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Permanent Alliance: The NATO Debate from Libya to Ukraine, A Review

Reviewed: Sloan, Stanley R. Permanent Alliance: NATO and the TransAtlantic Bargain from Truman to Obama. (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) 317 pages.

When in 2016 the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, suggested walking away from NATO, perhaps it wasn’t Trump that was letting the nation down, but the nation failing itself. Historians will lament, whichever way the tide crashes, that at this moment America did not immediately halt in mid-mechination for a sober and conscious reflection on A) the merits and mandates of the NATO construct, B) the quids and quos of American hegemony within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and C) the present pulse of the nation’s sentimentality in matters of interventionism, collectivism, and so forth. For those frenzied, scrutinizing souls clawing in the dark for some comprehension of these and other critical concerns, sans any hope for a productive or even informative national discourse, there is refuge in Stanley Sloan’s professorial (and prophetic) exploration of these very themes.

Sloan trisects the subject of what he terms the ‘Transatlantic Bargain’ after the fashion of Scrooge’s ghosts: past, present, and future. He follows the former through its genesis in the schism and reformation in post-WWII diplomacy, to Korea-stained revision preceding the arrival of the Cold War, and, after many great feats of industrial exhibitionism, to the terminus of that conflict which heralded the ghost of NATO present. To this subject, the author devotes a considerably greater portion of effort and attention, examining the headier topics of Enlargement, Security, and Defense, refreshingly, as though they were not all the same thing, nor were they all incapable of engendering conflictory premises. Perhaps, if one should taxonomize the broader mission orientations of NATO according to those headings, Russia would be (or would have been) a question of defense; Afghanistan would be (and in fact, is) a question of security; and Iraq is certainly a question of expansion, though perhaps no one involved will ever have to admit to it. Finally, Sloan invokes the ghost of NATO future, asking the title-question: can this last forever? And if it fails (or succeeds, for that matter, though evidence of such is unlikely to ever be quite as definitively pronounced as evidence of failure is likely to be), then what is likely to to be the cause? The applicable headings are necessity, sufficiency, utility, and sustainability.

The genesis of NATO, in Sloan’s telling, is the “Brussels Treaty of Economic, Social and Cultural Collaboration and Collective Self-Defense of March 17, 1948.” (p. 17) Harry Truman, in deference to lessons learned by Woodrow Wilson, waged his concurrent campaign to pre-soften congressional support for a US role, and effectively employed the specter of Soviet aggression toward this end, ultimately securing the Vandenberg Resolution, sanctioning the betrothal of many suitors to a single bride. Among these, internecine tensions and retroactive colonialism would define the coming decades. Sloan presents these dilemmas, such as the Franco-American dispute over German Rearmament and the mis-branded failures in Korea for instance, with careful attention, closing the section in Lisbon in 1950 with the European Defense Force in play and Greece and Turkey added to the roster.

As with all the best-laid-plans, Sloan explains that these began to come apart, even as “the ink was barely dry…” (p. 31) Among the volatile elements in the debut arrangement, even the vastly asymmetrical material contributions of the United States failed to assuage the athagoraphobic French. Though “Congress had demonstrated clearly its desire to see the EDC ratified…” as evidenced by the Mutual Security Acts of 1853 and 1854, (the latter of which “[effectively prevented] the future deliveries of military equipment to the two countries which had not ratified the EDC: Italy and France,”) Sloan explains “the [Eisenhower] administration’s nuclear weapons policies may have undermined the credibility of its case for French Ratification. The ensuing compromises after Lisbon could not settle what the author describes as two remaining desires, left unfulfilled: “First, the plan failed to coordinate European Contributions to the Alliance through an EDC...and frustrated American hopes that such a community would eventually make it possible for the United States to withdraw most of its ground forces from Europe… Second… it became clear that the United States and it’s allies would not match the quantitative force levels fielded by the Soviet Union.” (p. 41)

