A Half Century Leads to a New Era

April 1999
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

This month, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrates its 50th anniversary. In addition to preserving peace and freedom for members on three continents, NATO’s strength and resolve contributed to the collapse and dissolution of its adversary. With the alliance’s original task accomplished, NATO now stands on the cusp of a new era where its primary mission can be to extend freedom to those long denied.

This transition should not be alien to those versed in NATO history. After all, NATO was born at the end of one era and at the onset of another. At that moment in history, the principles of freedom and democracy had triumphed over totalitarian movements that threatened to snuff out enlightenment and plunge the world into an ever-darkening abyss of repression. As the world focused on rebuilding out of the ashes of mankind’s most horrific war, however, another totalitarian movement sought to establish its own hegemony over civilization. Soviet communism’s actions after World War II clearly indicated that it fought totalitarian foes not to eliminate their toxin, but to take their places in tyranny.

While recognizing the need to counter this threat, Western Europe, battered by two world wars, and North America, eager to return to normality after 15 years of conflict and economic depression, were loath to revisit the battlefield. Thus, NATO was established by its founding members to, in the words of the original treaty, “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

To the people of nations lacking in Western freedoms, NATO and its members were a beacon of hope that a better future was possible. Ultimately, the communist empire collapsed, and the Cold War ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Its original mission completed, NATO continues to offer hope to nonmember nations. Many of them have embraced Western democratic principles and are moving at breakneck speed to implement institutions and economies that will lift the effects of 50 years of stagnant development. It is a timely opportunity that this embrace of a common future takes place concurrent with the information revolution. Freedom is built around the exchange of information and its product, ideas. In a civilian sense, this is conversation—spoken, written or digitized. In a military sense, it is command, control and communications (C3). As Cold War societal barriers crumbled, former adversaries began reaching out to each other economically and informationally. Exploding information technologies are the empowering agents for these increasingly borderless communications.

The importance of C3 to NATO’s mission of furthering peace and security cannot be understated. The alliance has made communication interoperability a key factor in considering prospective nations for membership. Part of this can be explained by NATO’s own definition of C3—consultancy, command and control. Member nations must interact with each other at a range of levels for the alliance to carry out tactical operations and meet strategic goals.

Now, for new member nations to become partners in—and not just recipients of—security, they must be able to interoperate throughout the NATO command structure. Many nations hopeful of NATO membership are devoting considerable resources to information technologies for their militaries and to training officials in Western doctrines. Once, military interoperability was defined by the use of common ammunition. Now, it is measured by the ability to share electrons and photons.

It is no accident that AFCEA chapters are springing up and flourishing in former Warsaw Pact nations. In its role as a bridge between government and industry, the association is uniquely positioned to serve as a C3 information clearinghouse. Its longtime European presence, personified by the AFCEA Europe office in Brussels, empowers C3 users with access to providers and other experts in this dynamic field on both sides of the Atlantic.

In addition to helping countries prepare for possible NATO membership, C3 interoperability allows them to participate in the alliance’s ongoing security outreach efforts. The Partnership for Peace has teamed NATO member forces with nonmember counterparts to work together in security operations. In a way, this organization’s activities on behalf of continentwide security is helping give birth to the new NATO and its missions.

This opportunity to transition to a security outreach alliance is not without pitfalls, however. The end of an external monolithic military threat has led to an increase in the perceived differences among some NATO members. It is relatively easy for partners to maintain a team approach in the face of a common deadly threat. When that common ground is removed, however, it becomes easier for alliance members to pursue their own agendas in lieu of the common good. This is especially true when shifting from a defensive posture, with its inherent sense of urgency, to a peace offensive. NATO and its member nations must not lose sight of the means by which the alliance achieved its successes over the past 50 years—cohesion and resolve. The alliance must continue to focus on its sense of purpose as it seeks to extend its benefits beyond its current boundaries.

In early 1941, as tyranny spread around the world and the United States geared up to become the arsenal of democracy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a call for a world founded on four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship God; freedom from want; and freedom from fear … “anywhere in the world.” This goal is far from being realized—yet. But NATO can be the vehicle for extending the reach of these four freedoms throughout all of Europe as well as into neighboring regions that seek its promise of peace and prosperity. This, in turn, could prove to be the alliance’s legacy of the next half century.