NATO’s Role in a Peaceful and Socially Democratic Europe

NATO brought peace to the most violent continent on the planet by binding its states together in a collective security pact that forbid them from fighting each other and committed them to coming to one another’s defense. In this way, the emphasis on NATO as a hedge against Russian aggression overlooks its role in bringing peace to its member states and gives the false impression of a zero-sum relationship wherein Russia can win only if Europe loses. Since its establishment in 1949, NATO has created a hedge against potential Russian aggression, but it is far from its only purpose.

In keeping Europeans from killing one another, NATO opened the continent to trade and the free movement of peoples, thereby paving the way for the European Union, as Timothy Andrew Sayle points out in his epic history of NATO, Enduring Alliance. It made social-democratic institutions like universal health insurance and paid family leave possible by sharing the costs of defense among a multitude of states. It helped spread democracy by demonstrating that democracies are safe and secure, prosperous and peaceful, in their relations with one another. Thus, an ever increasing array of states sought entry into the club of wealthy democracies as a refuge from violence and disorder. And in bringing such a diversity of peoples together, NATO helped transform some of the most militaristic and nationalistic societies in the world into some of its most peaceful and cosmopolitan.

In this way, it probably also played a part in transforming colonial regimes like Britain and France, Portugal and Spain, into normal nation states. 

If the vast majority of us have forgotten what a danger European states were to one another and how militaristic European societies could be, it is largely due to the way collective security arrangements allowed them to let their guards down. Thus, the idea that NATO is an imperialistic military organization bent on expansion misses the point. NATO was always a critical hedge against the Soviet Union, but when the Berlin Wall fell it remained essential to the institutional architecture at the heart of the European Union. Its abandonment would have come coupled with dramatic increases in military budgets and corresponding decreases in social safety net programs.  And it would have brought about the remilitarization of Europe’s most vulnerable states, which it would have set on a quest for new protectors, thereby spurring the creation of new power blocks.

In so doing, it might have spelled an end to the fledgling European Dream.

Of course, collective security pacts also send a signal to would be aggressors that if they ever did attack, they would be up against several states at once, and in the case of NATO dozens. But NATO has been an astonishingly peaceful military pact. Over the course of its near three-quarters of a century existence, it has carried out only three military interventions, a statebuilding mission in Afghanistan, and a small counter-terrorism operation in Iraq. It stopped the Bosnian Genocide, which had already killed well over hundred thousand people, through a limited bombing campaign in 1995, which killed only 27 civilians. It halted the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, which threatened to displace hundreds of thousands of people, through a more extensive bombing campaign in 1999, which according to Human Rights Watch killed up to 529 Serbian civilians.

Finally, NATO helped bring down the Gaddafi regime after he embarked on the most intensive killing spree of any leader in the Arab Spring and then threatened to go “door to door” hunting down the rest. According to Libya’s own ambassador to the United Nations, who Secretary General Ban Ki Moon described as begging the U.N. to intervene in an unprecedented display of sobbing before the General Assembly, Gaddafi had just given the signal for his troops to commit genocide. According to Gallup, 75 percent of Libyans told pollsters a year after the intervention that they had wanted NATO to intervene, in spite of the intervention having killed 60 civilians, according to the UN Human Rights council. It was only three years later in 2014, following the degeneration of the world order brought about by Putin’s unanswered theft of the Crimea and Assad’s unanswered obliteration of his own country, that Britain and France would allow the Libyan statebuilding mission to fall apart as the country slipped into civil war.

All in all, over the course of its three-quarter century history, NATO military missions were probably directly responsible for less than a thousand civilian deaths spread out over three humanitarian interventions, the vast majority of which involved a state that is now an associate of NATO, which is on track for entry into the European Union in three years. The only other major campaign it engaged in was a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan, where member states mostly helped with statebuilding, police trainings, financial management, and the provision of aid following the United States’ unilateral invasion in 2001. In a remarkable act of coordination, NATO member states each took on a different element of the statebuilding mission in Afghanistan, with only the United Kingdom engaging in heavy fighting in one small province, which they had committed to keeping secure.

If these campaigns are remembered as being vastly more violent, and if a narrative has emerged that sees NATO as an expansionist imperial force, it is mostly because NATO missions are often confused in our collective memory with those of the United States and the former empires of Europe. It is also the result of Russian propaganda, which claims a “sphere of influence” tied to its former imperial possessions, many of which have joined NATO. And this points to another misunderstanding about how NATO actually works. Potential members request to join it, and far from being pressured, they have to demonstrate a commitment to democracy and the rule of law if they are to be let in.

States have the right to join whatever international associations they want, and spheres of influence are a dated claim seldom invoked today outside of the Putin regime and Trump administration. Meanwhile, states on the periphery of Russia have a better reason for seeking entry into NATO than ever before. Yet, in overlooking the way collective security pacts foster the peaceful relations and prosperity of their member states, we help foster a narrative that sees NATO as an expansionist military organization locked in a zero-sum competition with Russia.

Yet, Russians will only win when they establish genuinely democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the domestic respect for human rights. If Putin has overplayed his hand as much as it seems, they might soon find themselves lining up for NATO membership as well. And if that turns out to be the case, it would not be a reason to disband NATO but rather extend the order it has brought to Europe to Russia as well.

This vision of a liberal internationalist order, wherein democratic states extend the rule of law and a respect for human rights to an ever increasing array of voluntary members, may appear utopian amid the threats and crimes against humanity of autocrats today. But it is no more fantastic than the “European Dream” of a peaceful continent of democratic states would have appeared at the end of the Second World War.

Stranger things have been known to occur than democracy breaking out following the downfall of fascist strongmen and peace breaking out after war.

Theo Horesh
Theo Horesh
Theo Horesh is the author of four books on the psychosocial dynamics of globalization, including The Fascism This Time: And the Global Future of Democracy and a newly revised version of The Holocausts We All Deny: The Crisis Before the Fascism Inferno. He is a democracy advocate who has written hundreds of articles on genocide, climate change, fascism, and human rights. He frequently writes for the Kyiv Post. And he is currently completing his PhD at the University of Leeds, with a thesis on The Retreat from Globalism: And the Reconstruction of the Cosmopolitan Imaginary.