Courtesy Reuters

NATO at Fifty: Did NATO Win the Cold War? Looking over the Wall

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.

THE ELUSIVE SOVIET THREAT

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

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