By Paul F. State
When the British forces surrendered to George Washington’s rebels at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, American tradition holds that the vanquished army’s band played “The World Turned Upside Down.”
It is a ballad eminently playable to describe the state of the Western alliance at the end of 2016. For the first time since its inception in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization faces dangers that threaten, at best, the solidarity of its members and, at worst, the rationale for its very existence. And the danger comes from within, from the two nations that founded the pact and that have provided the indispensable source of its strength from the beginning.
Drawing on World War II’s “special relationship” between the two great English-speaking democracies, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, surveying the dangers posed by the recent past and the emerging postwar world, sought a means by which, as NATO’s first secretary-general Lord Ismay later said with respect to Western Europe, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” President Harry Truman, fully conscious of the menace to common Western values posed by the Soviet Union, backed up that goal in supporting creation of America’s first peacetime alliance.
By the very fact of its vote to withdraw from the European Union in June, Britain weakens its ties to its fellow members on the continent, an alliance founded, in part, to strengthen political and military integration in Western Europe. More ominously, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency presages a challenge to the viability of the alliance unlike any in its history. The most powerful nation among the 28 members will be led by a man who has said nothing to indicate an awareness of, and an appreciation for, the values that underpin the societies of the North Atlantic nations.
In a statement as stunning in its historical irony as it is instructive of perceptions of the president-elect in Europe, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, following November’s election, reminded Trump that “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.”
Ultimately, power is measured by means other than balance sheets and spending sums. Behind economic wealth and military might, a recognition of democratic instruments, acknowledgment of the rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms are the bedrock principles of the liberal order that has served to guide the West for more than six decades and whose institutional embodiment is NATO. That order now stands to be tested by leaders of the very nation to which it owes so much of its birth.
A world turned upside down, indeed; and the Western world is sadder for it.
Paul F. State, of Buffalo, is the author of four books in European history, including “Historical Dictionary of Brussels,” the headquarters city of NATO.