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Reflecting on NATO's past and future as the alliance celebrates its 75th anniversary


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Europe for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. On the agenda is the long-term support of Ukraine. But today also marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the transatlantic military alliance. And while some, including former President Donald Trump, question NATO's value, others credit the alliance with bringing peace and prosperity to Europe and the U.S.

For a perspective on NATO's history and its future, we spoke to Rose Gottemoeller, a lecturer at Stanford University and former deputy secretary general of NATO. And I started by asking her to take me back to April 4, 1949, when NATO was founded.

ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: We had just come out of World War II at that point, and Europe was in ashes. It had to reconstruct itself. At the same time, though, the USSR was turning into an aggressor and being very clear about its ambitions to control the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In other words, the Iron Curtain was crashing down across Europe. And so it was at that point that the allies came together with the United States in the lead to really take on a defensive role and ensure that we would not end up with another war in Europe that would turn into World War III. And that is still the goal of the NATO alliance today.

FADEL: It's 2024. The Soviet Union fell decades ago. The Cold War ended. But a lot remains the same. The war in Ukraine has shown that Russia remains a viable threat to Europe. What impact has this war had on the alliance and its future?

GOTTEMOELLER: It's a good point that the Cold War ended and NATO turned its attention to the counterterrorism fight, particularly after September 11. There was a necessity of really countering the threat of al-Qaida and later ISIS, and NATO concentrated on that for a number of years. It was not until the Russians seized Crimea in 2014, the first invasion of Ukraine, as I think about it, that NATO, I think, was pulled up short to say there is still a threat to Europe.

FADEL: We're speaking at a time, though, where people are questioning the role of NATO. And I think in particular, former President Donald Trump here in the United States has questioned NATO's importance for the U.S. Does this alliance still work, and what are the benefits of it for the United States?

GOTTEMOELLER: I think you can see it still works in the way it has had such a coherent and cohesive response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine. NATO is not becoming directly involved. President Biden said from the outset, no NATO boots on the ground, and that's the right decision. Again, NATO is a defensive alliance and it is looking to defend itself in Europe. It is assisting Ukraine, though, because Russia is clearly showing in its aggressive steps that it is also perhaps not going to stop at Ukraine, but could seize other countries in Europe and - or attempt to do so. And I think that that is the main point for the United States that having allies not only in Europe, but also in Asia means that the United States defends forward.

FADEL: We talked about how this alliance was created at a time that Europe was in shambles, and people didn't want to see a World War III. Right now, as we speak, these conflicts that are going on around the world - Ukraine, the Israel-Gaza war, the proxy wars between Russia, Iran, the United States, European allies, that wider conflict feels closer than ever. Is NATO in a place to really prevent that?

GOTTEMOELLER: I think the importance of NATO in its strength and coherence is that it provides a supreme deterrent against war coming to the allies, and that counts the United States as well as the European territory. NATO, I think, stands as a singular, strong institution in showing that capabilities that come when allies hang together and work together on their own defense.

FADEL: Now, it's been 75 years. When you think about the decades to come, what's your take on NATO's future?

GOTTEMOELLER: My take on its future is that it has a strong future in terms of continuing to provide that institutional bulwark or foundation for security and peace in Europe. These countries that are members of NATO are among the healthiest economically in the globe, but they're also countries that enjoy the benefits of democratic governance and predictable governance for all their citizens. So that is the model, I think - I hope, anyway, that other countries around the world can come to enjoy.

FADEL: Rose Gottemoeller served as the deputy secretary general of NATO from 2016 to 2019. Thank you for your time.

GOTTEMOELLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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