Before rushing to celebrate NATO as the most successful military alliance in history, it is only fair to ask what tangible accomplishments justify that celebration, and how they might compare with NATO's failures.

European war has been avoided; who deserves the credit for that, as with anything that did not happen, will remain forever uncertain. Did NATO deter intended Soviet aggression? Did it curb the bellicosity of Germans and keep the lid on crises? Did it shorten the Cold War, bringing it to a happy end? Did it keep the nuclear genie safely under control while the conflict lasted? Did it husband its other military forces well? And has it drawn the right conclusions for the future from all its experience?

With the Cold War over, evidence is now available to broaden the judgment on NATO and help provide answers to questions like these. The much-vaunted nuclear capability of NATO turns out, as a practical matter, to have been far less important to the eventual outcome than its conventional forces. But above all, it was NATO's "soft power" that bested its adversary.


On the fundamental question at NATO's creation, the Soviet archives, as so far examined, give every indication that the Soviet Union never seriously planned an unprovoked attack on Western Europe. The evidence is circumstantial, but would seem to vindicate such critics of NATO as George Kennan, who considered the alliance superfluous, even harmful, because it gave the Cold War a military dimension it did not otherwise have. Why, Kennan imagined the Soviet leaders asking, was the West justifying its rearmament by suspecting them of intending to do "the one thing they had not done," namely, "conduct an overt and unprovoked invasion of Western Europe?" Could it be that they therefore really believed, as they were publicly saying they did, that NATO was created to attack them?

With all allowances for muddled Marxist minds, it should be granted that the men in the Kremlin were not fools. Rightly deprecating NATO in its first few years as a hollow alliance, Stalin did not find it necessary to respond by creating an alliance of his own or even substantially increasing Soviet defense spending. In NATO's early years, Soviet assessments meant for internal use depicted the alliance as a tool of American domination of Western Europe intended to stave off the collapse of the capitalist system, rather than a tool of aggression against Eastern Europe designed to bring down the communist system. And the assessors were confident that the alliance would soon fail.

An irony now clearly revealed is that Stalin was in a position to know all that needed to be known about NATO's capabilities and intentions. The inner councils of the alliance were deeply penetrated by Soviet espionage agents -- a possible blessing in disguise, particularly at the time of NATO's critical weakness. Although the notoriously suspicious Soviet dictator could never be absolutely certain that the capitalists were not plotting to attack him -- and had in fact been led by his ideology to believe precisely that -- at least he could be sure that the attack was not imminent. It was of paramount importance that the intelligence reaching him from NATO's innermost sanctums encouraged him, not to launch a preventive war while that appeared feasible, but rather to postpone such a war indefinitely.

There may have been close calls, however. Soviet intelligence accepted as genuine the misinformation about a closed NATO meeting of December 1950 during which the United States supposedly revealed a plan to instigate hostilities in central Europe, with Yugoslav help, and seize the Soviet occupation zone in Austria. Soon afterward, Stalin met with his East European party comrades at a secret conference in Moscow. Records of the meeting are ambivalent. One report has him telling the East European leaders to prepare for an offensive military action against Western Europe. Other reports of the gathering describe Stalin as merely directing them to brace for likely American aggression, not disclosing an intention to launch an offensive.

When Stalin's remaining files are opened, they may clarify how close he came in early 1951 to unleashing the kind of attack NATO had been created to avert. At that time, the Americans seemed headed for defeat in Korea, and Stalin could have figured they might try to compensate by exploiting the vulnerability of his recently created empire in Europe. In any case, however, the putative Soviet action would have been well short of the dreaded assault by the 175 combat-ready divisions recurrent in NATO's annual "Estimates of Soviet Strength and Capabilities" from 1950 to 1955. These Soviet hordes were supposedly poised to attack simultaneously in northern, western, and southern Europe, against the British Isles, North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and even North America -- while leaving reserves for defending the homeland!

