Millions of Comrades in Arms in NATO Bound Europe Together

The soldiers who stood shoulder to shoulder created the foundations of NATO

From George Friedman, Stratfor:  On a personal level, my relationship with Europe always passes through the prism of NATO. Born in Hungary, I recall my parents sitting in the kitchen in 1956, when the Soviets came in to crush the revolution. On the same night as my sister’s wedding in New York, we listened on the radio to a report on Soviet tanks attacking a street just a block from where we lived in Budapest. I was 7 at the time. The talk turned to the Americans and NATO and what they would do. NATO was the redeemer who disappoints not because he cannot act but because he will not. My family’s underlying faith in the power of American alliances was forged in World War II and couldn’t be shaken. NATO was the sword of Gideon, albeit lacking in focus and clarity at times. . . .

The Americans were always haunted by Pearl Harbor. This is why 9/11 was such a blow. The historical recollection of the attack out of nowhere was always close. Doctrine said that we would have 30 days’ warning of a Soviet attack. I had no idea where this doctrine came from, and I suspected that it came from the fact that we needed 30 days’ warning to get ready. The Europeans did not fear the unexpected attack; rather, they dreaded the expected attack for which preparations had not been made. World War II haunted them differently. They were riveted on the fact that they knew what was coming and failed to prepare. The Americans and Europeans were united by paranoia, but their paranoia differed. For the Americans, staying out of alliances and not acting soon enough was what caused the war. The United States was committed to never repeating that mistake. NATO was one of many alliances. The Americans love alliances. . . .

What NATO provided that was priceless, and the unexpected byproduct of all of this, was a comradeship and unity of purpose on both sides of the North Atlantic. Even the French, who withdrew from NATO’s military command under Charles de Gaulle, remained unofficially part of it. There was little question but that if "the balloon went up" — the enemy took action — the French would be there, arguing over who would command whom but fighting as hard as the Underground did before D-Day. . . .

NATO, far more than a model United Nations or a Fulbright, allowed ordinary Americans and Europeans to know each other and understand that with linked fates, they were comrades in arms. After World War II, that was a profound lesson. Millions of draftees experienced that and took the lesson home.

The end of the Cold War is no great loss, although my youth went with it. Losing the unity of purpose that the Cold War gave Western Europe and the United States is of enormous consequence. For a while, after 1991, the two sides went on as if the alliance could exist even without an enemy. However, NATO started to fragment when it lost its enemy. The passion for a mission gave NATO meaning, and the passion was drained. The alliance continued to fragment when the United States decided to invade Iraq for the second time. The vast majority of countries in NATO supported the invasion — a forgotten fact — but France and Germany did not. This damaged the United States’ relations with Europe, particularly with the French, who have a way of getting under the skins of Americans while appearing oblivious to it. But the greater damage was within Europe — the division between those who wanted to maintain close relations with the United States, even if they thought the Iraq War was a bad idea, and those who wanted Europe to have its own voice, distinct from the Americans’. 

The 2008 global financial contagion did not divide the Americans and Europeans nearly as much as it divided Europe. The relationship between European countries — less among leaders than among publics — has become poisonous. Something terrible has happened to Europe, and each country is holding someone else responsible. As many countries are blaming Germany as Germany is blaming for the crisis.

There can be no trans-Atlantic alliance when one side is in profound disagreement with itself over many things and the other side has no desire to be drawn into the dispute. Nor can there be a military alliance where there is no understanding of the mission, the enemy or obligations. NATO was successful during the Cold War because the enemy was clear, there was consensus over what to do in each particular circumstance and participation was a given. An alliance that does not know its mission, has no meaningful plans for what problems it faces and stages come-as-you-are parties in Libya or Mali, where invitations are sent out and no one RSVPs, cannot be considered an alliance. The committees meet and staffs of defense ministers prepare for conferences — all of the niceties of an alliance remain. SACEUR is still an American, the Science and Technology Committee produces papers, but in the end, the commonality of purpose is gone. . . .

What we had together, however, was invaluable: a moment in history, possibly the last, when the West stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of liberal democracy and against tyranny. Still, I look back on the Soviets and then look at al Qaeda and I miss the Soviets. I understood them in a way I can never understand al Qaeda.

So I will be asked to speak about U.S-European relations. I will have to tell the Europeans two things. The first is that there is no American relationship with Europe because Europe is no longer an idea but a continent made up of states with diverse interests. There are U.S.-French relations and U.S.-Russian relations and so on. The second thing I will tell them is that there can be no confederation without a common foreign and defense policy. You can have different tax rates, but if when one goes to war they don’t all go to war, they are just nations cooperating as they see fit.

I remember the camaraderie of young enlisted Americans and Europeans, and the solidarity of planning teams. This was the glue that held Europe together. It was not just the commanders and politicians, but the men who would have to cover each other’s movement that created the foundations of NATO’s solidarity. My recollections are undoubtedly colored with sentimentality, but I do not think I’ve done the idea an injustice. NATO bound Europe together because it made the nations into comrades. They were able to face Armageddon together. Europe without NATO’s solidarity has difficulty figuring out a tax policy. In the end, Europe lost more when NATO fell into disuse than it imagined. 

I don’t know that NATO can exist without a Cold War. Probably not. What is gone is gone. But I know my nostalgia for Europe is not just for my youth; it is for a time when Western civilization was united. I doubt we will see that again.   (photo:

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