Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, critics have questioned U.S. membership in and support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). They have argued that NATO successfully accomplished its original Cold War mission and thus is no longer needed. The charge that NATO is obsolete, however, overlooks the fundamental importance to U.S. international security interests of a standing multilateral organization with strong and flexible core military capabilities that can be calibrated to respond both to a wide range of 21st-century security challenges and the recent resurgence of Russian expansionism.
That said, U.S. administrations over the past quarter-century, and their counterparts in most of the major European allied states, have allowed significant military deficiencies to develop within NATO. Some of these deficits reflect a growing political dis-alignment among the allies in the absence of a Soviet adversary, some of them are the product of excessive thrift in service of welfare-state budgets, and others are the result of old-fashioned neglect and lack of leadership. Whatever the mix of reasons, the true test for NATO’s relevance in the coming months and years will be whether NATO member-states provide sufficient resources to deter or if necessary prevail against significant threats such as Russia now presents, as well as to fulfill its other important missions. If the member-states, and especially the United States, fail this test, they will provide an opening for those who argue that the United States need not and should not be in the business of supplying global common security goods. This would be a very unfortunate outcome, as it could undermine the ability of the United States to protect its vital interests.
NATO was established in 1949 as a defensive alliance to deter or prevail against a military attack by the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government expended hundreds of billions of dollars on relevant military capabilities, based over 400,000 U.S. troops in Europe and was prepared to use nuclear weapons if necessary to respond to Soviet aggression. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO adjusted its military capabilities downward, and the U.S. military substantially reduced both its presence in Europe and the share of military resources it allocated to the Alliance. Many hoped that the NATO-Russia relationship would deepen into some sort of quasi-partnership. NATO reached out to the new Russia and in 2002 established the NATO-Russia Council to serve as a framework for the relationship. At its height, the Council provided a mechanism for regular dialogue and developed cooperative activities, including a missile-defense research project. Russia also cooperated with NATO’s Afghanistan-related logistics requirements, and Vladimir Putin actually attended the 2007 NATO Summit in Bucharest.
But the NATO-Russia relationship lacked all warmth; it constituted at best a workmanlike accommodation. Even during this relatively calm period, Putin asserted that there should be a Russian sphere of influence over former Soviet-dominated nations. Consistent with this thinking, Moscow in due course initiated a cyber attack on Estonia, seized control of Georgian territory, and later more or less bloodlessly annexed Crimea. As a result, relations with NATO deteriorated. More recently, Russia has started a shooting war in Europe—specifically in Ukraine, raising concerns that Moscow might use force against NATO members by deploying the same so-called hybrid warfare techniques it has deployed against Kiev.1 Further, Russian bombers and submarines have also been making approaches very near the territory of NATO members. Moscow has increased its nuclear exercises, boasted about the development of new nuclear weapons, and may expand its nuclear-capable ICBM force. The recent Russian expeditionary deployment of military forces in Syria is also of concern.
This recent Russian expansionism has caused NATO to assess Russia as a significant potential security threat. The result has been a downturn in relations dramatic enough that NATO suspended all cooperation with the NATO-Russia Council in April 2014. Subsequently, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “the gravest threat to European security for a generation.” More recently NATO condemned Russia’s October 4, 2015 air incursions over Turkey, pledged to assist Turkey in protecting its airspace, and stated that the deployment of substantial Russian military assets to the Middle East in a direct combat role raises serious concerns. The U.S. military shares this assessment; the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has said that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.”
NATO has begun to develop a military response to Russia’s actions. As a starting point, NATO has approved a threefold increase in the size of its rapid-response force from an initially planned 13,000 to upwards of 40,000 personnel, and plans to ensure that selected units are ready for deployment within two days. NATO is also deploying command-and-control centers to areas on Russia’s flank: the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, and Hungary and Slovakia. By coincidence, a long-planned NATO Mediterranean region exercise (Trident Juncture) involving some 36,000 troops, ships, and aircraft took place this past October. Until recently, the Obama Administration, despite concerns expressed by military commanders responsible for Europe, has been steadily drawing down forces in Europe. However, it has now indicated that it will allocate special operations forces, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and other high-end military assets to NATO; that it will pre-position heavy equipment in Central and Eastern Europe; and that it will rotate U.S.-based forces into Europe on a regular basis for exercises and training.
Beginning in the 1990s, new international security threats unrelated to Russia and NATO’s traditional mission arose. NATO responded to these emerging challenges in a variety of ways, most of which were not anticipated by its founders. Adopting a new strategic concept, NATO gradually assumed new missions, undertook unprecedented military operations, expanded its membership and developed a much wider range of global relationships than was true during the Cold War.