Was an imaginary threat deliberately conjured up to keep the alliance together, as some of NATO's critics would have it? Unlike the Soviet Union, the West was at first very much in the dark about the true posture of its secretive adversary. The Americans and the British, whose agents supplied most of NATO's intelligence, needed time to adjust to the unexpected transformation of the wartime ally into the chief enemy. In the interim they relied excessively on former Nazi officers whose experience assessing Russians went back much further but whose estimates were often biased, dated, and simply wrong. Yet once accepted in good faith, they could not be easily discarded.

Compelling new evidence to supersede the older judgments began accumulating by the mid-1950s, when not only had Western intelligence improved but Stalin's successors had moderated his intransigence. More people in the West consequently began to believe that NATO might no longer be needed, although there were never enough of them and their voices were never convincing enough for the alliance seriously to consider disbanding. Even after the fear that had brought the alliance into being subsided, it seemed prudent to keep NATO intact.

Before passing easy judgment, with the benefit of hindsight, on NATO's founders for their call to arms against an unlikely act of Soviet aggression, one should ponder Thomas C. Schelling's observation, "If a deterrent threat is created before the proscribed act is even contemplated, there need never be an explicit decision not to transgress, just an absence of any temptation to do the thing prohibited." And Stalin, despite all his caution, was not immune to temptation -- for instance, Kim Il-sung of North Korea talked him into giving a green light for the invasion of South Korea. In Asia, there was no NATO, and the North Korean communist state is still there, still menacing as if the Cold War had not ended.


Besides preventively deterring the elusive Soviet threat, did NATO fend off other threats to Europe's peace? "Keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down" has been cited as a triple raison d'etre ever since the alliance's first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, uttered the quip. Yet the notion of German menace was a fallacy. The first West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, had a hard time convincing his compatriots that the new German state needed an army at all. The alliance justified German rearmament on the specious grounds that Germans had to be contained in a Western defense structure to guard against their alleged aggressive proclivities; this excuse was originally intended to reassure the fearful postwar generation in France. Once the West had been reassured, the curious idea took hold that even the Russians liked NATO because it kept the German Bundeswehr under American rein.

Soviet diplomats may have occasionally dropped misleading remarks to that effect at receptions, but the view from the Kremlin on Germany and NATO was quite different, however confusing its variations. Having at first deprecated NATO for its frailty, Stalin switched over to panic when the North Korean aggression prompted a buildup of the alliance with the likely addition of West Germany. Having often misjudged Germans before, with catastrophic results, he now became obsessed with their proverbial efficiency and military prowess. Thus he regarded the United States' championing of their integration into the West's military structures as anything but reassuring.

Khrushchev, more confident than Stalin in the presumed superiority of the Soviet system and the irresistible advance of communism, took West Germany's admission into NATO more in stride once it became a fact of life. But he worried about Bonn's possible access to nuclear weapons through alliance plans to share them; Washington's assurances that they would stay under U.S. control were not entirely convincing. This weapons-sharing plan was the main reason for Khrushchev's attempt to expel the allies from West Berlin in 1958. The crisis provoked by his ultimatum sorely tested the alliance's ability to hold together, showing that in a situation short of war, Germany added more to NATO's vulnerability than to its strength.

Although Khrushchev did not get all that he was aiming for when he started the Berlin crisis, the reinforcement of Germany's division through the building of the Berlin Wall served Soviet interests well. The resulting East-West stabilization eventually persuaded NATO to adopt a new posture along the lines recommended in a 1967 report, commissioned by the alliance, by Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel: military buildup would now be supplemented with political detente. Bonn became the foremost champion of this new accommodation with the East, allowing Khrushchev's successors to exploit discord in the alliance when Washington grew more skeptical of detente. In the end, Mikhail Gorbachev could compliment his German hosts during his triumphal visit to Bonn in 1989 for helping prepare NATO to accept the Soviet Union as a bona fide inhabitant of the "common European home."

