The Atlantic or the Pacific? How the Pivot to Asia May Hinder NATO
“So I think that is one of the reasons we can face some regional problems, which are very difficult, very dramatic and is necessary to have instruments to solve these problems. NATO is such instrument.” -Aleksander Kwasniewski
When Barack Obama toured the Far East, his challenge was sticking to the script while balancing calls for U.S. attention back to Europe. The Ukrainian Crisis exposed how the Pivot to Asia has created a new foreign policy question: What future awaits the U.S. partnership in the Atlantic, vis-a-vis NATO. Even as the country has attempted to shift its attention to neglected Asian allies, it is being pulled back by countries that have shared strong security commitments in the post Cold War era. “The United States will always be a Pacific country,” stated the President when announcing the strategy to counteract China. Though if we look back at the history of U.S. foreign policy, a different narrative is present and new challenges may present themselves in denying the roots of our history as an Atlantic nation.
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The last 60 years of U.S. foreign policy, in the spirit of containing global communism, has been focused on Europe and the Atlantic. The North Atlantic Security treaty of 1948 that founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded as a regional alliance to maintain the peace and security of Europe and as a shield against the Soviet Union and its allies. It remained a silent guardian against the Warsaw Pact and a strong deterrent for military action in Europe following the Second World War. When the walls came down, it even became a medium to integrate the former communist states into peaceful coexistence with the rest of Europe.
The Atlantic Alliance, as NATO has been referred to at times, has been a substitute for the lack of common security policies among the European powers. This large gap in European unity has been filled by the United States, which boasted the economic and military power to initiate the rebuilding of the post-Second World War economy and keep the peace. The alliance allowed European states to focus inwardly, creating the economic community that laid the foundation for the European Community and the future European Union.
Finally, with leadership from the US, it has united European security interests without having to sacrifice national sovereignty over national security. While the European Union and its members have achieved the strongest level of economic integration, they have been slow and ineffective in crafting a Euro-specific security arrangement. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Genocide confirmed these inadequacies in European policymaking, requiring the United States, through NATO, to force a resolution to the conflict. John Mearsheimer said in a 2010 article that:
“I believe that the explanation lies in Europe’s relationship with the United States, which has changed surprisingly little since the Cold War ended. Indeed, one might argue that the trans-Atlantic relationship has grown stronger since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
NATO has been a powerful shield of states, ready to police conflicts around the world and preserve both commerce and security beyond Europe. NATO’s Article 4 responsibility to protect each other in response to attacks was used for the first time when the U.S., after 9/11, pursued a military response to Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. The U.S. also used NATO to spearhead the humanitarian intervention in Libya durng the Arab Spring (2011).
The Pivot Away for Europe
But as times change, politics changes and interests change with new priorities. George Washington, the first U.S. President, said when speaking of the U.S.-French alliance during the outbreak of the French Revolution, that “nations are bound by interests, not friendship.”NATO has come to symbolize not only a security alliance, but a commitment to common friendship and trust in the peace of the Atlantic. But with the U.S. Pivot to Asia and the increasing emphasis of Washington on containing and balancing China as a regional power, many skeptics in Europe believe it is signal of future neglect of this vital institution.
With Russia resurgent as a major regional power, it has created anxiety amongst the eastern members, whose memories of communist rule are fresh in mind. Their call for American troops is born out of this renewed insecurity that has been present, but appeased by an attentive United States and its western allies. These countries, specifically Poland and the Baltic States, were certainly more secure when the missile shield was being installed in their borders. Even now, many western members have grown increasingly skeptical of the alliance’s effectiveness. France has been cynical
towards NATO since the 1960s and the UK is wary to involve itself in adventures abroad. Germany has only recently began placing harsh sanctions on the table against Russia. The U.S. has a lot to lose if the Pivot overtakes the important implications of Russian victory or even stalemate in Ukraine and the future of Eastern Europe.
A Future Without “Uncle Sam”
Looking at the record, NATO has been the strongest deterrent for major conflicts due to the close cooperation of the US and its European allies. If the Pivot should leave the alliance in a state of salutary neglect, it provides Russia with opportunities to swallow Ukraine’s eastern region and enforce its authority across Eastern Europe. In this game of great power politics, Europe will have to develop a security alternative without the U.S. It will involve a strong Germany and French cooperation, made possible, though strenuous, by the economic future of the EU. But unlike Bosnia, its not a far cry now, especially given Germany’s increased influence in the Union.
This is many years down the road and requires a stronger and more assertive Russia with a less attentive U.S. But American foreign policy is not as strong as it used to be, with one enemy and one priority. Many priorities exist, but Europe should remain at the top. NATO is the crucial link in Atlantic cooperation on security and can still be an effective peacemaker in a world that is more nebulous, dangerous and uncertain than before the Iron Curtain came down.
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