NATO’s most significant new mission has been combatting terrorism. Beginning in 2003, NATO deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan through its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and a residual force remains at present. For the first time, NATO was engaged in sustained military operations over an extended period and, to top it all off, in a distant region. Separately, NATO deployed maritime capabilities in Operation Active Endeavour to deter terrorist activity by monitoring shipping in the Mediterranean.
A second new mission has involved military actions that, while couched in terms of European security, have been motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns. In this regard, NATO’s mid-1990s military intervention in the Balkans set several precedents: NATO had taken military action outside of its traditional geographical scope for the first time, and the action had nothing to do with defending against an attack on a member’s territory. NATO’s more recent involvement in Libya fits within these new parameters as well.
A third new mission for NATO has been missile defense. Perhaps surprisingly to those who may recall earlier European skepticism or hostility to missile defenses, NATO has allocated substantial resources to developing a core capability that can protect its bases and logistics sites while also providing the framework for broader national territorial and population defense capabilities. As a part of this capability, the United States is deploying within a NATO framework sea-based missile defense capabilities that would protect Europe. Unlike the Bush Administration approach, which focused first on protection for the United States, the current plan would provide initial protection for Europe only and subsequently add land-based systems (if and when they are built) that would protect both Europe and eventually the United States
NATO has assumed other responsibilities in a diverse range of areas, including implementation of a cyber-defense capability as a response to the Russia-linked cyber attack on Estonia in 2007. NATO is also monitoring potential threats that could disrupt the flow of energy resources, through for example Central Asia. Separately, the security concerns arising out of the potential for conflict over competing territorial claims in the “High North,” where significant energy resources are located, constitutes an additional NATO mission. Finally, the threat of piracy on the high seas has re-emerged and NATO has taken on anti-piracy responsibilities utilizing its maritime capabilities.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has expanded exponentially its security relationships not only within Europe but elsewhere. NATO has developed close security ties with non-member nations, and established structured relationships with key nations and international organizations.
As is well known, in the mid-1990s NATO established the Partnership for Peace (PFP) as a membership organization that would link the Alliance to the former Warsaw Pact nations and Soviet republics, as well as to non-NATO Western European nations. The PFP now has 22 members located in Western Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. It has served as a pathway to NATO membership for some but now also includes states that either do not wish to become NATO members or are ineligible for membership.
With the PFP as a pathway, again as is very well known, NATO has added 12 more states to its 16 Cold War members since 1997. The debate over the merits of NATO enlargement has yet to end as history unfurls, but in the meantime there is little question that enlargement has brought significant ancillary benefits. For example, the prospect of NATO membership was a key catalyst in ending longstanding territorial disputes that could have undermined European stability. With admission to NATO contingent upon the renunciation of extra-territorial claims, Hungary, for example, gave up territorial claims against Romania. In addition, NATO insisted that only nations that had consolidated their democratic institutions and practices, including civilian control over the military, would be considered for membership and all new members agreed to sign on to the principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Recognizing that threats to NATO could emanate from other regions, NATO subsequently expanded its security connections to the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Asia. First, NATO established the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) in 1994, which has seven North African and Middle Eastern nations (including Egypt, Jordan, and Israel), and in 2004 launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), which incorporates Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. Additionally, NATO works with a loose grouping of Asia-Pacific nations, referred to as global partners, that includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. NATO also has established bilateral structures, including the NATO-Ukraine Council and the NATO-Georgia Commission, and maintains ongoing dialogue with other key nations including China, India, and Pakistan.
An unintended but important result of this trans-European effort has been NATO’s emergence as the focal point of a global security network. NATO’s activities with members of this security network cover a range from political-military dialogue to military capacity-building programs designed to raise militaries to NATO standards and develop equipment interoperability. Both developments can help interested states to become useful associates of NATO or even ad hoc members of military coalitions.
Two independent but very important NATO relationships have developed between the Alliance and Sweden and Finland, which have moved definitively away from their Cold War neutralism. These nations have developed close ties with NATO and participated in various NATO programs and operations. Among other things, Sweden was the first nation to join the NATO-managed multilateral Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) program, in which Finland is now also a participant. NATO has also established a working relationship with the European Union. While NATO is clearly the organization of choice for most European states, NATO has recognized that at times at least some European governments may wish to work through the European Union to accomplish limited security objectives. Thus, for example, in the aftermath of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, the French government elected to invoke EU-based obligations and not to activate NATO’s Article V guarantee.
