contributor perspectives

Mar 14, 2019 | 16:56 GMT

13 mins read

As NATO Turns 70, Strategic Questions Await American Answers

Board of Contributors
Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
This photo shows Rose Gottemoeller, deputy secretary-general of NATO, delivering a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the military alliance's eastward expansion.
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • To gain perspective on the questions American strategists will need to answer in Europe in the 2020s requires a look at the long-term trends that have driven NATO's history.
  • In the words of its first secretary-general, NATO was founded "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Seventy years later, the opposite appears to have happened.
  • Having tossed the Russians out after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Americans got out too — with the result that the Germans did not stay down for long and the Russians also came back in. Now the United States has to decide what to do next.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in April 1949. Its first secretary-general, Hastings Ismay, was brutally clear about what it was for: "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." With just three weeks to go to NATO's 70th birthday, however, its efforts appear to have produced precisely the opposite results. In ways that were unimaginable just a generation ago, Europe seems to be entering an era in which the Russians are in, the Americans out and the Germans up.

This is one of the greatest geostrategic shakeups of modern times, but explaining it requires us to look back well beyond NATO's birth to identify the long-term trends that have driven NATO's history. Once we do this, we gain a new perspective on the questions American strategists will need to answer in the 2020s.

Russians In

For their first several centuries of independent state rule, Moscow's leaders worried more about Mongol threats coming from their east than about Europe, but that changed after Ivan the Terrible, who reigned from 1533 to 1584, drove the Mongols back beyond the Volga River. This triumph transformed Moscow's geostrategic situation, making it both a greater threat to European powers and a more attractive target for their wars of expansion. The result was a series of Western invasions of Russia.

At first, these came roughly once per century. A Polish-Lithuanian army occupied and burned Moscow in 1610, reducing Russia to anarchy. Sweden came next, sending an army all the way to central Ukraine in 1709. In 1812 it was France's turn, with Moscow again being occupied and burned. Events then accelerated and invasions began coming every half-century or so. In the 1850s, France and Britain joined Turkey to overrun Crimea; in 1918, Germany detached Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus and most of Ukraine from Russia; and in the most brutal attack of all, Germany almost took Moscow in 1941 and reached the Volga and Caucasus Mountains in 1942, killing 20 million Soviet citizens in the process.

Understandably, Russians since 1610 have usually seen Europe as the greatest threat to their existence. Their main response has been to build defense in depth, pushing their frontiers as far West as possible. After seeing off Napoleon, Russian armies entered Paris in 1814; after seeing off Hitler, they did the same to Berlin in 1945, and for the next 40-plus years, almost 400,000 Soviet troops stayed in Germany. Until 1989, the Red Army was planning to respond to any serious threat from the West by driving from the Elbe River to the English Channel and Pyrenees in just six weeks. They would have devastated Western Europe with the equivalent of several hundred Hiroshima-sized nuclear attacks and, if necessary, destroying American cities too with multimegaton missiles.

For the past 400 years, Russians have seen Europe as the greatest threat to their existence. Their main response has been to push their frontiers as far west as possible.

Stopping this from happening was, of course, why NATO was created 70 years ago, and its "Russians out" strategy ultimately not only ejected Soviet forces from Eastern Europe but also pushed Russia's borders back to more or less where they had been in 1918. However, shaken as they were by national collapse and economic crises in the 1990s, many Russians tried to talk themselves into believing they could live with this. In 2000, their newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, even mused about Russia joining NATO.

All such thinking evaporated in 2005. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, expelling Russia's client Viktor Yanukovich, looked from Moscow like one more round in the 400-year-old pattern of Western aggression, prompting Putin's notorious comment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century." This round, though, was different — because, said the Russian army's chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, "The emphasis in methods of struggle is shifting towards widespread use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures." Given that both Russia and the West have nuclear weapons, "Overt use of force, often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis management, occurs only at a certain stage, primarily to achieve definitive success in the conflict."

