The Insider

75 years since its founding, Nato’s mission is unchanged

The defensive alliance has been reborn since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

April 10, 2024
Nato 75th anniversary flags. Image: Avpics / Alamy Stock Photo
Nato 75th anniversary flags. Image: Avpics / Alamy Stock Photo

Nato has been reborn since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the newly existential threat to a string of east European states bordering Putin’s Russia. It celebrated its 75th birthday this spring with exactly the same mission as at its foundation in 1949: to prevent an imperialist Russian autocracy from attacking Europe in particular, and western democracy in general.

The big difference is that, thanks largely to Nato’s success in its first 75 years, the Russian empire in eastern Europe was largely dissolved. Since 1990, all of the frontline countries which Nato is defending—Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland—have since joined both the EU and Nato. Finland, which has the longest western border with Russia, had not even dared to join Nato in recent decades.

Ukraine was a more integral part of the pre-1990 Russian empire than any of the countries just mentioned. So in the long view, it is a remarkable triumph for Nato that a full-scale Russian invasion has, after more than two years, succeeded only in occupying a small part of the Russian-speaking east of the country. And this in a state which isn’t even part of Nato, but instead relies on support from the western alliance while it fights alone.  

The parallel between today and 1949 is close in two other fundamental respects, both of which may surprise those unfamiliar with the international politics of the immediate postwar years.

First, then as now, engagement in Europe was deeply contested in the US. Roosevelt’s policy in 1945—initially continued by his successor Truman—was for the US to withdraw its military forces within two years. Not until Stalin’s Berlin blockade of 1948, when he cut off West Berlin in an attempt to force Britain and the US out of Berlin and eastern Germany entirely, did Truman fully commit to stay in Europe. And not until the Nato treaty of the following year, while the blockade was still being resisted, did he make an open-ended commitment to west European security.

Secondly, and even closer to the bone with Trump today, many senior US and European politicians in the immediate postwar years wanted to split the difference with Stalin rather than resist him outright. Truman’s initial policy after 1945 was for a demilitarised and neutral Germany, giving up west Germany as a separate state, as part of a deal to reunite the country and (so it was argued) stabilise relations with the USSR on compromise terms. The communist parties which were then strong across western Europe’s democracies, apart from Britain, supported a similar policy.

This plan was only stopped by the determination and ingenuity of Ernie Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary. As the greatest trade unionist of his generation, Bevin knew only too well that a compromise with Stalin was not possible. A united and neutral Germany, in the USSR’s sphere of influence, would have been turned into a Soviet satellite in the same way as its central and eastern European neighbours in the mid-to-late 1940s. Bevin succeeded in spinning out the negotiations in Germany for long enough to expose Stalin’s real intentions, and for a change of policy to take place in Washington. Nato was the culmination of his work.

So it is today with the appeasers of Putin. They too argue that a compromise is possible, under which Europe and Russia divide Ukraine, with the pro-European west of the country kept in a neutralised limbo, denied membership of Nato and the EU. The result would probably be a Russian takeover of the whole country within a short period.

The only long-term security for Ukraine is to win this war, and to join Nato and the EU immediately afterwards.

So Nato is 75 years young. Its purpose and mission as a defensive alliance to protect European democracy against a Russian imperialist dictator are undiminished. And it has once again to persuade the leaders of the US that America’s own security and democracy depend on containing Russian imperialism on the European mainland. The moment of truth is nigh.