Doubts about U.S. involvement in NATO are as old as NATO itself.2 The questioning emanates from several sources. First, there are those who support an active U.S. international security role but view NATO as obsolete, and even as an obstacle to building a more relevant alliance structure. Second, there are of course those on both the Right and the Left who, for different reasons, believe that the United States should pull back from its international commitments and global responsibilities. Third, there are hawkish internationalists who believe that NATO unnecessarily constrains U.S. international freedom of action. Still others have objected to NATO’s humanitarian operations as unwisely exceeding its mandate, thus potentially vitiating the core missions that constitute its raison d’être. A separate group of critics argued that NATO as it was worked fine, and constituted a sound insurance policy against the revival of Russian imperialism, but that NATO’s expansion to include nations that had been part of the former Soviet empire was provocative to Russia and hence counterproductive to ensuring Russian acceptance of the post-Cold War settlement.
As already noted, questions concerning the wisdom of NATO’s expansion remain in play, but as time passes the only way to discuss it is though the competitive flinging of counterfactuals. This of course cannot resolve the issue. Of course, for those “offshore balancers” who believe in principle that the United States should not be in the business of providing global security goods in its own long-term interest by means of any permanent alliances, or for the hawkish unilateralists who believe that the U.S. government should never be potentially constrained by an organization such as NATO, then by definition NATO is not a U.S. national security asset.
But beyond those who reject the premise of longstanding U.S. strategy, the argument that NATO is obsolete holds no water—and one reason the argument persists is the widespread lack of awareness among casual observers of how NATO has adapted itself to the post-Cold War world. These efforts, sketched above, rarely make headlines. They involve patient institution-building and require an in-depth focus to genuinely appreciate. Nonetheless, the transformation of NATO over the past two decades has enhanced U.S. and allied security and strongly undermines the claim of NATO’s obsolescence.
If that were not enough, a newly assertive Russia presents a clear potential threat. The argument offered since 1991 that NATO need not be concerned about Russia, questionable even at an earlier time, has clearly been overtaken by events.
As an historical aside, the argument of some NATO critics that Russia’s recent adventurism is a direct result of NATO enlargement is highly questionable.3 Obviously, Putin did not welcome NATO enlargement, and, almost as obviously, the plausibility of that argument has given Moscow a wedge with which to seek to fracture Transatlantic relations. But the proposition that Putin would not have engaged in bullying behavior, or annexed Crimea or subverted Ukraine or ordered Russia forces into Syria, if NATO had not expanded is implausible on its face. Putin is motivated by several factors, including a desire to dominate the “near abroad,” an ambition to be seen as a serious factor in world politics, and a need to retain popular support by distracting the Russian public from domestic problems. Indeed, even if NATO had not expanded, Putin could well have been tempted to meddle in a perceived vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe, with the result that the current zone of instability in and around Ukraine might by now have spread all the way to the German border.
There is finally this interesting contention: “If NATO didn’t exist today, would anyone feel compelled to create it? The honest, if awkward, answer is no.”4 Actually, NATO exists today precisely because all of its members wish it to exist and, especially in light of recent Russian behavior, all current members would undoubtedly want to create and be associated with a multilateral security organization with a strong standing military capability if NATO no longer existed. Not only has there been not the slightest hint from any member of an interest in withdrawing from NATO, but states with capable military forces, such as Sweden, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand, have in recent years become de facto members—and there is even growing interest in Sweden and Finland in formally joining NATO.5 As discussed earlier, many states and international organizations have sought to establish security relationships with NATO short of membership. The test of any good or service on offer lies in the demand for it, and there is certainly no lack of demand for NATO. Perhaps the most striking example is that France, which under Charles de Gaulle thumbed its nose at NATO and for decades sought to marginalize the Alliance and the U.S. role in Europe, concluded that a strong NATO was essential to its own security and, after 43 years, rejoined NATO’s military command in 2009.
Not only does NATO remain relevant, but more importantly it continues to support and advance U.S. security interests—though again, often in ways that do not make headlines and that casual observers rarely appreciate in full. Most fundamentally, NATO provides a standing multilateral military capability that can deter or be deployed should a significant security threat arise. Because NATO has a military capability in place, the core elements for mobilization, deployment, and sustainment of substantial multilateral military forces already exist. The ongoing training, exercises, and regular communication among the national militaries of NATO members allows them to jump-start preparations and actions when needed without very lengthy preparatory work. This can allow the U.S. government to proceed in shaping and leading military coalitions more quickly, at less cost and with greater effectiveness, than if NATO did not exist and its functional equivalent had to be invented from scratch at a moment’s notice. While the U.S. government retains the capacity and the right to act unilaterally if and when necessary, it makes sense for it to act with others whenever possible, whether through NATO or ad hoc coalitions of the willing. A multilateral framework can provide both political cover and military resources, and the United States very much can benefit from both.
