Not long before his death, Harry Truman received a visit from a young Henry Kissinger. To the question of what in his presidency had made him most proud, the former president replied, “That we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America would have done this.” Truman wanted to be remembered—and he wanted his country to be known—not so much for its military might but for its sense of morality.
It was this historic achievement—hardly America’s alone, but inconceivable without America—that set the world on a new trajectory. Blending global power with internationalist principles, the United States embraced an unprecedented responsibility at the end of that conflict for the peace and freedom of the world. This began with the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, but it also featured the creation of postwar international institutions to entrench the growth of prosperity and democracy. America has been the principal supporter of global governance through its leadership in the international economy, in promoting a liberal trading and monetary order, and in security, where it sustains freedom of the seas and the global commons.
One cornerstone of this liberal order can be found in Europe, where a union of nation-states formed under the auspices of American power to promote peace, prosperity, and democracy. It was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, undergirded by a reliable American security guarantee, that furnished an indispensable shield for this emerging order. NATO is what allowed suspicious and quarreling European powers the confidence to cohere and cooperate after the war. Its mission was never to fight a war. To the contrary, as NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, put it, “the business—the paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business of NATO is to avert war.”
Today, after more than three-quarters of a century of peace in Europe, it takes a grand feat of imagination to conceive of NATO as a threat to the European order rather than a guarantor of it. One man who is abundantly capable of this strenuous effort is Stephen Wertheim, a historian of U.S. foreign policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In a New York Times essay, Wertheim argues that NATO is a threat—in Europe and beyond—almost without equal. He purports to be baffled that “liberals” should esteem an organization responsible for so much chaos and carnage in the world. In Wertheim’s view, the Atlantic alliance—what Ismay called a “Pax Atlantica”—“cements European division, bombs the Middle East, burdens the United States and risks great-power war.”
This is—how to put it gently?—nonsense on stilts. Wertheim concedes that the Middle East “contains the real, if receding, threat of terrorism, against which minimal military action can be warranted.” He doesn’t mention what’s brought about the pulverization of the caliphate, but of course the receding threat of terrorism has been the direct result of a tenacious air and ground campaign prosecuted over many years by U.S. armed forces and its local partners against the black flags of the Islamic State. Not exactly “minimal” U.S. military action, in other words. But this is a case when Wertheim approves of bombing the Middle East, so the burden is well worth bearing.
But Wertheim’s indictment of NATO as a force for division and war reveals that he is not merely confused, but has grown wholly untethered from reality. Wertheim juxtaposes the “warranted” deployment of U.S. military power in the Middle East with America’s prolonged commitment to European peace and security. The old continent, Wertheim contends, could get by well enough in a world without American primacy. In a statement that deserves to be remembered for the ages, he writes that “Europe is stable and affluent, far removed from its warring past.” Ever wonder why?
Wertheim’s view is, to put it mildly, not as popular in Europe itself, where the voice of history echoes louder than it does in the offices of the Quincy Institute. Wertheim bases his serene and ahistorical confidence in the stability of Europe on the wholly theoretical ability of European powers to defend themselves. To justify this optimistic presumption, he links to articles that rehearse old and contradictory claims about Europeans’ desire for greater strategic autonomy from Washington without providing the means to set up their own independent military capabilities. Anyone familiar with Europe’s recent tradition of paltry military spending—and, more importantly, the deeply-ingrained aversion to the use of force animating the strategic culture of Europe—knows well that without American leadership and engagement, European defense is a fantasy.
Wertheim seems dimly aware of this problem, which is why he quickly transitions to the argument that whatever the state of European defenses, they simply aren’t required in the absence of a great power rival. And Russia, he insists, is no such power. He reminds readers that Russia’s economy is the size of Italy’s, as if that ensures it can represent no serious threat. He would be at a loss to understand Napoleon’s observation that in war, morale is to the material as three is to one. But the more pressing problem is that an authoritarian and aggressive Russia could achieve its aims short of war.
This, after all, was the fear that drove allied leaders to sign the North Atlantic Treaty in the first place. As Timothy Andrews Sayle documents in Enduring Alliance, his fine history of NATO, the specter of a Soviet invasion of Europe was not as great as the specter of Soviet blackmail and European appeasement. To be effective, NATO had to serve not merely as a bulwark against Moscow but also against the renewed assertion of illiberal nationalism and security competition among powers in Western and later in Central Europe. And who, when surveying the European scene today—with its stubborn economic woes and its immigration fiascoes, its rising ultranationalist movements and political penetration by hostile foreign powers—could fail to observe the trembling foundations of the European project?
Wertheim ignores new forms of insecurity that are drawing Europe back to its tribal and bloody past. He likewise ignores Russia’s outsized military investments, to say nothing of its actual military deployments on the European frontier that has already upended the postwar settlement forgoing the acquisition of territory by force. This casual dismissal of pertinent facts permits Wertheim to conclude that Russia “lacks the capability to overrun Europe, supposing it had any reason to try.” When an analyst has little trouble imagining Europe at peace—with itself and others—bereft of NATO, it can only be expected that he would fail to imagine a despot like Putin finding a reason to disturb its peace.
Wertheim concludes by reasserting a principle that enjoyed its high-water mark during the interwar years before being submerged by history. “The United States can trust Europeans to defend Europe,” he argues, echoing Sen. Robert Taft, who opposed American intervention against Hitler’s Germany and later agitated against American involvement in NATO. What escaped Taft and his modern acolytes is that, in point of fact, Europeans couldn’t be trusted to defend Europe. Twice the United States attempted to let Europe solve its own problems, and twice the experiment failed. It wasn’t until American leaders understood that truth—and acted on it by introducing American power into Europe on a permanent basis—that Europe eventually emerged “whole, free and at peace.”
The alternative to abandoning Europe to its own devices is not, per Wertheim, an American order breeding “a war so great” that it “puts dreams of dominance to rest.” Pax Americana and Pax Atlantica haven’t been a dream but a lived reality for vast swathes of humanity. After helping to defend civilization during a nightmarish war, American power revived its defeated enemies and nurtured a fragile peace that still holds to this day. President Truman took great pride in that achievement, and regarded it as a charge to keep. It still is.