Thus in the complicated balance sheet of the German role in NATO, the containment of German power finds no place. If the alliance considered itself a force for order, it was not seen as such by the Kremlin chiefs. American power impressed them more, and they often had trouble deciding whether that power was enhanced or drained by NATO. During the recurrent crises that threatened Moscow's control of Eastern Europe, and with it the East-West balance, NATO did not figure as much in the Kremlin's calculations as outsiders tended to believe.

During the 1956 Hungarian uprising, President Eisenhower felt compelled to reassure Moscow that the alliance would not move, lest "Soviet troop movements and alerts . . . increase the likelihood of a series of actions and counter-actions leading inadvertently to war." Yet the internal record of the high-level Soviet deliberations that led to the crackdown in Hungary shows no such fear; indeed, NATO was hardly mentioned. Nor did the alliance influence the Soviet decision to intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968, regardless of false evidence of NATO's interference that Moscow manufactured to provide a pretext for the invasion. The alliance had gone to extremes to avoid providing such a pretext, reducing its state of readiness and letting some of its key officials go on vacation. Significantly, when the Soviet Union was ready to move, it conveyed the secret assurance that it was not moving against NATO to President Johnson rather than to the secretary-general of NATO.

The alliance figured more prominently in the Soviet invasion that did not take place -- of Poland during the 1980-81 Solidarity crisis. It was not that NATO deterred the invasion by its military posture; instead it raised the political cost to Moscow of using force. The response of the alliance's European members to the Soviet Union's earlier invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, even though milder than the United States had expected, had been enough for the Kremlin to fear further political damage in Western Europe, on whose leaders' support hinged Soviet hopes for preserving the remnants of detente. As he ruled out the dispatch of Soviet troops to Poland, KGB chief Yuri Andropov reminded his Politburo colleagues that the "variety of economic and political sanctions" contemplated by the West could "make things very difficult for us."

Moscow was long in recognizing the Western alliance as a force in its own right rather than an American tool. Victims of their Marxist preconceptions, Soviet leaders could not disentangle their thinking from their caricature of NATO as a Wall Street creature rent by contradictions between competing capitalist interests. Presiding over an empire held together by force, they could hardly be expected to grasp the Europeans' readiness to rally voluntarily behind American leadership and cooperate in their own interest rather than on command from Washington. Hence Soviet officials consistently saw NATO's endemic bickering as a symptom heralding the alliance's demise, rather than grasping that this expression of diverse interests was its abiding strength.

In its demonstration of the community of democratic nations at work lay the "soft power" of NATO. This, rather than keeping an imaginary German threat at bay or acting as a force for order in particular crises, was the alliance's special contribution to the maintenance of peace.


Despite their wishful thinking that NATO would fail, its enemies were far from oblivious to the alliance's successes. The conclusion of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 was Moscow's response to the ascendant West after hopes of NATO's demise had been raised and dashed. More than a reaction to West Germany's recent admission to NATO, the launching of a rival alliance -- which Stalin had considered unnecessary -- was part of Khrushchev's larger scheme for reshaping the European security environment to reverse the ascendancy of the West and gain advantage for the East. Having drawn up the Warsaw treaty as close to a mirror image of NATO's founding document, he proposed the simultaneous abolition of both alliances and their replacement with a collective security system. This would have left Moscow with its network of dependents intact, while depriving the West of the only alliance it had. The Soviet Union would thus be positioned as the arbiter of Europe's security.

It is hardly surprising that NATO did not entertain the scheme; what is surprising is Khrushchev's persistence in pursuing it, in different guises, for much of his time in office. The last true believer to hold power in the Kremlin, he acted as if his capitalist adversaries could somehow be maneuvered into a situation in which they would have to negotiate away their alliance and acquiesce to the security arrangements Moscow preferred. With his eyes on that happy day, Khrushchev avoided giving military substance to the Warsaw Pact and used it mainly as a launching pad for his diplomatic initiatives. He showed not only Soviet awareness of NATO's value but also Soviet reluctance to trust the East Europeans enough for Moscow to develop anything similar within the Warsaw Pact.