The United States also benefits significantly from NATO’s logistics capabilities. Pontificating about grand strategies sounds impressive, but for military effectiveness and success, logistics capabilities are what really count. For example, while NATO did not formally participate in the 1991 Gulf War, NATO resources, supplies, bases, and other infrastructure provided crucial support prior to and during the U.S.-led coalition military action to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The coalition in effect borrowed NATO capacities already in existence, and benefitted greatly from equipment compatibility and common training and resources. Other coalitions of the willing assembled under U.S auspices and utilizing NATO resources can follow the same approach.
In addition, the U.S. government has access to the numerous military facilities and resources that member nations make available to NATO. A good example is Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, now being used against ISIS in what is not a formal NATO operation. As importantly, working through NATO usually makes it relatively routine for host governments to agree to U.S. requests to use facilities within their territory for military-related purposes. Without NATO, in order to fulfill its security responsibilities, the U.S. government would need to develop and maintain a complex network of bilateral and multilateral security agreements and arrangements that would seek to maintain the kind of connectivity and flexibility that NATO already provides. Further, the U.S. government would need not only agreements to access such military facilities but also would likely need to obtain specific approval from the host nation for each use and perhaps even in some cases legislative approval. In general, it is much simpler, faster, and easier politically and otherwise for nations to grant the United States the use of their facilities within a NATO framework than it would be to have to grant permission to the United States on their own.
Over recent decades NATO has, as noted above, developed a global security network that reflects formalized relationships with non-NATO nations. For the United States, this brings the advantage that it can work through NATO to develop or enhance security relationships with states that belong to the PFP, the MD, the ICI, and NATO bilateral security relationships. Working through NATO provides an extra dimension to U.S. efforts to enhance the military capacities of friends and allies in various regions who, with training and assistance, can provide supplementary support to NATO or U.S.-led operations. NATO also supports U.S. interests by providing a multilateral framework for a U.S. presence in nations where the U.S. government wishes to help train and also enhance its military contacts, but where unilateral U.S. military involvement might be politically contentious.
For all these reasons, protecting U.S. security interests in a world without NATO would be considerably more challenging. But if the advantages for the United States of NATO membership are clear, equally clear ought to be the need to invest in this asset. In this regard, recent trend lines raise serious concerns.
NATO’s military strength understandably has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War. However, many NATO member-states have recently instituted sustained reductions in military capabilities over and above their immediate post-Cold War “peace dividend.” France is a good example: French military manpower declined about 25 percent during the Sarkozy presidency, and then another 25 percent during the Hollande period, leaving this critical NATO ally with roughly half the manpower it had a dozen years ago—and with, at last reckoning, nearly a third of that depleted force stationed overseas. Throughout the Alliance (including America’s closest ally, the UK), weapons stockpiles are generally declining, maintenance is being deferred, and in some instances entire classes of military capabilities are being eliminated. These reductions undermine overall military readiness. In addition, modernization programs and new weapons acquisitions are being reduced or delayed while research and development for future systems has also been constrained.
NATO itself owns or operates only a small number of weapons systems, the great majority being the capabilities of NATO members that are designated for use by NATO. Thus, reductions in the national forces of NATO members inevitably diminish NATO capabilities. For the Alliance, national reductions result in slower response times and greater difficulty in engaging in operations over long periods, projecting power, and undertaking more than one sustained military operation at a time. Further, many NATO member-states have no clear blueprint for developing needed capabilities.
NATO needs to take a number of steps to ensure that allied nations sustain necessary military capabilities in spite of their constrained economies. Among other helpful steps, NATO member-states should enhance sub-regional military structures and relationships that can pool resources and also enhance overall defense cooperation to ensure the most effective military spending. For example, the Scandinavians have established the Nordic Defense Cooperation organization (NORDEFCO), the Central Europeans have put together the Visegrad Group, and the Baltic states routinely engage in informal defense cooperation among themselves. Very recently, the Nordic states not only have agreed to a significant enhancement of their defense cooperation, but also to the integration of the Baltic states into these efforts. In addition, bilateral partnerships, such as the British-French Defense Co-operation Treaty, can provide real cost-savings.7 NATO should also explore in-depth the potential for connecting sub-regional missile defense networks in Central Europe, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, along with a network including Persian Gulf nations and others, including Israel.