Russia adapted to hybrid conflict quickly, supporting insurgents in eastern Ukraine, making cyberattacks on the Baltic states, interfering electronically in Western elections and manipulating natural gas exports to intimidate European governments. But it also showed that it was ready to use force when events did reach that stage, invading Georgia in 2008. Recognizing that its army had fallen behind, Russia then launched a military modernization program, increasing spending by 30 percent in real terms across the next decade. Russia now has 80,000 well-trained and rapidly deployable troops, capable of high-intensity fighting; and by annexing Crimea in 2014 and sending warplanes to Syria in 2015, Putin reassured clients that Russia — unlike the United States — is ready to use force. That same year, Rand Corp. wargames suggested that if Russia attacked the Baltic states, it would be in Riga and Tallinn within 60 hours. Russian leaders even began speaking of "escalating to de-escalate," aiming to deter the United States from intervening in any Baltic war by threatening to go nuclear.

Russia is very much in again. However, it is still far from recovering even the "near abroad" that it lost in 1991. As one leading Russian historian, Dominic Lieven, points out, "The limited recovery of Russian power under Mr. Putin cannot hide the fact that Russia is weaker than it has been in the last 300 years."

Americans Out

For much of its history, the United States worried more about Europeans in America than Americans in Europe. Spain, France and especially Britain all threatened the early republic. In 1812, British troops burned the White House; in 1862, Abraham Lincoln worried that if Britain even recognized the Confederacy as legitimate — let alone aided it — the Union would lose the Civil War; and as recently as 1910, the U.S. Navy was drawing up fresh plans against British naval descents.

But ships could sail both ways. In 1801, the same year that Thomas Jefferson warned Americans against "entangling alliances" in Europe, he also sent an American fleet to make war on the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus was born one of the United States' most enduring strategies: staying out of Europe when possible while getting in when necessary.

Arguments have never let up over the definitions of "necessary" and "getting in." Many Americans, although by no means all, thought it necessary to defend the Western democracies against existential threats. In 1914 and 1939, Wall Street investors lent heavily to Britain and France, and, after extended debate, the government followed the second of these private interventions with the Lend-Lease Agreement in 1941. When the Soviet threat became clear in 1947, it responded with the Marshall Plan.


Staying out of Europe when possible while getting in when necessary has been an enduring U.S. strategy. Also enduring: Arguments over the definitions of 'necessary' and 'getting in.'

Each time the Americans got in economically, they quickly got in militarily too. During World Wars I and II, this was because once German leaders saw how much Britain depended on American cash, they were willing to take almost any risk to cut it off, provoking the United States to declare war in 1917 and actually declaring war themselves in 1941. In the Cold War, by contrast, the Americans came in militarily because the Soviet Union responded to the American economic presence with an arms build-up, although they took more care than the Germans had done not to provoke a nuclear-armed United States too far.

Sticking to its "out-when-possible-but-in-when-necessary" strategy, the United States always brought its boys back home quickly. The 2 million Americans deployed in Europe in 1918 were gone by 1920; 95 percent of the 3 million there in 1945 had left by 1948; and the roughly 300,000 there in 1989 had dwindled to fewer than 30,000 by 1993. However, getting the last few out then slowed to a crawl. The last detachments of American main battle tanks did not redeploy out of Europe until 2013, and the Kaiserslautern Military Community in Germany, which includes Ramstein Air Base, remains the United States' largest overseas military facility.

One way to see not only Donald Trump's comments that NATO is "obsolete" and "as bad as NAFTA" but also the pressure he is putting on European NATO members to reach the agreed-on target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense is as a return to the well-established American tradition of getting out of Europe whenever possible. From this perspective, Trump is at least partially succeeding. European military spending is rising, with 16 NATO members currently on track to reach the 2 percent figure within five years.

Germans Up

"Poor old Germany," Henry Kissinger once said. "Too big for Europe, too small for the world."

The "too big for Europe" part of the German problem has been around a long time. As historian Brendan Simms shows in his fine book Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present, keeping the Germans down by preventing their dozens of duchies, bishoprics and principalities from uniting into a single state has been a central theme in the continent's history since at least the 15th century. It was particularly important for France not to have a united Germany in its rear during its long struggles with Spain and England, but Austria, Poland, Sweden and Russia regularly shared the same goal.

