps us safe. We don’t lie awake at night worrying that somebody is going to invade, that we got to look out the window and see tanks and troops coming. And that’s in part because starting in 1949 the United States reached out to Canada, reached across the Atlantic to its democratic partners in Europe and said we’re going to hang together, we’re going to unite against threats to the peace. That alliance has been around ever since 1949 and it has succeeded in keeping this community of Atlantic democracies safe.
NATO: 0:00: On April 4th, 1949, The North Atlantic Treaty was signed by Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Canada and the United States. This union of 12 nations became known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or more simply NATO.
SIERRA: So let’s go back to the beginning a bit. How did this all start? How did NATO form?
KUPCHAN: Well, you have to go back to the 1930s, when the United States basically became a passive bystander and was staunchly isolationist as fascism began to spread all over the world, mainly in Europe and Asia but also began to spread its tentacles further. And the United States tried to stay out of it. That strategy didn’t work. Pearl Harbor, we all know the story. The U.S. enters World War II.
FOOTAGEARCHIVE: 0:14: December 7th, 1941, a date that will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
KUPCHAN: At the end of World War II, we go into this big debate about, well, what do we do now? Do we go back to being a hemispheric power? Do we bring back all the troops and pull out of Asia and Europe, or do we stay put? And that question was answered by the Cold War; by the fact that the Soviet Union, which was our ally in World War II, became our chief adversary by the late 1940s.
PERISCOPE FILM: 2:58: When peace returned and the Western allies demobilized, the Soviet Union maintained an overwhelming military superiority on the European continent. Both during and immediately after the war the Soviet Union forcibly brought under its control a whole series of countries in Eastern Europe.
KUPCHAN: And it was because of fear that if the United States did withdraw from Europe that the Soviets would overrun Germany, France, Britain, and the industrialized powers of the West that we basically said we’re staying put and we are going to form an alliance with our key partners in Europe to prevent the Soviet Union and communism from spreading.
POLYAKOVA: So I think we have to remember one really key aspect to the founding of NATO, mainly where the world was and specifically where Europe was at the end of the second world war.
I’m Alina Polyakova, and I’m President and CEO of the Center of European Policy Analysis, a think tank in Washington.
We had just had the most devastating global conflict in the history of humanity,[it] killed millions of people in Europe. And it was really on the ashes of that horrible, terrifying set of years and really a century of fighting between European countries that we have the founding of NATO.
SIERRA: So what do you think the world would have looked like without it?
POLYAKOVA: Just a decade basically after World War I, we start having the beginnings of another global conflict. And really Europe for a very long time was just rife with fighting between all the different countries. And there was never really hugely long periods of prosperity and growth and peace, because as soon as you had a moment of peace, that would be usually followed by war.
SIERRA: Hey, are you listening? Why are you on your phone right now?
FRIEND: I was just checking and basically, European countries have been fighting each other for the last thousand years.
SIERRA: Right, and they haven’t fought a war with each other since NATO came into being. Which if you take a second to think about it is actually...pretty huge!
SIERRA: Alright, phone down, let’s keep going.
POLYAKOVA: If we had not had NATO, and then we could not have the European Union after NATO, we would have had a world that would have continued to be rife with conflict. And I think certainly in the United States, would have found itself embroiled in far more conflicts in Europe, which is now unimaginable to us.
SIERRA: Can you tell me a little bit about NATO’s role in the Cold War?
KUPCHAN: Well, surprisingly, NATO never fired a shot. NATO never went to war. And in some ways, it is the best testament to its success because NATO was as much about deterrence as it was defense, saying to the Soviet Union do not come across this line because if you do you will be met with the collective force of the Western democracies.
POLYAKOVA: So during the Cold War, NATO became the core of the military alliance to serve as a deterrent and a container of Soviet expansionism. European countries were very nervous that there would be a Soviet invasion at any moment at any day. And NATO was really the only thing that protected them from that kind of invasion, because from the Soviet perspective, of course, if you started to make military incursions into a NATO country, well then you would face not just that single country, but the might of all the countries that are part of NATO, most notably the United States.
