Time to Rethink the NATO Alliance for the 21st Century, Again

By: Eric Altamura, Columnist

Photo by: Getty Images

In the 1990s, NATO rebranded itself as an alliance that would ensure Euro-Atlantic stability by standing for unifying principles and norms, rather than posturing against a specific threat.[i] NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept reflects this pivot, describing the organization as “a unique community of values committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”[ii] However, NATO members now face an evolved and diverse problem set that may necessitate a new round of institutional introspection and adaptation.

During a recent address at the Munich Security Conference, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed his belief that NATO can adjust to the 21st Century geopolitical environment. He argued that “the enduring power of the transatlantic partnership” makes NATO the “most powerful, most effective, and most reliable alliance in the world.”[iii] Yet conflicting strategies on how to best deal with problems across the Middle East and North Africa, the spread of nationalism and authoritarianism, and divergent reactions to a resurgent Russia suggest that shared identities and values may no longer suffice in unifying NATO states around a common purpose.[iv] Instead, to better prepare the alliance for today’s security challenges, NATO members should seek opportunities to identify and commit to a more pragmatic set of principles.

For instance, NATO allies can collectively acknowledge that members have increasingly looked to the organization as a legitimate entity for conducting offensive military operations. During the conflict in Kosovo, both China and Russia argued that NATO airstrikes against Serbian military targets overstepped the coalition’s authority by violating UN Charter obligations.[v] Similarly, in assuming control of military operations in Libya, NATO took action based on UNSCR 1973, which authorized member states and regional organizations to enforce the protection of civilians.[vi] Both of these cases, though justified humanitarian interventions, go beyond NATO’s original design as a mutual defense pact.[vii] These events are not necessarily problematic, as few alternatives exist when Russia and China continue to undermine nearly all Western-backed initiatives through the UN Security Council. Still, this development deserves formal recognition if NATO intends to rely upon similar models for action in the future as the alliance continues to evolve beyond its original purpose. Moreover, this issue requires prompt resolution, considering that NATO intends to maintain a forward presence in the Middle East over the long-term, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.[viii]

NATO’s use of offensive military power is just one of a host of policy issues that need updating and clarification. The upcoming NATO summit in Brussels this July will mark the first full-length meeting of the 29 NATO members since the start of the Trump administration. Following recent amendments to the NATO Command Structure proposed during the abridged Warsaw meeting in 2017, agenda items will focus on building the operational effectiveness of NATO, with particular emphasis on maritime, cyber, and counterterrorism capacities.[ix] Furthermore, the summit will highlight progress made towards increasing defense spending by NATO members in the wake of pressure applied by the U.S. during the early months of the Trump administration.[x] Yet to only focus on capabilities and capacities would waste an ideal opportunity for NATO to reevaluate some of the fundamental assumptions and approaches that underpin the alliance’s policies. Leaders at the Brussels summit should instead use the gathering to clearly define the strategic interests and objectives of NATO within the modern geopolitical context. Without renewed consensus on this issue, lower-level operational and organizational reforms will likely struggle to have enduring effects.

The Trump administration has indicated that the United States will take a more transactional approach to NATO moving forward, which may lead to conflicts within the institution if not managed properly.[xi] Topics such as NATO expansion, intertwining interests with the European Union, and continued dialogue with Russia – all existing NATO policies premised on the promotion of liberal values rather than material benefits – will require rethinking within this new framework. Ultimately, NATO would benefit greatly from taking the time to pursue consensus on a wider range of policy issues that create shared expectations amongst allies for the future.






[i] North Atlantic Council, “An Alliance for the 21st Century,” News Release, April 24, 1999, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_27440.htm.

[ii] “Strategic Concepts,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last modified November 16, 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_56626.htm.

[iii] “Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Opening Session of the Munich Security Conference,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last modified March 2, 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/ic/natohq/opinions_152209.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[iv] Oytun Orhan, “NATO Allies Go Head to Head in Syria,” German Marshall Fund, April 9, 2018, http://www.gmfus.org/publications/nato-allies-go-head-head-syria.

[v] United Nations Security Council, “NATO Action Against Serbian Military Targets Prompts Divergent Views as Security Council Holds Urgent Meeting on Situation in Kosovo,” News Release, March 24, 1999, https://www.un.org/press/en/1999/19990324.sc6657.html.

[vi] Ademola Abass, “Assessing NATO’s involvement in Libya,” United Nations University, October 27, 2011, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/assessing-nato-s-involvement-in-libya.htlm.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] NATO Public Diplomacy Division, “The Secretary General’s Annual Report: 2017,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2018, 6.

[ix] Julianne Smith, Jim Townsend and Rachel Rizzo, “NATO’s 2018 Summit,” Center for a New American Security, March 30, 2018, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/natos-2018-summit.

[x] Jeffrey Rathke, “Security in Northern Europe and the Road to the 2018 NATO Summit,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 20, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/security-northern-europe-and-road-2018-nato-summit.

[xi] Jonathan Marcus, “NATO and Trump: What Future for the Atlantic Alliance,” BBC, May 25, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40026828.


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