Combined with cuts in Soviet defense spending, Khrushchev's diplomacy puzzled and worried Western officials, since it had a greater impact on the European public than Stalin's cruder methods. Yet NATO, though strained by its efforts to justify itself, not only survived but actually had a subversive effect on the other alliance, through its "soft power." In 1956 reform-minded Polish generals invoked the Western example in pressing for a renegotiation of the Warsaw Pact to curb the arbitrary powers of its Soviet supreme commander and make it more an alliance of equals.

Although the project failed, it resurfaced and gained support 10 years later, after Khrushchev had been ousted. His successors, bent on reversing his cuts in the Soviet military establishment, themselves sought a reform of the Eastern alliance, in part by introducing structures that had worked well in NATO, to enhance their control over modernized Warsaw Pact forces. While Moscow's political control of Eastern Europe was slipping, however, reform of the alliance languished amid sometimes acrimonious debate among its unequal members, until the intervention in Czechoslovakia strengthened the Soviet hand sufficiently to push through a reorganization.

Even so, the results of the revamping fell short of the Kremlin's expectations, leaving room for its allies to challenge its authority if they chose. The contentious issue of stationing Soviet nuclear weapons provoked flagrant disloyalty in Romania, with Bucharest offering American officials secret assurances that in any nuclear conflict between the superpowers their country would remain neutral. Much to the annoyance of the changing leadership in the Kremlin, Bucharest continued to champion Khrushchev's call for the dissolution of both alliances. But the trend, ironically for a time of detente, was instead toward further tightening of the alliances, acceptance of each other's existence, and even expansion of functions against the backdrop of an accelerating arms race.

The recognition in 1970 of the Warsaw Pact organization as NATO's legitimate negotiating partner in arms control talks marked a final abandonment of the original Western position that the communist alliance was little more than a "cardboard castle." By that time, the Warsaw Pact had become a powerful military machine. As the Romanians grew more isolated, other Warsaw Pact members that did not want to weaken, much less abolish, the alliance were emboldened to demand a larger role in its activities. That did not necessarily translate to Moscow's disadvantage.

The reliability of Russia's allies in a war was always doubted in the West; more important, it could not be taken for granted in Moscow. Yet in the peacetime situation that prevailed, the East European regimes -- apart from Romania -- and even many of their otherwise disgruntled citizens preferred to keep the Warsaw Pact rather than see it abolished. Even the 1968 reformers in Czechoslovakia merely sought a revision of the alliance's military doctrine and reorganization of its command structure. Polish communists, craving recognition of their country as Moscow's most valuable ally and Soviet backing against what other Poles, too, still feared as Bonn's unrelinquished desire to regain Poland's western territories, took the lead in supporting the Soviet-driven buildup of the alliance and resisting Romanian obstruction.

By the 1970s, there emerged in Eastern Europe a hard core of military officers, bound together and to Moscow by their education in Soviet military academies, who owed their primary allegiance to the Warsaw Pact. They served Moscow well in 1981, when some of these officers, in Polish uniforms under General Wojciech Jaruzelski, found it in their own interest to crack down on the Solidarity opposition, while the Kremlin leaders no longer had the nerve to use the Warsaw Pact military machine to keep Poland in the fold.

Despite this service by the Poles, it was East Germany that had become Moscow's most respected ally as well as the staunchest promoter of its alliance. Ironically, however, the progressive paralysis of the Kremlin leadership allowed East Germany to resist the deployment on its territory of Soviet missiles in response to the deployment of NATO missiles in West Germany. In the end, that notoriously militaristic regime joined its counterpart in Warsaw in advancing urgent proposals to halt the arms race in Europe.

The subtle workings of NATO's soft power were thus more pervasive and far-reaching than its image as either a deterrent of aggression or a force for order. Just as communist leaders came to see the road to their salvation as reform of their failing economic and political system along the lines of the European Community, their military thinking came full circle in their efforts to salvage the Warsaw Pact by making it more like NATO. They did not have time to do either before the Cold War ended.


