Opinion: Don't give up on NATO just yet

After the Cold War, many people felt NATO was superfluous. The alliance lived on, and has once again become a bulwark against Russia. That is exactly why we still need it, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

The party for NATO's 70th anniversary is bound to be overshadowed once again by the tiresome issue of finances. The United States' short-sighted dispute with many of its allies over the size of their defense budgets obscures the key achievements of the oldest and strongest military alliance in modern times. Spanning the Atlantic, NATO provided protection for its European members with the US nuclear umbrella. Its deterrent effect has remained an indispensable anchor of stability to this very day. During the Cold War, the economically strong alliance of the Western-oriented countries triumphed over the Soviet dictatorship and its satellite states.

Russia: From strategic partner to opponent

Not all of NATO's 29 member states have always been democracies. Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey were at times veritable military dictatorships, and the new NATO members that emerged from Soviet rule were one-party Communist states for decades. Today, all but Turkey, under autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have become democracies. NATO has also increasingly become a community of political values, not just a strategic military alliance. That is why nations including North Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine aspire to join it. Today NATO offers protection against an increasingly aggressive Russia under President Vladimir Putin — the same Putin who in 2001 considered Russia's membership in NATO a possibility. He instead chose a different path. Unfortunately, NATO and Russia once again see each other as enemies rather than strategic partners.

Bernd Riegert is DW's European correspondent

NATO offers support in an increasingly complex world — one in which China and India are on the rise and the Middle East remains a powder keg. A look at the past shows that many of NATO's missions beyond its own borders have been successful, including the stabilization of the Western Balkans. But there have also been setbacks, such as the never-ending deployment in Afghanistan. Twenty years ago, NATO viewed itself as an international police force, but that has fundamentally changed. Now domestic security is at the top of the agenda again. Once more, discussions focus on the Kremlin, and not Kabul.

Read more: Frustration in US over Germany's defense spending shortfall

NATO is a functioning multinational institution, but after 70 years its continued existence is threatened by its leading member. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the alliance, which he sees mainly as a money collection agency for defense expenditures unfairly shouldered by Washington. So far, there has yet to be a big bang. The US will probably not terminate the alliance, as the military and foreign policy experts in Washington — not including Trump, his daughter and his son-in-law — understand that NATO is important for the Americans, too. NATO allows them to project their power over Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan, to Asia.

Backing for a world power

As a world power, the US needs this network of military bases and support. However, the egomaniac president in the White House could withdraw from more international agreements and commitments than he already has, such as the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement and various UN institutions. Could the World Trade Organization, the G20 and the G7, or even NATO, soon find itself in crisis? Trump is intent on isolation. He will have to be taught that that is not how the world works in the long run. The more the US withdraws, the more Europe must take care of its own defense. After having relied on the Americans for decades, the European side of NATO has a lot of catching up to do. Without the US, Europeans would be deaf, blind and paralyzed on the military stage and that kind of dependence can't be changed quickly.

Read more: We must strengthen European defense together

The European NATO allies, above all Germany, are well advised to adhere to their financial pledges on defense spending. By falling short of those pledges, Berlin has set itself up for Donald Trump's wrath. If the ominous target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense cannot be achieved (the rationale is certainly disputable), it must be on the agenda for discussion in the alliance and revised if necessary. In any case, the US is hugely frustrated with the Germans, who are not willing to pay up. The parties are talking at cross purposes and that shouldn't happen at a birthday party.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Traces of war on the Kosovo field

The Kosovo conflict intensified at the end of the 1990s. Ten thousand people were displaced. When all efforts to bring peace to the region failed, NATO started air strikes on Serbian military bases and strategic targets in Serbia on March 24, 1999. After 11 weeks, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic finally backed down.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Non-violent resistance fails

Protests against Belgrade's attempts to undermine the rights of the Albanian majority in Kosovo began in the mid-1980s. The 1990s saw a massive increase in Serbian repression. Ibrahim Rugova (l.), who took the reins of Kosovo's political movement in 1989, called for non-violent resistance and sought to convince Slobodan Milosevic (r.) to change course — to no avail.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Armed guerrilla war

An armed resistance formed in Kosovo, in which the self-proclaimed Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) began a brutal guerrilla war. The UCK undertook violent attacks on Serbia as well as against Albanians it considered to be collaborators. Serbia retaliated by torching houses and looting businesses. Hundreds of thousands of people fled.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Systematic expulsion

The war grew increasingly brutal and Serbian forces stepped up attacks on civilians in an attempt to destroy the UCK and its supporters. Scores of people fled into the forests. Thousands of Kosovo Albanians were loaded onto trains and trucks to be transported to the border, where they were thrown out without passports or other personal documents that could prove they were from Kosovo.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Last attempt to negotiate

In February 1999, the USA, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany convened a meeting of warring parties in Rambouillet, France, in an attempt to establish autonomy for Kosovo. Kosovan representatives accepted the proposal, yet Serbia was unwilling to compromise. The negotiations collapsed.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

'Humanitarian intervention'

On March 24, 1999, NATO began bombing military and strategic targets in Serbia and Kosovo in an attempt to end violence against the Albanians. Germany also participated in the bombing. "Operation Allied Force" became the first war in NATO's 50-year history — one conducted without the backing of the UN Security Council. Russia harshly criticized the intervention.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Crippled infrastructure

Beyond military targets, NATO also bombed supply lines, train tracks and bridges. Over the course of 79 days and nights, allied forces flew more than 37,000 sorties. Some 20,000 missiles and bombs rained down on Serbia. Many civilians were killed: "collateral damage," in the words of NATO.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Toxic cloud over Pancevo

Industrial sites were also targeted. In Pancevo, near Belgrade, NATO bombs hit a chemical and fertilizer factory. Massive amounts of toxic substances were released into rivers, the ground and the skies — resulting in grave health risks for the nearby civilian population. Moreover, Serbia accused NATO of deploying uranium-enriched munitions as well as cluster and fragment bombs.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Targeting the propaganda machine

State television offices in Belgrade were attacked in an attempt to deprive Slobodan Milosevic of his most important propaganda tool. Although the Serbian government was warned of an impending attack in time, Belgrade withheld that information. Sixteen people were killed when the site was bombed.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

Misguided bombs

NATO bombs in Kosovo inadvertently hit a group of Albanian refugees, killing an estimated 80 people. NATO also claimed that the accidental bombardment of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was another case of "collateral damage." Four people were killed in the misguided attack, leading to a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington.

NATO intervention against Serbia, 20 years on

The ghastly toll of war

In early June, Belgrade signaled that Slobodan Milosevic might be prepared to surrender, prompting NATO to end its campaign on June 19. The final toll of the war: thousands of dead and 860,000 refugees. Serbia's economy and large swaths of its infrastructure were destroyed. Kosovo was put under UN administration.

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