Alliances die when they win. Take away the enemy, and you take away the glue that holds a coalition together. The European alliance against Napoleon was all but dead seven years after they had danced the last waltz at the Congress of Vienna. The entente that followed the defeat of Wilhelmine Germany collapsed five years after the armistice. The Soviet-American alliance against Hitler was practically finished by V-E day 1945.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, formed in 1949 to counter Soviet expansion into the heart of Europe, started winning 20 years ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, and with it all those Soviet-installed regimes between Berlin and Sofia. So the old lady, now celebrating her 60th birthday in fine health, should have died a long time ago. When exactly? A fitting year could have been 1991, when the Soviet Union committed suicide. Or three years later, when the last Russian troops pulled out of Central Europe. No more threat, no more alliance.
Yet instead of taking its final bow, NATO expanded. In 1994, the alliance sent out invitations to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland; five years later, all three were in. Sixty years ago, NATO started out with 12 members; today it has 26. Not bad for an outfit that, according to theory, should have breathed its last once the Soviet Union had capitulated.
This success story is absolutely unprecedented. So what explains this strange reversal of everything we know about the sad fate of victorious alliances in the past? The correct answer is this: The old lady may be 60, but she is not only bouncy but also functional. Why else would so many nations try to court her? Give the nod to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia and Ukraine, and many of the good folks of those lands will be hopping on a plane to Brussels. Not only does nobody want to leave but France, which left NATO's integrated military command 43 years ago, has just now returned. In the past, France preferred being outside the tent. Now, President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided that it is better to be inside, rubbing shoulders with the American giant and thus looking like a colossus himself.
So evidently, there is something in NATO for France. What about the other Europeans, old and new? The world has been totally transformed since 1949, but the ancient cliché about NATO, authored by its first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, still works. NATO, Ismay said, had three functions: keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.
Keeping the Americans in is still the most potent glue. Old NATO hands (like this author) can no longer count all those Euro-American crises and collisions that threatened to demolish the coalition about twice a year. The almost-breaking point came in 2002-03, when Paris, Berlin and Moscow joined hands against President George W. Bush and his war in Iraq. And yet the Alliance held.
Why? Because the U.S. is Europe's irreplaceable insurance policy against a resurgent Russia, and against strategic threats as yet unseen. That's why all Europeans want to keep the U.S. in as a counterweight to the bear, and perils to come. But there is more. Whether Russia is tame or growling, the U.S. simply remains the indispensable power for all seasons. The Europeans remember the 1990s, when they could not get a posse together to take on Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia. It took Bill Clinton's America and the U.S. Air Force to do the job. If the U.S. doesn't lead, nobody follows.
What about "keeping the Germans down"? Surely that is old hat 64 years after the end of World War II? In the old days, the U.S. had to promise to keep troops in Europe in order to gain its allies' assent especially that of France to West German rearmament and NATO membership. The U.S. had to balance power not only on the outside, but also on the inside. Just by being there, the U.S. acted as twin counterweight. With its enormous power it reassured Europe against the Soviet Union and also against a rising Germany, which was always a bit too big for the Continent.