At age 74, “obsolete” and “braindead,” NATO is proving its mettle again. Otherwise, Ukraine would be a goner by now. The West has taken up Kyiv’s cause because it is also its own.
“We have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual,” Lord Palmerston laid down in 1848. Actually, there are “perpetual enemies.” England and France have fought each other for eight centuries, from the 12th to the 19th. France and Habsburg-Spain did so from the 15th to the 19th. Why? To thwart the hegemony of whoever reaches for it.
Except: Then as today, the balance of power takes time to kick in. Fast forward to Ukraine. When Vladmir Putin grabbed Crimea and Southeast Ukraine in 2014, NATO hesitated. Yet the annexation was an assault not only on a country of which we knew little, but also on hard-core Western interests. At stake was a European order that had kept the peace for a lifetime. The rule was neither war, nor conquest. When Vladimir broke it, the Alliance was not up to the historical challenge.
Regard the eight years before Russia’s second invasion in 2022. Barack Obama was turning away from Europe, pulling out U.S. troops from there and retracting from the Middle East, where he granted Putin a free hand in Syria. Donald Trump would call NATO “obsolete.” France’s Emmanuel Macron diagnosed it as “brain-dead.”
NATO was not in good shape. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Europe had been disarming, cutting forces, and closing down military production lines. For instance, Germany reduced its tank force from 3,000 to 300. Not ready for war, NATO’s deterrence power dwindled. When Putin pounced in 2014, his risks were low. So was the price: modest sanctions sparing oil and gas, Russia’s key source of income. So why not double down with the full-scale invasion last year?