When I was growing up in the 1960s, we had a majestic Santa Rosa plum
orchard on my family's farm. The trees were 40 years old and had grown
to more than 20 feet high. My grandfather would proudly recall how its
once-bumper crops of big, sweet plums had helped him survive the
Depression and a postwar fall in agricultural prices.
But by the 1960s, the towering, verdant trees were more a park than
a profitable orchard. The aged limbs had grown almost too high to pick,
the fruit there too few and too small to pack profitably. Yet my
grandfather simply could not bring himself to bulldoze the
money-losing, unproductive old orchard.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization
is like that noble Santa Rosa orchard. We all remember how NATO once
saved Western Europe from the onslaught of global communism. Its
success led to the present European Union. The Soviets were kept at
bay. The Americans were engaged, while the postwar German colossus
remained peaceful. A resurgent Europe followed, secure enough to
prosper while complacent enough to slash defense expenditures and
After the victory of the Cold War, NATO's raison d'etre became more
problematic - even as its theoretical reach now went all the way to the
old borders of the Soviet Union. Yet without the Soviet menace that had
prompted the alliance, what justified the continued need for
trans-Atlantic collective defense?
We saw NATO's paralysis in the European inaction over Serbia's
ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. When NATO finally acted to remove
Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, the much-criticized intervention proved
little more than a de facto American air campaign.
Article 5 of NATO's charter requires its members to come to the aid
of any fellow nation that is attacked. But when it was evoked after
Sept. 11, 2001, for the first time, NATO - other than a few European
gestures such as sending surveillance planes to fly above America -
didn't risk much abroad to fight Islamic terrorists.
Australia, a non-NATO member, is doing far more to fight the Taliban
than either Germany or Spain. Many Western European countries have
national directives that prevent aggressive offensives against the
Taliban and other Afghan insurgents, overriding NATO military doctrine.
Take away Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States from Afghanistan and the collective NATO force would collapse in hours.
The enemy in Afghanistan knows this. The savvy and sinister Taliban
just targeted the French contingent. It figured the loss of 10 French
soldiers might have a greater demoralizing effect on French public
opinion than Verdun did in 1916, when France suffered nearly a
half-million casualties in heroically stopping the German advance. But
90 years ago, France kept on fighting to win a war. Now, the French
parliament may meet to discuss withdrawal altogether.
There is much talk that had Georgia been a NATO member, Russia might
not have attacked it. The truth is far worse. Even if Georgia had
belonged to NATO, no European forces would have been willing to die for
Tbilisi. Remember the furor in 2003 when some NATO countries - angry at
the United States - tried to block support to member Turkey if Saddam's
Iraq retaliated against Ankara for the U.S. invasion to remove him.
The well-intended but ossified alliance keeps offering promises to
new members that are weaker, poorer and in more dangerous and distant
places, but its old smug founding states are ever more unlikely to
In the last two decades, the safety of a rich Western Europe also
spawned a new Continental creed of secularism, socialism and
anti-Americanism that embraced the untruth that the United Nations kept
the peace while America endangered it. But if a disarmed Continent
counted on continued expensive U.S. protection, it was suicidal to mock
If NATO dissolves, Europe will at least receive a much-needed
reality check. It might even relearn to invest in its own defense.
European relations with America would be more grounded in reality, and
the United States could still forge individual ties with countries that
wished to be true partners, not loud caricatures of allies.
That stately Santa Rosa orchard? When it finally was toppled,
uprooted and cut up, we all nearly wept - but my grandfather had new
varieties of plum trees planted in its place by the next spring.