How the three past ages of NATO add up to its future

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Ivo Daalder
Ivo Daalder

President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Former U.S. Permanent Representative on the Council of NATO

NATO celebrated its 65th birthday earlier this year, which is generally seen as a good age for retirement. With the alliance’s involvement in Afghanistan coming to an end, much of the talk in Brussels and the capitals of NATO countries was over its remaining role, and even if the organisation was still relevant.

But Russian president Vladimir Putin’s forceful seizure of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine put an end to such debates and any talk of retiring NATO. Collective defence – that essential commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington treaty under which an attack against one is regarded as an attack against all – was again the order of the day. Bolstering deterrence against any attack on NATO territory, and reassuring its nervous European allies that the U.S. would come to their defence, became the main topic of discussion. NATO is very much open for business.

This sentiment of NATO’s validity permeated the alliance’s summit in Wales in early September. But it’s also only half-correct. Putin’s actions in Crimea and continuing efforts to destabilise Ukraine and other areas of Russia’s so-called near-abroad are deeply disturbing. Putin’s insistence that Moscow has the right, if not the duty, to protect Russian-speaking people, no matter where they live is a very dangerous doctrine. And as the most important instrument of collective security in Europe, NATO has a crucial role to play in countering this by making sure its members will be protected from attacks and intimidation. This is why countries join the alliance.

Collective defence must rest on sound plans, forward deployment of real capabilities and demonstrable will. Now is the time to emphasise all three

Yet the focus on these destabilising developments must not be the sole preoccupation of alliance leaders when defining its future role. However disturbing Russia’s actions in Ukraine, developments in the Middle East and North Africa are at least as threatening to security in Europe. The evolving situation in East Asia also poses questions for global stability.

 The Atlantic alliance has progressed through a number of phases in an overall security environment that has changed. During the first phase – let’s call it NATO 1.0 – the focus was on defending western Europe against an attack from the Soviet-led forces arrayed against it. This commitment to collective defence was the fundamental reason why 12 countries came together in April 1949 to sign the North Atlantic treaty, and it remained the essence of NATO’s mission until the Cold War ended in the late 1980s. For 40 years, a large U.S. military presence in Europe not only constituted the core collective defence commitment that effectively deterred a military attack against western Europe but also laid the foundation for rebuilding Europe economically and politically. By 1989, western Europe had emerged as a vibrant, strong and increasingly integrated community of nations thanks both to the wisdom of Europe’s post-war leaders and also in large part because of America’s unquestioning commitment to Europe’s security.

These successes stood in marked contrast to the socio-economic and political conditions in central and eastern Europe, and in the Soviet Union itself. This contrast contributed to the collapse of Soviet rule in Europe, soon to be followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, as more and more people in eastern Europe sought to secure for themselves the freedom and economic liberties that the West had long enjoyed.

The end of the Cold War marked the end of Europe’s division, and ushered in a new role for NATO. This was to help the newly liberated countries to its east transform into the kind of prosperous and democratic nations that had emerged in the West. NATO 2.0 thus focused on creating a Europe whole, free and at peace by offering membership to countries that undertook the military, economic and political reforms needed to prosper as vibrant democracies in the new Europe. Working alongside the EU, which also offered the prospect of joining the European club, NATO added 12 new members in the ten years to 2009. Other than Albania, all these countries also joined the EU.

With Europe becoming increasingly united, democratic and peaceful, NATO’s attention soon shifted to active military operations, including some that were far from home. NATO 3.0 thus constituted an operationally active alliance. During its first half century, NATO had planned, trained and exercised for war, but never fired a single shot. Only in 1995 with its involvement in Bosnia, starting with a brief air campaign and then a major peacekeeping effort, did NATO become an operational force. By 2010, the NATO countries had deployed more than 150,000 troops under NATO command in six different operations on three different continents. The NATO mission in Afghanistan was by far the largest of these, but its counter-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, the air campaign over Libya and its crucial peacekeeping role in the Balkans all added to its newly operational character.