KUPCHAN: And we did things to make the Soviets realize that we meant business. Why were American troops in West Berlin? They were there because they served as what we call a tripwire, which was that if the Red Army—the Soviet army—came across and they invaded and they went into West Berlin, they would have to kill Americans. And if they killed Americans, they knew that Uncle Sam would jump into the fray. And it was because of that deterrent effect, because of nuclear weapons, because the inter-German boundary line was NATO’s frontier, that we never saw a war. And then over time, we know the story of internal rot of the Soviet Union, of Gorbachev, of his effort to reform the Soviet Union from inside fell apart and the Soviet Union imploded. Cold War over; NATO successfully stood the test of time.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: 1:58: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
PETER JENNINGS: 0:21: Thousands and thousands of West Germans come to make the point that the wall has suddenly become irrelevant. Something as you can see almost a party on, how do you measure such an astonishing moment in history?
SIERRA: So what’s NATO’s story since the end of the Cold War?
KUPCHAN: Well, the end of the Cold War raised questions about NATO’s future, and that’s because most alliances die when the threat that brought them to life disappears. NATO didn’t die. In fact, it thrived. It went on to become the go-to vehicle for organizing security at the end of the Cold War. It began to expand eastward and take in Europe’s new democracies. And it became a vehicle for locking in democracy and capitalism in countries that had long been part of the Soviet Bloc.
FRIEND: Okay, so, it’s not a closed club.
SIERRA: Yeah new countries have been joining all along. We’re up to 29.
FRIEND: Who’s on their phone now?
SIERRA: Alright alright, one more second, I promise. But, did you know Montenegro joined in 2017?
FRIEND: Gabrielle! Focus! We’re almost caught up here.
KUPCHAN: NATO began to look outside the territory of its members to defend common interests more broadly. So NATO got involved in the Balkans to prevent the bloodshed associated with the unraveling of Yugoslavia. And then for the first time in its history, when the United States was attacked on September 11, NATO invoked Article 5...
NATO SEC GEN LORD ROBERTSON: 0:15: In response to the appalling attacks perpetrated yesterday against the United States of America, the Council agreed if it is determined that this attack was directed from abroad against the United States, it shall be regarded as an action covered by Article 5…
KUPCHAN: ...which is the provision that says...
NATO SEC GEN LORD ROBERTSON: 0:37: ...that an armed attack against one or more of the allies in Europe or in North America shall be considered an attack against them all.
KUPCHAN: An attack on one is an attack on all, the provision of collective defense, and eventually undertook a substantial mission in Afghanistan to backstop the U.S. effort to take down al-Qaida and the Taliban. That mission has been a long and arduous one, partly because Afghanistan is a mess.
SIERRA: How realistic is that clause across the board with NATO?
KUPCHAN: If the Russians invaded Estonia, would all NATO members rush to Estonia’s defense?
KUPCHAN: You know, it’s the 6 million dollar question. If they didn’t do so, NATO would come apart because it rests at its core on the sense that we’re in this together. My best guess is that if Estonia were attacked, yes, NATO would come running. The United States would lead the effort. And that’s because if we don’t do it for Estonia, we’re not going to do it for anyone else, and the emperor has no clothes. This issue of Article 5 and collective defense has come back to life, partly because of the threat of terrorism but in a more traditional sense because the Russians in 2014 annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine.
ABC NEWS: 0:23: Good morning, Dan, the pressure from Russia is growing, large groups of pro-Russia troops surrounding Ukranian bases ordering their forces off of them so they can occupy them. The international warning to Russia to end its invasion is being ignored.
KUPCHAN: And this raised the prospect of Russia again becoming an expansionist power that would grab territory from its neighbors. And that led to an effort by the United States and its allies to begin to bolster defense on the eastern flank. It led to increases in defense expenditure that started during the Obama administration and increased into the Trump administration. More than $100 billion dollars increased in allied defense expenditure since 2016. And so this issue, which for a long time was kind of off-center—people really weren’t worried about an attack on NATO territory—is now front and center.
POLYAKOVA: The world today is just much more complex than it was during the Cold War so what is NATO's mission now- when you don't have the Soviet Union anymore, when you don't have the Warsaw Pact anymore, but now you have these far more complex problems that are threatening democracies and democratic institutions in various ways. And I think that kind of reckoning is happening right now.