NATO should increase cooperation with non-NATO states such as Finland and Sweden, which possess strong military capabilities, and it is time for NATO and the United States to indicate that they would be welcome as new members. NATO needs to bring Asia-Pacific democracies such as Australia and New Zealand into a closer long-term military relationship, find ways to make them de facto “associate members,” and take advantage of the advanced technologies of these non-member allies. In addition, NATO should take advantage of U.S. training areas in Europe to enhance the military capacity of selected developing nations. Finally, NATO, utilizing Article IV of the NATO Treaty, needs to regularly discuss security challenges, such as Iran, that do not necessarily involve an immediate threat.
NATO should establish a permanent presence in Central and Eastern Europe, update its contingency plans and its logistics system for response to a Russian contingency, including a hybrid warfare attack, and increase its role in Ukraine. NATO also needs to ensure that it retains a meaningful nuclear doctrine and capability as an added layer of deterrent. Given Turkey’s proximity to the Syrian conflict and Russian military actions in the region, as well as general Western security interests, NATO also needs to prepare for any possible Middle East contingency, including by developing an enhanced naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. NATO should also build on the success of its Special Operations Forces Command Center.
While NATO can work with non-democratic nations when necessary for its security interests, the Alliance should whenever possible also encourage the growth of a democratic security culture in such nations, as well as further developing its own unique role as a security coalition of democracies.
Essential for NATO effectiveness is renewed U.S. leadership both at NATO and globally. The Obama Administration has been reactive, content for the United States to act as merely one among equals, and has also downgraded the U.S. relationship with NATO. A striking example occurred in March of last year, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg requested a meeting with the President, as is traditional for NATO Secretary Generals when they visit Washington, well in advance of his arrival. Yet even though Stoltenberg was to be Washington for several days, he was told that no meeting could be arranged. NATO requires strong U.S. leadership to be truly effective and it has always been the case that when the United States does lead at NATO others follow. This also necessarily means reinforcing the U.S. military presence in the European theater.
While there are some encouraging signs regarding NATO’s response to Russia, it remains to be seen whether NATO’s members will take the necessary steps to ensure its military effectiveness over time. If recent Russian adventurism does not stimulate a rethink of recent trends, NATO could eventually hollow itself out and become of marginal value to the United States. The eventual result would be a serious reassessment of U.S. involvement in NATO, and would play to the advantage of those who wish the United States to renounce its role as provider of common global security goods. The argument would predictably run as follows: We cannot afford to do this alone and be effective at it, so let’s not try to do it at all.
The next NATO Summit to be held in Warsaw this July provides an opportunity for NATO nations to formally commit themselves to continuing NATO’s adaptation to contemporary security threats. In addition to mandating the enhancements described above, NATO should promulgate a common unifying vision that can be understood and supported by both policymakers and the general publics of NATO nations. Given the reality that NATO comprises a community of democratic nations, NATO should highlight its role as the focal point of a global democratic security network that embodies both a shield and, where necessary, a sword, not only ensuring this community’s security but also safeguarding its shared democratic values. The United States, for its part, should take the lead at this Summit in developing and implementing NATO’s continuing adaptation. This means leading from the front while not only halting but also reversing the downgrading of U.S. military capabilities in Europe.
After playing a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has transformed itself into a multi-mission organization addressing 21st-century security challenges while adding new members, establishing global security relationships, and responding to Russian adventurism. NATO has thus demonstrated in the post-Cold War era that it is an organization with the capacity to adapt and even to reinvent itself. But, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it a few years ago, there remains a “real possibility of collective military irrelevance” if NATO fails to address current military deficiencies.
Only strong U.S. leadership, which has been absent in recent years, can catalyze and organize that revival. Perhaps beginning in January 2017 we will again see that kind of leadership.
1 Hybrid warfare is a recent buzzword that refers to the simultaneous use of a variety of approaches to waging war, including unconventional, conventional, and cyber and information warfare.
2 In 1949, 13 senators voted against the United States joining NATO, including Senator Robert Taft.
3 John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2014).
4 Richard N. Haass, “Why Europe No Longer Matters,” Washington Post, June 17, 2011.
5 A recent poll in Sweden showed 41 percent support for Sweden becoming a full NATO member. This is up from a low point of 17 percent in 2012, with an increase of 10 percent since Russia’s intervention in Crimea and Ukraine.
6 For a detailed discussion of allied defense cooperation efforts, see W. Bruce Weinrod, “Pooling and Sharing: The Effort to Enhance Allied Defense Capabilities,” American Enterprise Institute, August 11, 2014.