Its 50-year reliance on the American nuclear umbrella has defined NATO's existence. Since the United States owned and controlled the nuclear weapons, whatever effects they had were ultimately Washington's responsibility. But the alliance influenced in important ways some of the key decisions about their deployment. The junior allies, after all, would suffer far greater destruction than the superpowers -- if they survived at all -- if war came. As the superpower confrontation evolved into a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation, it became customary -- although misleading -- to compare the potentials of the two alliances in their entireties. Because those potentials were never realized in war does not necessarily mean that NATO did its best to avoid it.

In Stalin's time, American nuclear protection of Western Europe served as a reminder of the dire consequences for the Soviet Union of a military clash with NATO. In order to break America's atomic monopoly the Soviet Union acquired its own nuclear weapons, but Western superiority gave Stalin no hope of avoiding devastation and defeat should such weapons be employed by the enemy. The Soviet leader still calculated that it was to his advantage to develop them for political leverage, but he never integrated them into the equipment of Soviet armed forces. Since Soviet war plans of the period have not been released, it is unclear what effect, if any, the possession of the coveted weapons actually had on Moscow's military posture. The publicly available American plans from the early Cold War years unequivocally envision the use of nuclear weapons if necessary for defense; it is not inconceivable that the Soviet plans embarrassingly preferred suing for peace. In any case, the stockpile at the United States' disposal made the fledgling NATO remarkably safe.

Yet long before the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal would theoretically narrow this safety margin (though never abolish it in practice), Washington in 1951 began to consider supplementing its strategic nuclear weapons with tactical ones. Its subsequent deployment of them began not because of a growing Soviet threat -- the disarray in the Kremlin after Stalin's death had, if anything, reduced the threat -- but because the Europeans were less and less willing to pay for more expensive conventional forces. Thus NATO was primarily responsible for the acceleration of the nuclear competition that brought about the phenomenal increase of the American nuclear stockpile in just eight years from about 1,200 weapons to nearly 20 times that number, of all shapes and sizes, most of them deployed in Europe.

The Soviet Union eventually responded in kind, but reluctantly. It did not immediately start to deploy tactical nuclear weapons below division level. But Khrushchev had no scruples about trying to frighten NATO's European members by brandishing his increasingly menacing strategic weaponry, alluding in lurid terms to Europe's geographical vulnerability and sowing doubts about America's willingness to come to their rescue at the risk of its own nuclear devastation. In all fairness to the NATO statesmen, who did not reach their decisions lightly, it is difficult to imagine them acting differently under the circumstances, particularly since they made their critical decisions at a time when nuclear weapons were still widely regarded as like other weapons, only more powerful.

In any case, although done with the opposite intention, NATO's introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons into Central Europe increased rather than diminished the risk of war there. Having given the impetus to Khrushchev's Berlin ultimatum of 1958, it led that Soviet leader to gamble dangerously once he began losing control of the crisis he had started. Although Khrushchev never wanted to go over the brink and was absolutely certain the European NATO members did not either, he was by his own admission "only 95 percent" certain about the Americans. When he said so to his confidants on his way to meeting President Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, he nevertheless intended to take the 5 percent risk by proceeding toward the conclusion of a peace treaty with East Germany that would terminate the Western allies' rights in Berlin. And although after his contentious session with Kennedy he decided not to take the risk in Europe, a year later he took the greater one of placing both strategic and tactical missiles in Cuba.

These two crises were contained, but the arms race was not. The protracted Berlin crisis gave Soviet generals the excuse to begin changing the Warsaw Pact from a paper tiger into a real war machine and practicing for nuclear combat. Although those exercises were based on ludicrous assumptions about the feasibility of such combat -- as were those that NATO had been conducting for more than a decade -- they were nevertheless meant to be serious. Khrushchev, to his credit, tried to resist the potentially self-fulfilling pressure by his military brass for more "realistic" planning, while the West just added impetus.

