“The Cold War should be over for everyone” says Angela Merkel. What’s specifically on the German Chancellor’s mind is the current uproar in Ukraine over a government decision to forego a closer economic relationship with the European Union.
The New York Times hastened to agree with Merkel, decrying “Russia’s attempts to bludgeon former vassals into continued economic dependence” and pining for the days when “Mikhail Gorbachev talked optimistically about a post-Cold War Europe stretching undivided from the Atlantic to the Urals.” All well and good, but somehow both the paper and the politician ignore that most elephantine of Cold War relics in our midst – NATO. The Times may well be genuinely oblivious to the incongruousness of the anti-Soviet alliance thriving twenty-four years after the opening of the Berlin Wall, but Merkel certainly isn’t. After all, she owes her job to it.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its Soviet Bloc counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, were the archetypical Cold War institutions – two alliances armed to the teeth, arrayed on either side of the “Iron Curtain.” When NATO was formed in 1949, its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, was quite blunt about its purposes: to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In 1954, in an almost forgotten episode of the Cold War, the Soviet Union actually asked to join NATO. This followed a now equally obscure unsuccessful Soviet effort to get the “West” to agree to a unified, demilitarized Germany.
The Soviets’ proposed re-purposing of NATO was not favorably received, but later that year the organization made an equally radical shift by admitting into its ranks the Federal Republic of Germany – as the old “West Germany” was formally known.
All of this time NATO had no “Eastern” counterpart. It wasn’t until 1955, following the failure of its diplomatic initiatives, that the Soviet Union and the seven eastern European countries generally considered its “satellites” actually created their Pact, thereby formalizing the heightened level of hostility for which the Cold War is so vividly remembered.
The Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991; NATO, however, is now bigger than ever. This is not necessarily how everyone thought things were supposed to turn out. For one, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose years in power the Times recalls so fondly, claims that "the Americans promised that NATO wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War." What actually happened was that NATO added all the former Pact members except the Soviet Union, plus former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and former Yugoslav republics Croatia and Slovenia. And there are more in the wings.
More significant even than the near doubling of its numbers, though, has been NATO’s transformation into an active military force that wages real war: Since the end of the Cold War it has bombed Libya, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia (twice), sent ground troops to Afghanistan and trained Iraq security forces during the U.S. war there. It has even proposed a missile defense system that Russia believes is aimed at it.
In the U.S. this has become the new normal. New York Times editors, for instance, may not agree with every action NATO takes, but no major political figure covered in its pages questions the legitimacy of the organization’s current role. No so in Merkel’s Germany, where NATO has provided the auspices for ending the country’s abstention from military action that dated back to the end of the Second World War. Although the first break with the recent non-military past – participation in NATO’s bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo War – actually came under a government of the left that included the formerly heavily antiwar Green Party, there was profound disagreement within German society and even within the governing coalition. Dissenters included Oskar Lafontaine, chair of the Socialist Party, the senior party in the government coalition. Lafontaine would eventually leave the Socialists to head a new Left Party.
Although Merkel’s Conservative Democrats are about to lead their third straight German coalition government, the odd fact is that the parties of the left hold a majority of the seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag – which was also the case during Merkel’s first term as chancellor. What has prevented them from forming a government, however, is the Socialists’ refusal to ally with the Left Party, now the third largest in the legislature. Why? According to Peer Steinbrück, lead Socialist Party candidate in the last election,"The Left Party isn't reliable when it comes to foreign policy, Europe and (Germany's) alliances." Which is to say, the Left Party calls for Germany to leave NATO.
The long and the short of it, then, is that Angela Merkel would not be making headlines with her calls for an end to the Cold War were it not for the continued existence of a very Cold War institution. So while it very well may be the case that it would be a good thing for Ukraine to forge a closer relationship with the European Union, things are not as black and white at the New York Times editorial board seems to want to believe they are. While we may think the Cold War is old history, it doesn’t necessarily look that way in Moscow – or even in Berlin.
But ultimately Merkel is right – the Cold War should be over for everyone and, like the Berlin Wall, NATO should be relegated to museums and history books.