30 years after Cold War ends, NATO still has important role

  • Keith Peterson

    Keith Peterson

By Keith Peterson
Posted12/8/2019 1:00 AM

A friend from Malta reminded me the other day that we have just passed the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Malta Summit that signaled the end of the Cold War.

This was the first of a dozen presidential visits that I worked in a support role and it was easily the most historic. It was there in stormy Malta that President Bush extended his hand to Mikael Gorbachev with an offer to help the Soviets make the transition to a more market-oriented and liberal system.


I still remember the USS Belknap and the Soviet cruiser Slava nose-to-nose off the southern Maltese coast and how funny it was to see White House aides returning from a visit to the Slava wearing Soviet naval hats and shirts, having traded away their White House jackets and sweaters. Would the Cold War really come to an end?

In the summer of 1990, NATO's Secretary General Manfred Wörner traveled to Moscow to discuss cooperation. Formal cooperation would begin a year later. In 1994, Russia joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP), a NATO initiative to create a potential pathway for the former East Bloc nations to, eventually, achieve NATO membership.

In 2000, reports suggest that Vladimir Putin told President Clinton that Russia would be interested in joining NATO and President Clinton responded cautiously but positively. In 2004, NATO established an information office in Moscow and several of the former Warsaw Pact countries formally joined NATO. Then, in 2014, this cooperation came to an abrupt end in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

The creation of PfP was a partial answer to the question "whither NATO?" If NATO was created to deter an aggressive Soviet Union and the Soviet Union no longer existed, what was the purpose of NATO? A decade after the Malta Summit, the debate raged -- should NATO expand its reach beyond the borders of Europe or should it retrench?

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Ultimately, September 11, 2001 resolved that question for a time as Article Five of the NATO Charter -- an attack on one is an attack on all -- was invoked for the first and only time. Today, 18 years later, almost every one of NATO's 29 nations has boots on the ground in Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support Mission.

So, in the run-up to the just-completed and sometimes acrimonious gathering of NATO leaders in London, why did French President Emmanuel Macron suggest that NATO was "brain dead" and why did President Trump find himself in the unusual position of defending the alliance?

Macron's point was that given the fact that President Trump has, on many occasions, cast doubt on whether the United States would come to the aid of other NATO members, that the other 28 members need to have a serious discussion about who or what the "enemy" is and how the alliance should respond if America is absent.

In the past, the "brain" has been the United States pushing the other members to line up behind measures to address security challenges. That has not been true under this administration and it seems clear that the other nations have become tired of President Trump's singular focus on the goal of each nation spending a least two percent of its GDP on defense.


That goal was established in 2014 under President Obama, but is a poor measure of actual capability. Greece has cleared that threshold but makes the smallest contributions to NATO operations, including Afghanistan. It is interesting that all the Baltic States, which have a border with Russia, are among those that are spending at least two percent. The perception of a threat creates the political space to raise spending.

NATO continues to be the most successful security alliance in history, but given the varied interests of its member states, that alliance needs constant tending. There are plenty of threats in the world -- terrorism, cyber, environmental, and aggressive states like Russia. NATO has plenty to do, but it needs leadership to act collectively to address them and it is unclear at the moment where that leadership can come from.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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