The primary concern of the strategists brought to Washington by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, cynically called the "wizards of Armageddon," was the control and termination rather than the prevention of war. Their promotion of the doctrine of "flexible response," with its corollary of a "limited" war likely to be fought in Europe, plunged NATO into deep crisis; for most of its members, the threshold that concerned them was not so much between nuclear and conventional war as between war and peace. The alliance only formally adopted the flexible-response posture in 1967 -- after France, which opposed it, had left the NATO integrated command -- but the change had long been coming. In anticipating it, the Soviets this time were not merely reacting but also building on their own explorations of the putative merits of a limited war despite their insistence that any war in Europe would be unlimited.

The turn of both alliances toward ostensibly realistic but increasingly surreal planning coincided with the beginning of arms control negotiations. Yet the agreements reached did not reverse the arms race but only slowed it down. The continuing accumulation in Europe of useless nuclear weaponry during a period of detente showed how much the refinements in military thinking had detached strategy from politics. And NATO was indisputably ahead in the refinements. What was happening was wasteful, damaging to U.S.-European relations, and ultimately subversive of detente -- but in the last analysis probably less dangerous than contemporaries feared.

Not only did detente bring the modicum of trust necessary to reduce the rivals' fears of a surprise attack but it also improved technical safeguards that made accidental war less likely. There were close calls when malfunctioning Soviet radars showed incoming American missiles or when scary NATO exercises imitating the release of missiles used encryption indistinguishable from the real thing. The critical margin of common sense, however, made both sides prefer risking the possibility of a surprise to the certain disaster that hasty action would bring. In 1983 General Secretary Andropov somberly informed assembled Warsaw Pact leaders that NATO was preparing for war; he ordered a huge intelligence effort to find out about supposed preparations for a surprise nuclear attack. The Soviet analysts found nothing to warrant a response in kind, thus confirming the prevailing stability.

In the war of nerves between the superpowers, which reduced their allies to more or less anxious bystanders, NATO finally provided the catalyst for a climax. The lengthy controversy over the installation of Pershing-2 and cruise missiles, which aroused so much European opposition in the early 1980s, again led Moscow to underestimate the alliance's unity, and it threatened to walk out of the arms control talks in Geneva if the deployments proceeded. When they did, despite the walkout, the new leadership under Gorbachev at last returned to the negotiating table with constructive proposals. These paved the way for the landmark 1988 agreement that not only slowed but actually reversed the arms race.

Having been principally responsible for speeding up the arms race before, NATO played a crucial role in halting it. But the alliance can take neither blame nor credit for either of these accomplishments, which were largely unintended and unexpected. Moreover, by the time the nuclear race was reversed, the doomsday scenarios that drove it had become so far-fetched that the reversal was a symptom more than a cause of the other developments that helped end the Cold War.


It is ironic that NATO's conventional posture was more important in ending the Cold War than the much-touted nuclear option. The ostensible inferiority of NATO's conventional forces was always misleading, not only because of the efficient force structure sustained by the alliance but also because of the conventional forces' disproportionate impact on Soviet thinking and action. Although NATO felt itself weak and vulnerable in its early years, its adversaries did not think of it that way once its buildup began in earnest. The priority Stalin gave to purging the East European military on political grounds rather than in order to maximize its combat readiness was suggestive of his fear of what might happen should a war actually bring NATO troops into the truly vulnerable territories of his recently acquired empire -- an eventuality that many of its subjects were dearly hoping would come about.

While gratified by NATO's failure to field the 96 divisions envisioned by its 1952 goals, Moscow found profoundly disconcerting the subsequent creation of the mere 12 West German divisions. These and the American troops in Europe consistently received the highest marks in Soviet estimates of morale and equipment, ranking well above those of other NATO members. Such estimates were crucial in complicating the Warsaw Pact plan for a swift offensive response to a hypothetical Western attack -- a thrust through Germany into France and on to the English Channel. That plan remained in effect almost to the very end of the communist alliance.