There is no consensus among the NATO allies about the wisdom of further enlargement; the bitter debate five years ago that divided the allies over membership for Ukraine and Georgia still persists

When the mission in Afghanistan began to wind down, and as NATO’s military involvement in other operations came to an end, many began to wonder what would come next for the alliance. Russia’s actions in Ukraine since March of this year effectively ended such speculation, but how NATO should evolve still remains the question. Should it return to its singular focus on collective defenCe and what are the prospects for adding new members? And is there an operational role for NATO beyond Europe? Clearly, NATO’s relevance lies not just in any one of these areas, but in combining all its previous roles into a whole.

If nothing else, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the enunciation of a new Putin doctrine that assigns Moscow the right and responsibility to defend Russian speakers everywhere, has highlighted the continuing importance of collective defence, of NATO 1.0. With five NATO countries bordering Russia – two of which, Latvia and Estonia have significant Russian-speaking populations – ensuring the defence of all NATO countries again has to be the top priority.

NATO has demonstrated its serious concern by deploying more combat aircraft to police the Baltic airspace, by rotating air defence units to Poland, by putting early warning aircraft in the air along the border of Ukraine, and by conducting ground and naval exercises in both the Baltics and Black Sea regions. Other measures designed to reassure alliance members included the increased rotation of U.S. forces to Europe, improvements in basing and infrastructure and the possible forward positioning of equipment and enhanced training and exercises, notably on the territory of the newer allies.

This also seems the time for NATO to consider lifting its self-imposed restriction on deploying combat forces to allied territory in the east – a unilateral promise extended to Russia in 1997 when Moscow was behaving far more co-operatively. Collective defence must rest on sound plans, forward deployment of real capabilities and demonstrable will. Now is the time to emphasise all three.

This also seems the time for NATO to consider lifting its self-imposed restriction on deploying combat forces to allied territory in the east

What about extending stability further east, through fresh enlargements – NATO’s 2.0 mission? Engaging Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and the Caucus regions (as well as the Balkans) to foster economic prosperity and strengthen democratic governance are important means to enhance their independence. Completing a Europe whole, free and at peace is in the interest of every nation in Europe – including Russia. Yet while NATO membership may one day be in the offing for some or all of these countries, that should not be the immediate focus.

Right now, there is no consensus among the NATO allies about the wisdom of further enlargement; the bitter debate five years ago that divided the allies over membership for Ukraine and Georgia still persists. While Russia, and for that matter any other country, should not be able to veto the decisions by NATO on enlarging the alliance, prudent diplomacy should take account of the perspectives of others, including Moscow. NATO membership implies real obligations – including an unquestioning commitment to come to an ally’s defence. Few if any NATO members are today prepared to make such a commitment to Ukraine or Georgia – and without it we should not invite countries to join the alliance.

As for the operational side, NATO 3.0, the focus should be on fielding the forces and investing in capabilities that will bolster deterrence. For the past decade-and-a-half, most European members have under-invested in defence capabilities, believing that there were no threats that warranted increasing or even just maintaining their defence spending. That illusion has been shattered by the Ukraine crisis and by developments in North Africa and throughout the Middle East, and even in east Asia, which is increasingly the lifeblood of the global economy. The need to increase defence spending should by now be clear to all.

The greatest danger facing NATO is not that its members can’t agree on what role the alliance should play in European security, but that too many of them are concentrating solely on the re-emerging dangers to their east. Russia’s actions and designs are deeply disturbing and destabilising, even threatening. But Europe’s security is being challenged by more than the plans of a few men in the Kremlin. Instability in North Africa, the explosion in the Middle East, the gathering storm in east Asia are all developments Europe cannot ignore. These challenges won’t all have military answers; but an effective, strong, and outward-looking alliance like NATO is the essential foundation if and when effective action is called for.

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