NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is 70 years old today. On April 4th, 1949, 12 countries signed the treaty that bound them together in a military defence pact. In addition to the countries of the Western Union – the UK, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – the other signatories were the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.
The collective defence of the alliance is embodied in Article 5, which states that an armed attack against one member state, in Europe or North America, shall be considered as an armed attack against them all. If one member is attacked, the others will respond. The backdrop to the treaty was the aggressive and expansionist policy of Stalin's Soviet Union. It had incorporated territory and countries of Eastern Europe, reducing them from independent countries to vassal states. Its huge military power could only be checked by an equal or superior power. NATO was the West's embodiment of that power.
The Soviet response to NATO was to formalize the military allegiance of their satellite countries into the Warsaw Pact in 1955, setting the two Cold War alliances to face each other. What some have called 'the Nuclear Peace" kept the Cold War from breaking out into open conflict. The Soviet Union could not move against the Western nations while they were protected under the American nuclear umbrella. NATO did its job, and kept the West protected until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet system collapsed, along with the Communist governments it had sustained.
NATO has grown to 29 countries, with most of the former Communist countries joining it to gain protection from future Russian vengeance or encroachment. At the time of the Soviet collapse, the European countries between them contributed 34% of NATO's military spending, but by 2012 it had dropped to 21%, and there were rumblings elsewhere that Europe was not bearing its fair share of the cost. Members have responded by committing to reach 2% of their GDP on military spending by 2024.
The decision of the Western nations, 70 years ago, to stand united against Soviet military power and to do together what they could not do singly, calls to mind the words that Edmund Burke wrote in 1770: "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." NATO was just such an association. It enabled the countries of Western Europe to live in peace and freedom, and its anniversary should be celebrated by all those committed to the achievement of those goals.