From the bookshelf: ‘Deterring Armageddon: a biography of NATO’
2 Jul 2024|

In April the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or more precisely the Washington Treaty that forms the basis for the alliance, turned 75.

NATO’s visibility has waxed and waned, but Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine has put the alliance firmly in the spotlight. Its secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has been called on to play an increasingly prominent role as the alliance’s leader and a spokesperson for the West. And NATO members are under growing pressure to spend more on defence, strengthen their planning and step up their capacity to develop and manufacture military hardware.

The recent accession of Finland and Sweden strengthened the alliance. It was also the exact opposite of what Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was seeking with his territorial aggression.

With NATO at the centre of any current discussion about Western security, Deterring Armageddon is the right book at the right time. The author, Peter Apps, a Reuters columnist specialising in political risk and global defence, has extensive operational experience in the British military. His book is ambitious in scope, detailed in coverage and was written for both specialist and generalist readers.

Apps anchors his narrative firmly in world events. From the Suez crisis, the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union to more recent crises in the Balkans and the Middle East and the ongoing realignment of global power structures, Apps recounts how NATO responded, at times from the sidelines.

Apps also links NATO’s evolution to changes in weaponry and strategic thinking. In the early 1950s, limited nuclear arsenals provided the basis for a doctrine of massive retaliation. However, nuclear proliferation and technological advancements rapidly made nuclear war unthinkable, with strategies of deterrence becoming the norm. The emergence of hybrid and cyberwarfare, multi-purpose drones and artificial intelligence have required a further strategic rethink.

From its earliest days, NATO faced three challenges that were to repeat themselves throughout its history: assertive behaviour of the Soviet Union (and later Russia), fluctuation of American political support, and disunity of NATO’s European members. Apps reminds us that in 1966 President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from military cooperation with NATO, evicting US and NATO forces from France and forcing the alliance to move its headquarters from Paris to Brussels.

During his presidency, Donald Trump demanded that NATO members’ military budgets should be at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products, indicating in no uncertain terms that the US was tired of subsidising its European allies and might withdraw from the alliance. The issue was by no means new. As early as 1963, President John Kennedy wondered why the US should ‘have in Europe supplies adequate to fight for 90 days when the European forces around our troops only have enough to fight for two or three?’ In 1973, President Richard Nixon went a step further, telling the Europeans that unless they increased military spending, America might pull out its troops.

Apps peppers his narrative with little-known anecdotes. Among them: Stoltenberg, as a teenage activist, called for his home country, Norway, to withdraw from NATO.

The alliance’s post-Cold War expansion is often cited as a trigger for Russian aggression. Apps carefully documents the fact that in 1990 US Secretary of State James Baker assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that ‘not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction’. The promise has never been repeated, and the subsequent expansion of the alliance led to decades of resentment in Moscow.

Apps concludes with an important chapter on NATO’s future. China’s rapidly expanding military budget and nuclear stockpiles have highlighted to alliance members the global nature of security issues, including in Asia and the Pacific.

In 2023, NATO signed a partnership agreement with Japan, building on similar deals with Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, whose officials are now semi-permanent fixtures at major alliance meetings. There was also talk of establishing a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, but this aggravated China and was vetoed by France, leaving the issue on the table.

Nor is US support set in stone. In a 2023 campaign video, former president Donald Trump pledged to finish the process of ‘fundamentally re-evaluating NATO’s purpose and … mission’. Last year, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton controversially noted that ‘in a second Trump term we’d almost certainly withdraw from NATO’. Subsequently the US Congress passed an amendment making it impossible for any future president to quit the alliance without congressional approval.

Deterring Armageddon provides a balanced and thoroughly researched account of the many storms weathered by NATO. Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, and the possibility that it could escalate into a much broader conflict, is NATO’s greatest challenge to date. However, the outcome of the upcoming American presidential elections could challenge the alliance further.