The crisis in Ukraine has brought issues of global security that had been on the back burner in recent years sharply back into focus. The issues and problems about the Middle East that were heightened by the events of 9/11 certainly have a bearing on global security, but they don't raise the possibility of an immediate full scale military conflict between major powers. While few people think that the US and Russia are about to start a direct shooting war with each other, the present situation raises important questions about security arrangements that were developed 70 years ago. NATO remains at the center of the discussion. There had been a conversation between the US and the European members of NATO about future participation in recent years. That just became more crucial.
During WW II US policy planners were working on the assumption that after active hostilities were ended US forces would participate in time limited military occupations to restore order and then all return home. There was a body of opinion led by conservative Republicans that the proper course of US foreign policy was a return to the posture of isolation that had prevailed during the interwar years. The British in contrast saw the USSR as a likely post war threat well before the end of the war. Churchill argued in vain for deferring the invasion of western Europe and sending forces into the Balkans to block a communist takeover. Stalin definitely had plans for building a security buffer in eastern Europe. He was actively scheming to install a post war government in Poland that he could control. The Allied summit conferences at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam involved negotiations on these issues that remain controversial.
Those built in conflicts of interests began to emerge as Europe was digging out from under the rubble. The British took an active role in pushing the US to maintain an active military posture in post war Europe. They were essentially bankrupt from the war. They could not afford the expense of maintaining their occupation zone in Germany. In contrast the US was the world's only undamaged industrial power. It was for the time being the possessor of dominant military power and sitting on much of the money in the world. As the conflicts between the west and the USSR began began to multiply the US and Britain began crafting a long term security agreement that developed into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. From the British perspective it had a threefold purpose: to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out. It was the lynch pin of post war European security.
The beginnings of the cold war are dated from the late 1940s. However, it wasn't until the middle of the 1950s that a formal confrontation was drawn up. The Korean war stimulated an expansion of NATO. In 1954 the USSR proposed joining NATO as a step to insure peace. Fearing the intentions of this proposal the existing NATO members rejected it and the USSR and its satellites formed the Warsaw Pact. The next 35 years saw a standoff with periodic negotiations aimed at détente. NATO conducted military exercises as a show of force but it never actually took military action during the cold war. During this time western Europe rebuilt from the war and returned to a state of economic stability. The US continued to provide the bulk of the military muscle that made NATO a credible military deterrent.
With the dissolution of the USSR at the beginning of the 1990s the cold war was declared at an end and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. The remaining Russian Federation found itself in a period of economic and political upheaval. The threat of an organized military aggression from the communist world that NATO was originally organized to deter no longer existed. In its place there was something of a security vacuum in central and eastern Europe. Suddenly there was a collection of small to medium sized nation states disconnected from the political and economic system to which they had been tied. Not only was there an ongoing fear of a Russian resurgence, but some of these states had unresolved historical disputes with each other and within their own populations.
NATO stepped into this vacuum with an initiative called Partnership for Peace.
Russia and everybody else in Europe and central Asia who was not then a member of NATO signed up. Twelve states that were initially members of the PFP eventually transitioned to full NATO membership. Of those all but Albania have also become members of the EU. This process eventually incorporated much of what had been the Warsaw Pact into the western alliance.
The breakup of the Republic of Yugoslavia presented the first post cold war security crisis. NATO took on its first active military operation under a UNSC authorization in the Bosnia and Herzegovina intervention. That was followed by the Kosovo intervention. The situation in Yugoslavia not only created a humanitarian crisis in that territory but also a refugee crisis for neighboring European states. Efforts at intervention in the crisis by European states prior to NATO's involvement had not been effective. It was primarily the US that provided the military capacity to bring order to the situation.
The 1990s gave NATO an essentially new purpose and mission. It has seen use as an umbrella for other activities such as the invasion of Afghanistan and the more recent intervention in Libya. It did not participate in the invasion of Iraq because the necessary unanimous agreement of all its members was not forth coming. As its activities have moved outside of Europe questions have been raised about just what purpose it serves. Is it primarily a fig leaf for US military intervention?
Meanwhile there has been a building tension between NATO and Russia. In Estonia and Latvia NATO and the EU have reached the border of Russia and they surround the Russian salient of Kaliningrad. NATO has had on again off again negotiations with Ukraine and Georgia. The construction of the NATO missile defense system has also been a major bone of contention between Russia and the western alliance. These tensions are major background for the crisis that has boiled over in Ukraine.
US Defense Secretaries now find themselves involved in uncomfortable financial discussions with their counterparts at NATO summit meetings. Both Robert Gates and Chuck Hegal have raised the issue of who is providing the fire power and who is calling the shots.
Hagel was even more explicit at the defense ministers meeting in June when he said “over-dependence on any one country for critical capabilities brings with it risks.” One of these risks is that the U.S. will soon tell its allies, if you don’t invest much in your defense, neither will we. The U.S. will “rebalance” its own shrinking defense dollars to allies and partners that share the security burden more equitably. Too many European leaders refuse to realize that this long-festering problem is having a dangerously corrosive effect on the Alliance.This is a comparison of the military investment of the US and its European NATO partners.
In the 1950s western Europe was in a generally weak and vulnerable position. The US provided Marshall Plan assistance and military support to get it back on its feet. In 2014 the world is a pretty different place. The EU has had its economic difficulties of late but it is not an impoverished collection of starving people. It is possible to view the US defense establishment as offering them a subsidy of funds that might otherwise have to be spent on defense. It is also possible to see the US as an imperialistic power intent on preserving global hegemony, as a number of Europeans do. The suddenly real threat of a sustained serious conflict with Russia raises questions about the state of these long standing security relationships. It may no longer be possible to keep shoving them under the carpet.