In a message commenting on my article on NATO’s strategic purpose in the post-cold war era and its current use as a tool of United States hegemony in Europe, Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried raised an intriguing question: “Is it really possible to divorce the striving for continued American hegemony in Europe from the founding of NATO as a ‘defensive pact’? My French and German friends think differently.”
I’d like to suggest a tentative answer to that question.
Throughout the Cold War, legions of European leftists of various hues—mostly Soviet fellow-travelers—routinely derided NATO as a tool of American imperialism. Their objections were predictable at the time of the alliance’s founding in 1949 and stayed so for the rest of the Cold War. They should not be confused with critiques of NATO’s post-1991 metamorphosis.
Over the decades there have also been prominent Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and others, with impeccably rightist credentials, whose skepticism about NATO and qualms about America’s motives for its creation were both nuanced and credible. However, in the early Cold War era their apprehensions regarding the rising might of the United States and the values and intentions of its ruling elite were not novel.
As early as 1901, English author W. T. Stead opined that Americanization was not only inevitable but also welcome. The Americans are “an amalgam of many nations,” constituting “a kind of human flux” that provides a viable model for the future of Europe, he claimed in The Americanization of the World, or: The Trend of the Twentieth Century.
Well before World War II turned the United States into a global power, many Europeans regarded this notion of “flux” as a chief reason to be wary of America. Alarmed, they sensed that across the ocean America was an urbanized financial powerhouse, the relentless bearer and promoter of social and cultural modernity.
Between the wars the term “Americanization” entered virtually all European languages, a designation with intensely negative connotations. It implied an obsession with becoming rather than being, and a radical rejection of all time-honored aesthetic standards, social hierarchies, and even norms of civilized discourse.
A pioneer in this field was the German-Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, whose verses reflected the Sehnsucht, or melancholic longing, of German romanticism. Initially enthusiastic to emigrate to the New World, a year’s stay in 1833 caused Lenau to lament America’s devotion to rampant capitalism and debased democracy. This inspired Ferdinand Kürnberger, a Viennese author immensely popular in the mid-century, to write a harsh critique of the U.S. in his 1855 novel on Lenau, Der Amerika-Müde (“The One Who Is Tired of America”).
In the fullness of time, but especially after 1945, dislike of the cultural impact, power, and symbolism of the United States directed a significant segment of the right-leaning European intelligentsia into an instinctive anti-Americanism. Interestingly, for all other differences of the cultural milieux and traditions, the phenomenon’s assumptions and manifestations were similar on both sides of the Rhine as well as south of the Alps. It was eminently pan-European.
Just like the contemporary visceral Russophobia of the American elite, in the aftermath of World War II dislike for the United States morphed into a cultural mentality among many European traditionalists. They feared and resented what they saw as the new hegemon. Like Russophobia of today, this sentiment was not necessarily correlated to any specific acts of policy emanating from Washington. On the contrary, it treated each act of policy as a reflection and reaffirmation of America’s ostensibly nefarious motives—the founding of NATO naturally included.
As a student of modern history and a realist in the field of world affairs, I insist that such an accusation was and is unjust. All three key American decision-makers of the late 1940’s—President Harry Truman and his secretaries of state George Marshall and Dean Acheson—were decent and rational patriots. None of them were afflicted by the absurd notions of imperial grandeur, which later matured into an eminently un-American obsession when the Trotskyite left morphed into the misnamed neoconservative movement.
Truman and his associates were forced to confront the very real threat posed by the Soviet Union. They were shaken, and rightly so, by George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow. They saw threats to Greece and Turkey in 1947 as imminent—Greece was already in the middle of a Communist-instigated civil war—and they responded with the Truman Doctrine, which for the first time offered permanent U.S. security guarantees to foreign countries outside the Western hemisphere. A year later, the first Berlin crisis altered the European order settled at Yalta and Potsdam. The massive U.S.-led airlift that defeated it was a reactive and surprisingly effective response.
In its early years, and for most of the Cold War, NATO was a truly defensive alliance based on the strategy of containment. It is noteworthy that the U.S. did not act to prevent French President Charles de Gaulle from exiting its military structure in the 1960s, whereas a decade earlier the Soviets had destroyed much of Budapest in fighting to prevent Hungary exiting the Warsaw Pact. It is also largely thanks to NATO that Europe managed to avoid yet another war in the crisis-laden four decades following 1945. Many wars were fought on the periphery of the bipolar divide, but none in its center.
Yes, NATO did go rogue after the collapse of the USSR and its shaky military alliance. This was entirely due to the pathology of the post-Cold War globally-hegemonistic regime in Washington; on this my colleagues and I have written often and extensively. Today’s NATO is an anachronism and a threat to peace. It should indeed be abolished and disbanded.
George Kennan, the key architect of America's containment strategy in 1947 and an enthusiastic promoter of NATO's founding two years later, wrote near the end of his long life that the expansion of NATO into Central Europe was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” He believed, as did most other Russia experts, that expanding NATO would irreparably damage U.S. efforts to transform Russia from enemy to partner. He accurately predicted that NATO’s continued existence and unwarranted expansion would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations.” He was right then, just as he was right when NATO was created 72 years ago.
Today’s NATO is bad and mad. But it was not so from the beginning.