The enthusiasm that has been inspired in NATO circles by the organization’s success in overturning the Gadhafi regime in Libya provides a demonstration of how badly NATO still feels the need for a justification of its continued existence.

The Libya victory reinforced the claim made in a new NATO doctrine declaring that the alliance has a “responsibility to protect” populations threatened by their own tyrannical regimes (politico-military specialists in creating weird acronyms have named this “R2P”). Syria is the case presently in mind, with Yemen and Bahrain waiting in an outer room (to which there are notable political impediments, since both governments are American proteges).

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen describes this new mission as to “inspire those who desire freedom,” taking up their “just cause” (when possible). The new NATO doctrine is once again a Western claim that the West possesses the moral right (or duty) to universal intervention to put wrongs right, despite the unsuccessful precedents provided by Iraq and Afghanistan.

This conception of humanitarian interventions has produced vigorous controversy ever since the wars of Yugoslav succession, when the United Nations and the West European countries did nothing decisive, and the U.S. government and people averted their eyes until they at last were forced by Serbia to take action that still has not resolved the region’s conflicts, but has succeeded in imposing a provisional halt to the killings. This affair actually did not concern NATO except as an instrument of national governments, principally the United States when it finally intervened.

Many Europeans have expressed anxiety about the White House claim to have led the Libyan intervention “from behind,” seeing in this intimations of eventual American withdrawal from Europe. They are badly mistaken to so think. NATO has a future, whether humanitarian or not.

Despite NATO being a relic of the Cold War, the end of which removed its original raison d’etre to provide a North American defense guarantee to non-Communist Europe, the phrase, “we are defending Europe,” is still a refrain in American policy and political discourse. Defending Europe from what? There is no Soviet Union. Russia, largely disarmed, shows no evidence of military or political designs on Western Europe. China? Let’s be serious.

Does NATO defend Europe from terrorism? The only reward Western Europe has gained from its loyal Article Five rallying to the United States at the time of 9/11 has been participation in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Europeans did not, and do not, want, and major terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, which would never otherwise have occurred.

The United States receives NATO support for American-determined international policies, calling on Europe for military assistance whenever this is convenient, or to provide political cover for the United States when it presents a unilateral policy decision to the world as a decision of “the international community.”

Washington regularly reproaches the Europeans for not spending more for arms (as does Rasmussen), so as to be better equipped to support American policies. The Europeans — except for Britain and France, which see themselves as having global interests, and Poland and the Balts, for obvious reasons of national reassurance — consider the presence of U.S. troops in Europe to “defend” them as a reciprocal reason for minimal military spending.

It is Washington today that needs NATO, not Europe. NATO’s existence is essential to the United States because there would be no legal or strategic justification for the U.S. to station an army, air force, nuclear weapons, strategic and anti-missile defenses, and multiple bases in Western, Central and Eastern Europe, including post-Cold War deployments near Russia’s borders. (Many in Washington fail to grasp this.)

As the late Richard Holbrooke, a distinguished and perspicacious American diplomat, once said (to the great annoyance of European Gaullists, who knew he was right), the United States is a European power. It is THE European power in strategic terms, and even in political respects because, since 1945, it has exercised a kind of oversight over Europe’s affairs, sponsoring unification, interfering in Europe’s internal politics, imposing decisions upon the Europeans and their institutions that have not always been in European interests.

Britain has been its principal instrument and habitual agent ever since Winston Churchill told Charles DeGaulle at the end of the Second World War that if Britain ever had to choose between Europe and the United States, it would choose the United States. It has in fact so chosen.

A revised Anglo-American history has even been internalized by British political leaders. In a speech soon after taking office, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that America has been solidly at Britain’s side ever since Hitler had to be confronted.

In 1939, when Poland was invaded and war began, the United States was a neutral nation, with an isolationist majority in public opinion, providing no help to Britain or France that was not paid for in cash. “Lend-Lease,” providing arms on credit, was not offered to Britain until March 1941 (and the bill for these credit purchases was relentlessly presented to the British treasury at the end of the war; the final payment only very recently delivered to Washington).

The United States declared war only on Japan after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. It was not at war against Germany until three days later, when Hitler, for reasons known only to him, declared war on the United States.

Europeans need not fear losing NATO. The present arrangement is far too convenient for Washington to lose. The relationship can only be terminated by Europe, as DeGaulle recognized. But Europe today, as the credit and currency crisis has just demonstrated, remains incapable of sovereign action.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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