For the great American foreign policy scholar Robert Tucker of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies who I had the privelege of studying under, and whose mentor at SAIS was Robert Osgood, also of SAIS, and who wrote the classic book embedded in the title of the essay: Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Policy.
NATO's conference this week in Chicago is a good time to think about why such a thing exists, which it would seem is best thought of in terms of ideals and self-interest.
Unlike a pure Realpolitik approach to international relations, under Osgood's approach, it was assumed that ideals such as human rights and economic liberty were part and parcel of an American foreign policy agenda, although such concerns often are in some, and occasionally in extreme, tension with American self-interests.
You can see that tension between ideals and self-interest with Mubarak, in which if it was nice to have him toppled in terms of our democratic ideals, it wasn't so great in terms of our self-interests in terms of risk for sure as to the rise of an Islamist regime hostile to the United States and especially Israel, although that risk has fortunately not come to fruition.
The same thing can be said when we push China or Rusian on human rights some would argue, although the counter-argument is that since such governments are not lawful in character, altering them is in our security interests.
As to this essay, some thought that NATO would be disbanded after the end of the Cold War, and ending best defined as the period of time from 1988, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, to August 1991, when the KGB coup failed that effectively ended Soviet Union I.
I remember well my last class at SAIS with Robert Tucker in 1989 Spring, after having almost been kicked under the table by a Russian specialist who shall remain nameless for saying in October 1988 in my senior presentation that :
"The Cold War is over, and the United States won."
As to Tucker's class, Selected Topics in American Foreign Policy, with only one other Ph.D. student present most of the time, we discussed his upcoming Foreign Affairs article on the future of NATO, in which he advocated the United States going home, if the article that emerged was in the form of a prediction.
He predicted that we would go home, since he thought, correctly I believe, that the collapse of Communist ideology was the equivalent of a massive military defeat, which meant that whatever emerged from the Soviet Union would not be a military threat, therefore undoing the rationale for the NATO alliance.
I predicted that NATO would advance across Poland and also the Balkans and out of Turkey deeper into the Middle East to dominate the world, although I now realize that there is a thin line between prediction and advocacy.
Tucker didn't really believe that the United States would just pack up and go home, it's just what he hoped would happen. That is how national security policy arguments are often actually done, although most people don't do that as consciously as that sounds.
I on the other hand thought that all empires have an inner logic and associated momentum, and that would lead America inexorably towards the boundaries of its power, since empires normally do that until they meet a foe that they can't beat down, like Rome did in the East with the Parthians and later Sassanians in modern Iran, and in the Germanic tribes after the defeat of Varus in the Teutobourg Vald.
I assumed, and assume, that because of the Security Dilemma, States as Thucydides said speak as they always speak, that the strong seek such terms as they can get, and the weak accept such terms as they must, as was written by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue, not as a prize essay for the moment, but as a possession for all time.
They also try to cooperate too, per the ideals part of Osgood style analysis, which makes international relations truly a weird melange, like the cartoon where the sheepdog and the wolf go out to the fields and clock in, play their lethal game, and then go home and have dinner, something Tom Nichols pointed out as a very good analogy for some forms of state competition.
Thus in my argument with Tucker that semester, I assumed that with the end of the Cold War, the United States would attempt to impose order on the international system, if I also hoped that it would be in a fashion amenable to the mentality of the emerging Russian Federation.
This was because it seemed to me that this "end of the Cold War" was similar in character to Russia's Time of Troubles in 1600-1613, which ended in the emergence of the Romanov Dyansty, and the imposition of Great Russian rule across the greatest space yet. It also as it turned out bore some similarities to Weimar Germany in the rise of a charismatic dictator named Vladimir Putin, if Putin is clearly not Hitler, and in a lot of different and good ways, if that makes him formidable as a rival too.
Never forget Ivan, which is one of the reasons NATO remains important, as a hedge against a revanchist Russia, just as NATO, by increasing global American military capabilities in the context of an alliance of capitalist democracies is a hedge against China and hostility in the Muslim world too.
NATO is also a lot more than that too, however, as to also serving self-interests of the members in terms of security, but also as to ideals of markets in some form, and most importantly human rights.
As to markets, there is more than one way to skin a cat, if American economists don't pay enough attention to that, although they should from just a scientific point of view.
As a factual matter, Europe's obesity rate for example is much lower than here, which might be a matter of life and death in a conventional war fought under credible nuclear deterrent threats, especially in a place like Iran and the Middle East in general, where you wouldn't be directly damaging wealthy countries properties.
As to markets, our life expectancy isn't so much to shout about. Maybe we can learn some things from Europe as economists, maybe they can learn things from us, but NATO, although only directly a political-military forum, does provide a natural venue for such exchanges of ideas that serve both American self-interests and ideals too, ideals as to getting things right.
As to other ideals, NATO was founded by democracies. These were democracies that understandably felt threatened by the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union is gone, if a not very democratic Russian Federation remains, as do other security isssues discussed above, as to risks to hedge against, but in the context of democratic ideals.
During the Cold War, the West was required to acquire features of our enemy in terms of a police state and associated military industrial complex. Some may find that a somewhat jarring statement, but it wasn't my creation, but that of an anti-communist historian who wrote the book Comrades.
The fact that NATO is an alliance of democracies, still, is a hedge against the risk that should one cease to be a democracy, the other one's would sharply pressure it to return to democracy, even at the risk of security.
NATO doesn't just hedge against external risks therefore as a reason to preserve its existence, but also serves as a non-trivial check on undemocratic elements that exist in any country, on the Left from neo-communists, and on the right from neo-fascists whose presence is usually better hidden than on the Left, but still there as a risk, especially in inter-Atlantic cooperation were to fail, and it is trans-Atlantic cooperation about which NATO remains the biggest single bullwark, and something therefore worth preserving.