Since these factors only seemed to increase the urgency of German rearmament, Degualle’s rebellion and the transition toward detente seem predictable in the retrospect, but at the time both of these phenomena were very contentious. Sloan describes “a growing disenchantment, particularly among American conservatives, with the era of detente,” during the administration of Jimmy Carter. (pg. 53) In a purely political turn, “while the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limits Talks) were languishing in the Senate, the Soviet Union provided the stimulus for resolution of the dilemma…President Carter imposed sanctions, withdrew the SALT II agreement from Senate ratification, and recommended substantial increases in US defense spending…” (p. 53) It was adherence to this foreign policy decision which, ironically, caused the subsequent administrations to be branded as hawks and militant plutocrats. Sloan recounts in detail the transition from Massive Retaliation (circa 1954) to Flexible Response (circa 1967) to this decision under Carter to “modernize [the US’s} theater of nuclear forces while seeking to negotiate limits on such forces with the Soviet Union.” (p. 60)

For whatever these endeavors were worth, what Reagan termed “the Evil Empire” collapsed in 1989, leaving the east and west with onerous amounts of nuclear missiles and cumbersome defense systems to be disassembled or repurposed. Of this period, Sload concludes that “judged by the outcome of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Alliance had served the Allies well despite the failure of the European allies to deploy the non-nuclear forces they had promised in Lisbon in 1952,” and that “the transatlantic bargain was revised and reshaped almost constantly from 1949 to 1989,” proving that its strongest feature thus far had been adaptability. This characteristic foreshadows the subsequent decisions to keep the band together. (p. 70)

During this second major period, the author traces a few large ideas into their faceted details. One of his more striking points concerns the inherent dissonance between the opposing shores of the Atlantic: “It is an objective fact that the United States and Europe have passed through their own unique historical experiences and naturally have drawn somewhat different lessons from those experiences.” (p.78) While this divergence would produce a longstanding reticence on the continent (to say nothing of the British Isles) toward proposals of militaristic-adventurism, it did not ultimately deter the cause of expansionism. Slowly, paths to membership emerged for the former nations of the Warsaw Pact. Sloan attributes these endeavors to the “legacy of the Harmel,” but in truth, the later is distinguished in this context from the former in that the one sought dialogue and cooperation with Moscow directly, while the other sought inroads into the former satellites (p. 93). This last, inevitably produced exactly the opposite reaction (one supposes) of that intended by Harmel thirty years prior.

Instead of drawing down, neutralizing unnecessary threats (however politically expedient), and repairing the relationship with Moscow, NATO instead reached outward to absorb new members and acquire new partners. Eventually, this grasp would overextend, as efforts to draw in Georgia and the Ukraine finally provoked the Russian aggression needed to win elections in Washington. With arguments of self-determination abound on all sides, Sloan quotes “Zibigniew Brzezinki, who wrote in the mid-1990’s ‘without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian epire...if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources, as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful Imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.” (p. 134) It is clear, this articulation serves equally well as the basis of the western argument against, as well as the eastern argument for, the stated outcome. Since 2006, the value of the Russian equivalent of $10 billion (USD) has grown by over 2000%, now sufficient to resolve the entire US federal debt. In retrospect, detente may have been a more profitable and less painful proposition than politicians in the Atlantic community let on.

On this point, Sloan notes that “Vladimir Putin, in the early stages of his presidency...led Russia toward a pragmatic and even constructive relationship with NATO…[but] American Conservatives remained concerned that [reconciliation] might end NATO’s useful existence.” (p. 131-132) This, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the smoking gun in the case against NATO qua NATO. It requires more cynicism that perhaps the Continuum International Publishing Group would permit its presses to sanction, but the implication seems to be that the possibility of losing dozens upon dozens of new global defense contracts underwritten by each new aspirant might have been strong enough to compel the sabotage of a Russian rapprochement. In short, NATO damned the world to another Cold War in a misguided attempt to prevent its own destruction

After wetting its toes in Kosovo, the mission NATO received was Afghanistan. Sloan says that “the [International Security Afghanistan Force) mission has become NATO’s most ambitious and demanding task in history.” (p. 200) However, he goes on to assert that “Ultimately, among all the external actors in afghanistan, the United States will have the decisive influence on success or failure.” (p. 206) President Obama, failing to heed the lessons of the Carter administration as Truman had heeded those of Woodrow Wilson, announced “in November of 2009...he had decided to order substantial increases in the US military forces in Afghanistan.” (p. 206) Sloan says that the loss of public support was a major challenge to this policy transition,but to be fair, Obama was following the advice of his commanders. To date, eight years later, more than 8,000 troops remain in that country, though very little happening there now can compete with the depravities of ISIS, Boko Haram, or the Syrian civil war, for public attention or political support.

