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Is collective security a dream or an illusion?

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Collective security arrangements can succeed when comprised of nations with shared values and commitments, such as existed throughout the Cold War with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They fail when arrived at secretly, as was the case before World War I, or at the point of a gun, as in the case of Russia’s formation of the Warsaw Pact.

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Given the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the Cold War, it can be surmised that collective security can be successful. The unity among nations of Western Europe and North America that underlay NATO’s success was attributed to shared values—in effect, democracy—and shared commitments in the face of the perceived threat from the Soviet Union and its allies and satellites.

While the members of NATO as it existed throughout the Cold War (the alliance added members following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact) failed to meet a number of important military objectives, such as standardization of weaponry or communications systems and budget outlays, it held together in contrast to the Warsaw Pact's dissolution.

The North Atlantic Alliance was a successful model of collective defense. Many historians, especially of European history, however, can point to examples where collective security proved illusory and even contributed to the outbreak of world wars. Such was certainly the case in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I, a conflict caused in no small part by the diplomatic maneuverings and alliances that ensured that any conflict would extend far more widely than otherwise might have been the case. Recognizing that, US President Woodrow Wilson had incorporated a safeguard into his “Fourteen Points,” the first of which was declared as follows:

Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

Wilson’s point, which was universally understood, was that alliances or attempts at collective security that resulted from secretive negotiations and understandings had contributed to the outbreak of war and should henceforth be avoided.

It is difficult to suggest that the relationships that existed between France and Britain and the United States during the late 1930s contributed to the outbreak of World War II. German leader Adolf Hitler had made very clear that he fully intended to wage wars against other nations, especially against Russia, in order to realize his vision of a greater Germany or Third Reich. Alliances between France and Britain and between Britain and the United States were unsuccessful for reasons having nothing to do with the notion of collective security. They were ineffective because of failed diplomatic methods that sought to appease German aims, rather than intimidate and contain their agression.

Probably the best example of a failed attempt at collective security was alluded to above, namely, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Unlike NATO, which brought together nations for a common defense against a militarily-powerful and frequently threatening Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact was the product of empire. Moscow forced its subjects into a collective arrangement at the point of a gun (See: invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and threatened invasion of Poland). Once the center began to break down, the satellite nations broke free and asserted their independence. The Warsaw Pact was less an example of collective security, then, than an example of empire poorly administered.

Collective security is not an illusion when it is openly arrived at and comprises nations with shared values and perceptions and commitments towards a common defense, as was and continues to be the case with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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