FRIEND: Alright so I get NATO’s history. But how does it work?
SIERRA: Right, like, if NATO troops get sent somewhere, whose troops are they?
FRIEND: Yup. And if it’s a mix of troops from Germany and the US and Italy and Turkey, who’s telling them what to do?
SIERRA: So there’s an actual NATO army?
KUPCHAN: There isn’t a NATO army. There is a NATO command where individuals from all of the different members sit together and plan together. And then if NATO were called upon to act, the different countries would then contribute forces to that command. Those forces would be operating under the command of the supreme allied commander, who is always an American. And then they would be put into action.
SIERRA: And who pays for it?
KUPCHAN: There is a fairly small common budget that essentially covers things like the main office in Brussels, the command structure that I was talking about, and some joint infrastructure. That pales in comparison to the money that individual countries spend to have the forces ready to go into action if they were called upon.
SIERRA: We still hear a lot of criticism of NATO here in the U.S and you know, namely that it's been like a free ride for allies at our expense.
POLYAKOVA: The U.S does contribute the most to NATO, but that was by design. Because that allowed Europeans to take the funds and the money they would have normally invested in rebuilding their militaries, which had been the pattern up to that point. And they were able to invest all of that into their economies, and into rebuilding their countries, after they were, destroyed, during the second world war.
And so the reason why we've had prosperity in Europe throughout most of the 20th century is because the United States was there to provide that military umbrella and as a result, the U.S was safer because we completely took out any threats that could have emanated from Europe. If you want to use business-speak, you know, our return on investment was very high.
SIERRA: So it sounds like it's a little more of an intangible type of answer for people who are like, well, what does this mean to me today? It's a little more looking to history and also realizing that freedoms aren't necessarily free and we have them because of this.
POLYAKOVA: You know, I grew up, for the first 10 years of my life in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. And my family was a family of political refugees. And what that meant was that we wanted to get out, like many people did. It felt like if we stayed in the Soviet Union, that felt like death, it could have been, you know, intellectual, emotional death because that was the reality. You know, in my family, during the Stalinist years, people disappeared, right? And we didn't know where they went. So to me, these experiences of deep, profound loss and tragedy and conflict were very personal. And I think it's hard to explain how to young people who grow up in the United States or other democracies, what it's like to live in an authoritarian state. It felt like we had to get into the United States, Europe, anywhere where we could finally just be free. And so to my mind, it is those alliances that make those kinds of institutions and values and principles live in reality. You know, we can talk about our belief in democracy. We can all agree that we want to live in a society that gives us freedom of speech and expression and, you know, the pursuit of happiness. But we have to also work to make them real. These are principles worth dying for, many people did. And I think we have to continue to remember that.
It can be easy to forget about something that was created long ago and far away. NATO is even harder to understand because it’s all about things that haven't happened. Wars, conflicts and divisions that the alliance has prevented. We don’t talk about it at parties. But maybe we should, because with every new generation, we lose more of our direct connection to the past. Plus, who doesn’t love to learn something new?
FRIEND: You know, I love learning something new.
SIERRA: Me too. I had no idea we would spend this entire party talking about NATO, but I actually enjoyed it.
FRIEND: Uh yeah.. and...in the spirit of old friends who stick together, should we keep this party going and grab a nightcap?
SIERRA: Let’s do it.
MERRILL: Awesome! Okay, so how much do you know about the World Health Organization? And, like, what about the International Monetary Fund? And...
There’s a lot more to learn about NATO. So you can head on over to CFR.org/Whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes for this episode. And while you’re there, check out the Council’s other podcasts, The World Next Week, and The President’s Inbox. They’re pretty great!
Interested in saying hi to the team? Send us an email at email@example.com. Be sure to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And if you like the show, leave us a review! Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. And to our awesome guest for this episode, Cayla Merrill. Big thank you!
Hey and by the way, this episode was our tenth, and the last for the first season. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a preview of our second season! There’s a lot of good stuff coming up. For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra, signing off. See you soon!