Much as the Soviets, like their Western counterparts, were prone to delusions about the feasibility of a nuclear war, they were sober in their assessments for a conventional war. One of the lessons Moscow believed World War II had taught was that threefold to fivefold superiority at the point of attack was indispensable to give a reasonable chance of success; in artillery, the ratio was to be 6:1 to 8:1, in armor 4:1, in aircraft 5:1 to 10:1. The Warsaw Pact never attained, and more important, never seriously tried to attain, such ratios.

In pondering the scenario for a likely European war, Soviet planners did not assign the level of probability to a surprise attack that the West did; their alert times were always more leisurely than NATO'S. What was more worrisome to Moscow and its allies, particularly the East Germans, was a central European crisis in which deliberate or even casual Western instigation of political subversion might inadvertently provoke an armed clash leading to war. Such a scenario attested to abiding sensitivity to the superior nonmilitary assets of the West, which indeed in the long run proved decisive in precipitating the downfall of communist and Soviet power.

If NATO's soft power was its potent secret weapon in the contest, short of war, its conventional hardware, rather than the nuclear variety, was the necessary supplement that helped bring about the Cold War's happy end. Perhaps the most startling discovery to have come out of the Warsaw Pact archives so far has been the deep impact on the communist assessment of the military balance of the high-tech precision weapons the West developed and deployed from the 1970s onward. As early as 1968 the chief of Czechoslovakia's general staff held a secret briefing presciently describing the competition in conventional armaments as "a competition in which, comrades, we can't win."

By the time the redundance of nuclear weapons had been recognized, perceptions of the balance of conventional forces had become critical. If NATO's bean count of tanks and guns and soldiers made the balance appear to tilt to the Soviet side, Moscow's more relevant interpretation of the qualitative trends led it to the opposite conclusion. Hence the interminable Vienna talks about mutual and balanced force reductions -- which Warsaw Pact representatives obstructed with a disingenuous bean count of their own -- never had a chance to succeed until the military detente the Soviets called for arose from political detente.

The key forum in that respect was not the ostensibly hard-nosed but in fact esoteric Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (salt) and other negotiations on nuclear armaments but the fuzzy "Helsinki process" of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, where nothing less than the redefinition of European security was at issue. There was little progress there while the political detente was collapsing -- in no small measure because of Moscow's use of old-style conventional weaponry in its old-style jockeying for power and influence in the Third World. But NATO's rapid deployment of sophisticated and effective conventional weapons gradually prepared the ground for a breakthrough by impressing on its adversaries that this was a competition they could not win. That process was well under way before the much more problematic Strategic Defense Initiative, with its prospect of widening margins of Western technological superiority, brought home to Soviet leaders the irreversibility of their system's economic backwardness.

Acquisition by NATO of the new "smart" weapons, some of which could be nearly as destructive as the "dumb" nuclear ones, did not dangerously strain the military balance, but it tilted the political balance toward the benign. The alliance's critics on the left contributed to this by developing their imaginative security concepts -- from "defensive defense" to "structural inability to attack" -- which enabled Soviet leaders to radically change their ideas about the threat they posed to the West and the West to them. Leading up to the finale of the Cold War, the two rival alliances, under the auspices of the Helsinki process, performed their last valuable service by providing the framework within which their conventional forces could be reduced with an ease previously unimaginable. But by then, the Warsaw Pact had fallen apart and NATO had lost its main mission.


How well has NATO's Cold War experience prepared it for the future? During its four decades of wrestling with the Soviet challenge, the alliance proved resourceful and flexible in its sense of purpose. It devised and implemented innovative and effective policies. West Germany's expeditious integration after the plan for the European Defense Community had failed is one example. Another is the alliance's ingenious transformation, beginning in 1967, into a dual instrument of defense and detente. A third example is NATO's uncompromising decision to proceed with deployment of the "Euromissiles" that forced Soviet retreat, despite the high tension they caused.

