On April 9, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marked its 75th anniversary. The Western Alliance, formed in the aftermath of World War II, began with 12 nations joined to deter the Soviet Union, stabilize Europe, and promote regional integration. The effort was an incredible success. The Soviet Union is no more. There has been no Great Power war in Europe since NATO’s foundation. And the transatlantic alliance is more interconnected than at any point in its history.

NATO has achieved more than the goals of its founders. It has peacefully and consensually expanded its ranks to include 32 member states and some 40 international partners. It has kept the peace in the Balkans and Kosovo. It participated in the American-led Global War on Terror. It toppled the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Since 2022, NATO has helped Ukraine resist invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This 75-year-old is far from obsolete. On the contrary: NATO is more essential than ever.

The alliance is important because it remains the sturdiest international organization of the postwar era. After victory over the Axis powers in 1945, America and her allies were determined to prevent a third world war. They meant to secure the peace through forward deployment of U.S. military forces in Western Europe and Japan, through the foreign-aid program known as the Marshall Plan, and through a dizzying array of global institutions such as the United Nations, the Bretton Woods financial accord, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). NATO was part of the mix.

As a defensive alliance, NATO bound its members together with the collective security provision contained in its charter. The backstop of “Article Five” of the Atlantic Treaty was America’s nuclear arsenal. This hard-power guarantee did not simply coincide with the economic and political revival of Western Europe. It was a cause of that revival.

The same cannot be said of NATO’s brethren. Within decades of its creation, the UN became a plaything of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the postcolonial “nonaligned” states of the Third World. They turned the United Nations against the Western powers, Western ideas, and above all the democratic and Jewish state of Israel.

The UN is little more than a stage for a grotesque farce. Russia chairs the vaunted Security Council while Russian missiles kill Ukrainian civilians. Morocco’s ambassador leads the so-called Human Rights Council to accuse Israel of crimes against humanity. When the UN is not irrelevant, it is insane.

Its agencies are no better. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been infiltrated by Hamas and other anti-Semitic terrorists. The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has scrambled unsuccessfully to monitor and contain nuclear proliferation in India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. The World Health Organization (WHO) disgraced itself by kowtowing to the People’s Republic of China during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Former national-security adviser John Bolton once said that if you lopped 10 floors off the UN building in New York, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Here was a rare instance of Bolton thinking small. The UN could disappear tomorrow and only the bad guys would notice.

Other postwar initiatives are not as malign as the UN. They are merely irrelevant. The Marshall Plan was such a success that it was no longer necessary. President Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” budgets of war in Vietnam and Great Society at home brought the Bretton Woods monetary system to the brink of collapse. President Nixon put it out of its misery.

In 1995, the GATT was succeeded by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the vehicle for Chinese mercantilism and the “China Shock” that so dramatically upended manufacturing employment in the United States during the early part of the 21st century. These days the WTO is dysfunctional, torn between the warring economic blocs of China and America. Trade barriers are rising, not falling. Meanwhile the World Bank and IMF putter along—well-meaning, politically correct, and perfectly ineffectual.

Only NATO endures. Why? Because at the heart of the alliance is a sense of purpose and shared values. Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty, according to its preamble, are “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” Membership in NATO is voluntary, stringent, and exclusive. No Communists allowed.

The original signatories to the treaty included a single authoritarian government: Portugal’s Salazar regime, toppled in 1974. True, both Greece and Turkey have gone through brief periods of nondemocratic governance during the history of the alliance, and both Hungary and Turkey are much too friendly with autocracy today. But these are exceptions. NATO has always understood itself to be a bulwark of freedom and self-government, and this self-conception has shielded it from the insidious forces that have corrupted the likes of the UN. Twenty years ago, several foreign-policy wonks proposed the formation of a “League of Democracies.” They were late to the game. One already exists.

NATO’s durability, effectiveness, and appeal rest on its principles and its clearly defined mission. But NATO is not without problems. No group is. The alliance’s 75th-anniversary summit, to be held in Washington, D.C., in July, will be an occasion for sturm und drang. Members worry that if Donald Trump wins a second term, he might withdraw the United States from the alliance or find other ways to undermine it.

The Trump threat is hypothetical. There are other, more pressing questions facing NATO. The alliance is divided on the question of extending membership to Ukraine, which won’t happen for as long as the war rages on. Another issue is that President Biden, like his predecessors, would prefer it if more alliance members, and especially Germany, met the requirement to spend at least 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defense. And the Europeans watch in dismay as Biden presides over a shrinking U.S. defense budget and the degradation of America’s strategic weaponry, and as Republicans in Congress delay military aid to Ukraine.

Abandoning Ukraine to Russian predation would be a terrible blow to NATO’s credibility. The Eastern European member states would begin to hedge against American isolationism. The French and the Germans would begin to explore alternative security structures. Russia would continue to probe for weaknesses, and the Eurasian axis of autocrats—Putin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Kim Jong Un, and Xi Jinping—would be emboldened. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it in a recent speech to the Heritage Foundation: “It is Ukraine today. Taiwan could be tomorrow.”

The good news is that NATO, unlike other institutions, can be strengthened. All it would take is some guts on the part of Western European politicians to increase defense spending and a renewed commitment of American resources and willpower to international security. The investment in time and resources necessary to maintain the oldest military alliance in human history is small. But the cost of watching this last pillar of the postwar order crumble into dust would be incalculable.

Photo: AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

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