A major theme in the history of NATO’s internal friction has been unilateralism on the part of US administrations during the twenty-first century. Whereas the Clinton administration was criticized for being unwilling to act without collectivist support, the Bush and Obama administrations have been defined by these tendencies. Sloan says “US policy towards European defense has always been set within a broader concept of its role in the world,” and “During the George H. W. Bush administration, internal administration studies suggested the United States should establish and sustain unquestioned superpower status [which] raised questions in Europe as well as in the United States.” (p. 216) His son and successor carried this mantle forward with the unilateral invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, which had a number of negative impacts on internal cohesion and consensus within NATO, not to mention the devastation caused by eight years of bombing and destruction, followed by chaos in a power vacuum.

However, Sloan elaborates, “The Bush administration in its second term recognized the need for allies and the importance of NATO in mustering allied contributions to security and made serious efforts to show that the United States remained committed to the Alliance.” (p. 255) Of course, this was a two way street, as Sloan sees clearly: “new European democracies in Eastern and Central Europe were strongly committed to NATO’s continuation, particularly because their historical and geographical proximity to Russian power and influence convinced them that NATO provided an essential link to US power that was not provided by EU membership.” (p. 256) Similarly, the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2005 and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 brought views more amicable to NATO cooperation from those countries than had been typical of previous administrations.

In the end, Sloan advocates for a new Atlantic Council, “which would embrace, not replace (though later, he uses the word ‘subsume,’) NATO in the overall framework of transatlantic relations.” (p. 279) He says that “all items currently on the US-EU agenda could be transferred to this new forum, covering virtually all aspects of transatlantic relations and including all countries with interests in the relationship…” Given the abortive failure to normalize relations with Moscow, the destabilization of Iraq, and the evolution of non-state terrorist actors from an infrequent nuisance to a full-scale global threat to all civilized nations (to say nothing of the successes of Albanian drug cartels, the three-million-dead genocide in Bosnia, and the third major renewal of global nuclear commitments) one could argue that this is a dubious proposition at best, based on a lemming’s understanding of history and human nature. If only Sloan hadn’t preempted these conclusions with such a thorough and intimidatingly concise examination of the history and inner-workings of the transatlantic bargain.

Like American history itself, the book begins with George Washington’s admonition of entangling alliances. It might just as well have closed on the axiom that every product eventually finds its market. So long as the US is willing to uncritically support the constantly recurrent self-validation of its open-ended commitment to protect Europe, even when Europe won’t take sufficient steps to protect itself for fear of then being expected to potentially do so some day, it is reasonable to conclude that NATO, its members, and its partners, will continue to manufacture new circumstances to justify its existence, expansion, and exhibitionism. The question ought to be why, let alone how or when, those countries will ever be incentivized to establish such internal and external infrastructure (both military and economic) as might be sufficient to be the guarantors of their own autonomy, if the US settles into the surrogate habit of vending its own security services. Another question that ought to be posed is why should the US commit itself to the defense of so many other nations while its own economy disintegrates under the weight of insolvency. Or is the American commitment to those other nations presently the only thing currently keeping its consumption economy from tanking?

While the later is probably true, and this book is incredibly informative and makes profuse use of sources for each small and well organized chapter, the answers to these other questions will not be found within the pages of this book. Broadly, Sloan closes with questions a better set of candidates for Leader of the Free World might have thought worthy to kick around. Is NATO necessary? Is it useful? If so, is it strong enough? And finally, how do we keep it going it? Readers will turn the final page holding all the pieces of the puzzle, but they will each have to put it together for themselves. Nevertheless, the work will go a long way toward enhancing anyone’s understanding of the issues that now face this historic organization. As stated above, it should be easy to see NATO fail; but it may be much more difficult to see NATO succeed. Perhaps, then, the apathy and distraction which prohibits a substantive discussion of NATO’s future is the very shield against the kind of misguided populist hysteria which recently carried the Brexit Referendum, and which produced the left-right dysphoria in American politics in general. American conservatism has shattered into its fundamentalist-fanaticist components, while American liberalism has all but retreated into isolationist-pacifism in its ideo-moral crusade for equality of outcomes. In times like these, a little bit of rash-decision on the shoulders of reductionists and revisionists can swiftly yield potentially catastrophic and irreversible outcomes.

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