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A Short History Of NATO


And those protests in Scotland came, of course, after a week in which President Trump disparaged America's NATO allies, made a vague threat to pull out of the alliance and sparred openly with European leaders. He's preparing now to have a private meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. NATO was formed to counter aggression from the Soviet Union. And this morning, we're going to get a history lesson on NATO's origins and why it's seen as such an important underpinning to the global world order. The story begins after World War II when the shadow of the Soviet Union loomed over Europe. Warsaw-based columnist and historian Anne Applebaum picks it up from there.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: The wartime Allies ended the war expecting to be at peace with the Soviet Union, expecting to create a new world order based on the United Nations. That failed almost immediately. And by 1949, a mere four years after the war ended, the Allies were afraid of a new form of Soviet aggression.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Symbols of Czechoslovakia's powerful neighbor to the east, Russia, are reminders of the Soviet's ever-increasing domination.

APPLEBAUM: And so they formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which included Canada, Western Europe...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Norway, Denmark, Italy and the United States.

APPLEBAUM: ...As a way of deterring the Soviet Union.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Leaders of the Communist world meet in Warsaw to sign the treaty, which is their answer to NATO.

APPLEBAUM: The Warsaw Pact defined the enemy camp. So it was the Soviet Union and the countries of the Communist Bloc on the one hand and the Western democracies on the other hand. And the central piece of NATO was Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which stated that...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: An attack against one would be an attack against all.


APPLEBAUM: NATO was, on the one hand, a military alliance. It was an umbrella under which NATO armies practiced together. They planned together. It was an organization that was meant to fight back if there was a Soviet attack on one of its members. On the other hand, it also had a kind of ideological function. It was a statement that these are the nations of the West. These are the liberal democracies, and they will push back against totalitarianism, against communism of the kind that came from the Soviet Union.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Just a short while ago, astonishing news from East Germany, where the East German authorities have said in essence that the Berlin Wall doesn't mean anything anymore.

APPLEBAUM: NATO was initially somewhat disoriented by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there were some talk even of it disbanding. But it was too valuable as an institution, and the leaders of NATO began to see that it could have another function, which is as a kind of spearhead of Western-style liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. So, ironically, NATO's first military engagement was not with the Soviet Union but was in the Balkans.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: NATO jets continued their systematic attack on Bosnian Serb positions throughout the day.

APPLEBAUM: First, it was part of a war to defend Bosnia. And then, it became part of a war on the side of Kosovo against Serbia. So it was part of, really, a U.S.-led attempt to create peace in the Balkans by establishing some kind of military rule over the region.


TONY BLAIR: The full horror of what has happened in the United States earlier today is now becoming clearer.

APPLEBAUM: The September 11 attack and the aftermath represented the first time that NATO members invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty.


GEORGE ROBERTSON: The commitment to collective self-defense was first entered into in circumstances very different from those that exist now. But it remains no less valid and no less essential today in a world subject to the scourge of international terrorism.

APPLEBAUM: The declaration of Article 5 led to a prolonged NATO involvement in Afghanistan.


GEORGE W. BUSH: The civilized world is rallying to America's side. They understand that if this terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens may be next.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The first wave, 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles like these, fired from U.S. and British ships and submarines.

APPLEBAUM: Many NATO members contributed, and for some, it was an important experience, in some cases, for the first time of combat since the Second World War. So it was a very important turning point for NATO and a recognition that Europeans were willing to do something for the United States and something that had real costs.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Overnight, dozens of armed pro-Russian forces seized control of the international airport and military airport in Ukraine's Crimea region.

APPLEBAUM: Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014 broke a very important precedent in postwar Europe. Namely, it was an invasion of one country by another, and it also involved a change of borders by force. In response to that, the European countries decided not to respond militarily, at least not at first, but both to respond by sanctions and also to reinforce NATO's presence in Central and Eastern Europe.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: NATO fighter jets training Tuesday - a show of solidarity against Russia.

APPLEBAUM: And really, one U.S. president after the next understood that NATO added other countries to the strength of the United States. It gave the U.S. a bigger voice in world affairs. There was never a questioning of the basis of the alliance itself or really of its value to the United States. President Trump's view of NATO has been radically different.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren't paying their fair share.

APPLEBAUM: He sees NATO not as an advantage, not as an extension of American power. He sees it instead as a drain on the United States. And he talks about it exclusively as an American problem.


TRUMP: This has been brought up by other presidents, but other presidents never did anything about it.

APPLEBAUM: Paradoxically, NATO has never been - I mean, certainly not since the 1990s, NATO has never been more active, more cooperative.


JENS STOLTENBERG: And we have agreed to be committed to the pledge, increasing defense spending to 2 percent. And let's start with that.

APPLEBAUM: The bad-case scenario is that President Trump does real damage, so that President Trump undermines confidence in the promise that NATO members will protect one another and that that leads to some kind of Russian provocation. So the worst-case scenario is that Trump's disregard for NATO, his decision to turn the NATO summit into a kind of circus where he becomes the center of attention, that that leads to some real tragedy.

MONTAGNE: And that was Anne Applebaum, a historian and columnist for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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