What to Know About the NATO Summit

Why you should care

Because in a small seaside town in Wales, something is happening that could determine the future of Europe.

This week, a star-studded list of power players is descending on, of all places, Wales, to deal with the Russia problem. The whole thing rings of another era — a Cold-War-esque time when Western Europe was uniting against Eastern Europe. In fact, it harks back to the very reason NATO was formed, back in 1949.

For the first few years, the 12 nations originally comprising NATO — there are now 28 — focused on the battlefields of the Cold War. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, a smooth Connecticut Democrat who helped engineer the U.S.’s entrée into Korea, masterminded much of the creation of NATO. See an earlier draft of the treaty from April 1948 at the Truman Library archives.

Interestingly, one line in Article Four was crossed out — this article, which member states can invoke to call a consultation among themselves should one of them feel threatened:

1948 version:

The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

(b) there exists any situation which constitutes a threat to or breach of the peace.

How it turned out:

The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

While it’s really Article 5 — the one in which member states pledge to come to one another’s aid — that captures the public’s imagination, the stricken (b) point in Article 4 is another one worth thinking about. NATO began with an aim to protect its member states, not simply to guard the broad geopolitical commons. But today, when the members convene, they will face down a danger that threatens a non-member state most directly. With a bigger alliance and a more interconnected world, collective security can no longer mean just protecting the alliance.

A woman walks down a street in Kiev, Ukraine.

Kiev, Ukraine

As OZY’s own John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the CIA, wrote last week about the summit:

“The alliance had been formed in 1949 with the singular purpose of protecting Western Europe from the sort of takeover the Soviet Union had engineered across Eastern Europe, from the Baltics and Poland in the north to Bulgaria in the south … NATO succeeded in protecting Western Europe, but this victory led to a big question: Now what? For a time, it was kept busy with crises like the Balkan wars of the 1990s and, later, participation in Afghanistan’s 48-member International Security Assistance Force.

“But the crisis in Ukraine is taking the alliance back to its roots.”

Top on the agenda this week, in a word: Putin.

Here’s what you need to know about NATO and Russia:

  • Though NATO began as a way to contain the USSR, Russia and the organization officially began cooperating in 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “official” end of communism in the East.
  • Those 23 years of cooperation ended four months ago, over the Ukraine crisis.
  • An oft-forgotten part of the history revolves around the small state of Georgia. In 2008, Russia and Georgia went to war over Russia’s insistence that South Ossetia and Abhkazia, two regions within the Republic of Georgia, were separate states. Just this year, NATO denied Georgia membership in the alliance.

Check out the Guardian’s smart animation: “Russia v. Nato in 99 Seconds”:

More on these topics:

Another way the summit rings of history? The specter of Germany, as OZY’s politics and foreign affairs reporter Emily Cadei writes, NATO’s strength may all come down to Germany and its mutti, Angela Merkel: ”For the first time, Germany, more than the U.S., may hold the key to NATO’s effectiveness. With the largest population and economy in Europe, Germany has the heft to drive the alliance’s security agenda. NATO’s European members stretch from Iceland to Romania, and the U.S. has shouldered the bulk of security responsibilities since NATO’s 1949 founding. But amid budget cuts at home and an increasingly isolationist public, the U.S. is winding down its European footprint. The only other NATO country with the military size, industrial might and economic wherewithal to fill the gap is Germany. Indeed, when reports surfaced Aug. 22 of Russians firing artillery at Ukrainian forces, the foreign leader President Barack Obama called first was German Chancellor Angela Merkel.”

But though the Germans are in a “pacifist mood” these days, as Cadei writes, all that could change with a twitch of Putin’s toe into Crimean territory.

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