While the merit of these and other NATO achievements can be debated, the efficacy of the mechanism that made them possible cannot. The alliance's bringing together on a working basis of military and political elites from many different traditions and experiences, and providing them with a forum for informed discussion at a time when the meaning of security was changing more than ever before, was remarkable enough. But to get that diverse constituency to act together was an extraordinary accomplishment.

The alliance accommodated and forged into a will to common action nations with a history of mutual mistrust and hostility, past aggressors and their victims. It proved capable of integrating great powers and small, countries with professional and those with conscript armies (not to speak of Iceland, without an army), those unconditionally committed to the alliance and those -- like Norway and Denmark -- committed with clear and reasonable reservations. And it kept the Greeks and the Turks from going over the brink. It is understandable why such an organization has exercised an attraction, second only to that of the European Union, for the unhappy peoples emerging from Soviet domination.

In 1994 NATO responded by designing its Partnership for Peace as a formula that would allow any interested European country and even some formerly Soviet countries in Asia to participate in the alliance's cooperative structure. The initiative promised to spread throughout the area the benefits from what NATO had been doing so well, namely, teaching often recalcitrant military and political elites of diverse nations to look after security in a democratic fashion. The initial response was enthusiastic. Yet rather than focusing on following up on this excellent project, the alliance allowed itself to be distracted by the idea of expanding its membership, relegating the Partnership for Peace to a secondary place.

Expansion would have been most welcome if it had meant an expansion of the agenda, with the goal of coming to grips with the novel security threats from beyond NATO's original area. Instead it has become tantamount to enlargement through the admission of new members from within that same area, the area where the Cold War started and ended but where threats of the kind NATO was created to deal with had become notable for their absence. Such an enlargement could still have been justified as an admirable gesture toward nations that have firmly embraced the values on which the alliance was built, had it not raised nagging questions about NATO's continued effectiveness in a less predictable world than the Cold War world had been.

Once raised, such questions have been brushed aside, opening the door for the entry of not only the well-qualified Poland but also Hungary and the Czech Republic, not to speak of additional candidates more likely to bring strains into the alliance than strength. Enlargement has not become an important public issue for NATO's current members, thus creating the impression that the alliance's viability no longer much matters to them. This could be just as well if the security risks they face have diminished so much that an effective military alliance could be dispensed with. Yet that is hardly the assumption on which NATO wants to build its future.

The troubling part of NATO's record is that its principle of consensus was never tested by fire during the Cold War. After the Cold War's conclusion, its first test was a ragtag army of Serb bandits in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In its unfamiliar role as peacekeeper, the alliance acquitted itself well, though only after a costly delay. And in responding to the next challenge -- by the sovereign Yugoslav state employing its troops in Kosovo -- NATO's credibility suffered because of its reluctance to make good on its threats of force. If power is merely to be brandished but not used it tends to melt away.

Here lies the danger of drawing the wrong lessons from NATO's Cold War experience. Despite its great success in wielding soft power, the alliance's key asset remains its formidable military machine. Although military threats to Europe have receded (happily), they have not disappeared. If the recent past is any indication, new ones will appear unexpectedly in unexpected places in unexpected forms. The alliance has not been good at anticipating such threats.

The scant relevance of nuclear weapons in bringing the Cold War to a close does not mean that they have become irrelevant in the new setting. The "rules of the game" credited for keeping peace between the two superpowers are not necessarily those likely to guide other present or future possessors of weapons of mass destruction. Nor does the beneficial role that advanced conventional weapons played in constraining Soviet leaders provide unequivocal guidance for dealing with other unpleasant leaders. So far reliance on such weapons has turned the focus away from the efficacy of military action, toward the worthy but secondary goal of limiting its casualties.

Past assets are no assurance of future performance. Yet unlike in the financial market, NATO's stock is not dependent on forces beyond its control. Its members can decide whether they will let NATO slowly wither away or cling to it as, indeed, history's most successful military alliance.

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  • Vojtech Mastny is a Senior Research Scholar at the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and heads the project on the parallel history of NATO and the Warsaw Pact at the National Security Archive. His most recent book is The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity.
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