When unification finally came in 1871, it took a statesman of the brilliance of Germany's "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck to allay other Europeans' fears about this too-big upstart. But after he retired in 1890, alliances designed to contain Germany steadily limited its freedom of action. At this point, the second part of Kissinger's aphorism — "too small for the world" — kicked in. Twentieth-century Germans learned the hard way that any attempt to act on being too big for Europe provoked genuinely global powers because neither Britain nor the United States could live with German domination of Western Europe, while Russia could not live with Germany eroding its defense in depth. When these global powers threw their weight into the scale, they soon showed that Germany was indeed too small for the world.

The global powers solved Germany's bigness/smallness problem by partitioning the country in 1949, but this, it turned out, only worked if the Russians and Americans each stayed in their own half of the country. When the Russians and Americans both got out after 1989, the Cold War method of keeping the Germans down stopped working too. Despite the massive challenges of reunification, Germany rapidly became too big for Europe once again.

Since reunification, Germany-watchers have tended to swing between extremes of optimism and pessimism. At one moment they tout a new "German miracle"; at the next, they call Germany "the sick man of Europe." The reality, though, is that in the absence of a coalition consciously trying to keep the Germans down, they will always be too big for Europe. By 2018, Germany accounted for 20 percent of the European Union's economic output and 25 percent of its exports. Germany dominates the eurozone's finances, and despite almost dipping into recession at the end of 2018, it is now in its 10th straight year of economic expansion. It runs a current account surplus of 8 percent and its unemployment, income inequality and inflation are all low compared to other rich nations. Any way we look at them, the Germans are up.

In the absence of a coalition consciously trying to keep the Germans down, they will always be too big for Europe.

They are up, though, in a new way. In 2002, during one of the periodic bouts of pessimism about Germany, a French diplomat caused a minor scandal by joking to a journalist that "People say, 'It is a terrible thing that Germany is not working', but I say, 'Really? When Germany is working, six months later it is usually marching down the Champs Elysees'." Not any more. When the Greek government admitted in 2009 to squandering billions of euros in German-backed loans, panzers did not roll through the streets of Athens. Between 1945 and 1999, no German troops took part in any armed conflict. In fact, between 1945 and the dispatch of troops to Afghanistan in 2002, only two German soldiers lost their lives. The new Germany is ostentatiously pacifist. Tyson Barker of the Aspen Institute calls it "the ultimate status quo power," which calls for multilateral solutions to every question and consistently refuses any sort of hegemony. The Germans are up, but they are embarrassed about it.

No Eternal Allies, No Perpetual Enemies

NATO's Russians out/Americans in/Germans down strategy was a response to specific facts on the ground 70 years ago, but these facts were simply the latest version of long-term geostrategic realities. Germany is too big for Europe unless kept down and divided by a coalition led by either an Atlantic power (which, in the 21st century, means the United States) or one in Russia. This was obvious as long ago as 1904, when the geographer Halford Mackinder delivered his famous lecture, "The Geographical Pivot of History."

Carl von Clausewitz, the great 19th-century military thinker, observed that every strategy has its limits. "Even victory has a culminating point," he observed, and "beyond that point the scale turns and the reaction follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original attack." NATO reached the culminating point of keeping the Russians out, Americans in and Germans down in 1989. Since then, a Clausewitzian reaction has followed. Having tossed the Russians out, the Americans got out too — with the result that the Germans did not stay down for long and the Russians also came back in.

The United States now has to decide what to do next. A profound strategic debate is underway, comparable in importance to the one that preceded the Kissinger-Nixon overtures to China in 1972. Plenty of senior American strategists favor returning to a NATO-style policy, which is why Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 5 that the United States needs to help Ukraine build up its defenses. Others, though, seem to see no problem with letting the Russians back in, if that is the cheapest way to keep the Germans down. How else are we to interpret Trump's attempt, in summer 2018, to persuade the G-7 to re-admit Russia and recognize Moscow's annexation of Crimea? Or his insistence that the European Union is the United States' "biggest trade foe"? Or his imposition of heavy tariffs on European steel and aluminum in the name of "national security"? Or, for that matter, his apparent willingness to take Putin's word over that of the chiefs of his own security services?

In 1848, almost exactly a century before NATO was born, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston told the House of Commons that "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. (Only) our interests are eternal and perpetual." As NATO celebrates its 70th birthday, the United States has to decide how far it wants to follow this logic.


Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University's Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. Dr. Morris' bestsellers include Why the West Rules -- for Now (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, released in 2015 by Princeton University Press. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University.

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