At his first press conference following the election, the president reiterated statements made on the campaign trail that NATO – the Western alliance defending Europe and North America for decades – was “obsolete.”
The year was 1966, and the president was Charles de Gaulle of France. De Gaulle followed these statements with concrete action, expelling U.S. and NATO forces from French territory and removing French forces from NATO’s integrated military command structure. It was perhaps the greatest crisis in the now nearly seventy year history of the Alliance.
But this critical juncture in NATO also opened the door to wide ranging reforms in the organization and strategy of the Alliance. Many of these adaptations proved so successful that they endured through the end of the Cold War and beyond, as NATO itself has done.
An essential ingredient in the story of how NATO adapted to overcome charges of obsolescence was De Gaulle’s distinction between the “alliance” as a political commitment among sovereign countries and the “organization” of NATO which had evolved structures and systems he no longer thought necessary. In a letter to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, De Gaulle emphasized up front that France would continue to uphold its commitments in the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, remaining ‘determined, just as today, to fight beside her allies if one of them should suffer unprovoked aggression.’
De Gaulle’s argument, therefore, was not with the Western alliance as a foreign policy guarantee, but rather with the kinds of practical, organizational arrangements that had grown into the NATO of the 1950s and 60s. Among these institutional shortcomings was a failure to grapple with the eroding credibility of nuclear deterrence. America’s extended nuclear umbrella had seemed viable in the early post-war years when the United States maintained overwhelming superiority in these weapons, but grew increasingly questionable as Soviet gains in nuclear and missile technology ushered in the era of superpower parity and “mutually assured destruction”. Would Washington really trade New York for Paris? Europeans had no way to know for sure and no nuclear deterrent of their own.
These and other problems had been clear at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but De Gaulle’s criticism brought the issue to a head for NATO. At the same time, commitment to the underlying principles of the Alliance channelled energy into solutions for reform of NATO’s organization in order more effectively to satisfy the member-countries’ expectations. Among these reforms included the creation of a permanent NATO Nuclear Planning Group to foster cooperation and reassurance about nuclear deterrence; the realignment of NATO military headquarters and mechanisms for political consultation among the allies; and a wholesale change in NATO strategy away from 1950s “massive retaliation” toward a version of “flexible response” that enjoys some currency even today.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of NATO as “obsolete” echoes some of the same concerns raised by De Gaulle’s use of the same term fifty years ago. De Gaulle reasoned that France paid too high a price for an uncertain guarantee of national survival in the nuclear age. President Trump has charged European NATO members of paying too little for their own defense in an uncertain age of terrorism and hybrid warfare. Burden sharing is thus a longstanding issue in NATO. But history reveals NATO’s extraordinary capacity for adaptation. Given a commitment to the enduring principles of the Alliance, NATO may yet adapt again.