US troops, part of a NATO mission to enhance Poland’s defense, before an official welcoming ceremony in Orzysz, Poland, 12 April 2017. Photo Credit: AP
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO cheered it had “won” the war with its longtime rival, leaving in its wake uncertainty for an organization that stood with clear purpose for over forty years. Thirty years later, the relevance of NATO remains in question. The organization is rife with issues: critiques between members on lack of defense expenditures, an ill-defined post-Cold War strategy, and growing authoritarianism in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Despite these issues, the organization is still vital to Western interests.
NATO after the Collapse of the Soviet Union
NATO reimagined its mission after 1991. This new mission set initially contained two primary objectives: fostering cooperation with former Warsaw Pact states and managing conflicts along the European periphery.[i] NATO has been remarkably successful in achieving its first objective – with all former Warsaw Pact countries outside of the former Soviet Union joining the organization as well as the former Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
NATO remains integral to European security in the post-Cold War era. The UN relied on a NATO bombing campaign in bringing an end to the Bosnian War in 1995 and a large peacekeeping force that maintained regional stability after the war ended.[ii] However, NATO’s involvement in conflicts on the continent still draws criticism; for instance, it intervened in Kosovo – not acting in self-defense and with no approval from the UN Security Council.[iii]
NATO serves as a conduit for promoting democracy across the continent. Despite democratic backsliding in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, most states admitted to the organization after the fall of the Soviet Union have functioning democracies that encourage liberal values which the U.S. has sought to codify in the international system since the end of the Second World War.
In addition to promoting European stability, NATO supports US interests abroad. Lest we forget, the only time that NATO invoked Article V was in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Employing the collective defense principle was also the first time the organization conducted operations outside of Europe.[iv] In support of America and in solidarity with its people, all member states contributed financially or militarily to the Global War on Terror – and many have given the ultimate sacrifice in support of our country.
Should the U.S. Remain Involved in NATO?
Among others, one of the most vocal critics of NATO in recent history is former President Donald Trump whose chief complaint was that most members fail to meet the 2% of GDP requirement for defense spending. Although security threats are relative and states like Lithuania may need to increase defense spending more than Luxembourg, a NATO report released last October shows ten countries are now achieving the 2% threshold – up from only three countries in 2014. Increases in spending – especially in Eastern European countries – are likely correlated with Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.[v]
Despite these positive improvements, the U.S. will remain the largest defense spender, in both shares of GDP and raw dollars, for the near future. Reducing American contributions to NATO may have adverse consequences on the organization’s effectiveness, but a complete U.S. withdrawal from the organization would likely lead to devastating effects for regional and global security. The U.S. serves as the workhorse of the organization. Among a litany of other implications, that trusty steed’s departure could lead to two destabilizing outcomes.
First, the potential snowballing effect that a U.S. withdrawal could have on other member states. If the backbone of the organization calls it quits, what is to stop others from doing the same? The United Kingdom’s Brexit process rattled the EU and prompted a myriad of problems within the continent. Similarly, one can only imagine what a U.S. withdrawal from NATO would mean for the continent’s security. NATO plays a significant role as a security framework in the Pax Americana,[vi] which has resulted in the largest period of stability in European history. If the U.S. abandons its flagship organization, the possibility of splintered member states fighting for regional and global hegemony increases exponentially.
Second, the security guarantee that the US nuclear umbrella provides to member states of NATO. Though the threat of nuclear war with the bear in the east was much more prevalent during the Cold War, a U.S. withdrawal could persuade member states to develop their own nuclear weapons programs. If France and the United Kingdom did not pick up the tab and expand their nuclear arsenals to make up for the loss of the protections associated with the US nuclear umbrella, other states such as Germany may experience a security dilemma and seek out nuclear proliferation for their own security.[vii] Multiple member states pursuing the bomb has the potential to gravely undermine global security.
Should NATO Pursue Greater Expansion?
In the aftermath of the Cold War, NATO began aggressively pursuing former Soviet-bloc states. A relatively weak Russia was in no position to contest the accession of its former SSRs and satellites into NATO in the 1990s and early 2000s. The recent attempts at Georgian and Ukrainian admittance to the organization met fierce opposition by Russia, resulting in deadly wars and breakaway territories.
NATO should refrain from seeking additional members in the near term, especially on Russia’s frontier. The threat to physical security and way of life remains a key issue of Russia. In the not-so-distant past, Russians have witnessed the Napoleonic French, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany march across the open plains of Ukraine and threaten their very existence.[viii]
The recent buildup of Russian and Belorussian forces along the Ukrainian border exacerbated ongoing tensions with NATO and Ukraine. Russia claims it is simply a training exercise in response to NATO threats, but Moscow employed the same rhetoric before invading the Donbass in 2014.[ix] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently called for support from Washington and Ukrainian accession into NATO, which Russian authorities said will have “irreversible consequences.”[x]
The U.S. and NATO should leverage further economic sanctions and diplomatic actions against Russia and increase logistical support for Ukraine, though NATO should avoid pursuing Ukraine’s admission into the organization. The U.S. recently scrapped its plans for the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea, opting to keep them in the Aegean instead. However, the United Kingdom is deploying warships to the Black Sea, reinforcing NATO’s commitment to Ukraine’s defense, and will ideally serve to deter further Russian aggression.[xi]
For NATO to stay relevant to Western interests, it must change. NATO has a reputation for utilizing its adaptability in lieu of clearly defined strategic goals. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO accepted a myriad of additional duties and roles, focusing on political and economic interests, and spread its resources too thin. Rose Gottemoeller, the former NATO Deputy Secretary-General, argues this is not a sustainable approach. She suggests that NATO must “stick to its knitting” in the defense space.[xii] This is not to suggest that NATO should not hold influence with other institutions it routinely cooperates with such as the EU, or that it should not support non-military goals such as promoting democracy; rather, NATO should delegate these larger political and socioeconomic goals to other regional organizations to prioritize its defense efforts.
NATO recently decided to start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in tandem with the U.S. This decision represents an important juncture for the organization – the war consumed a large part of the organization’s strategic focus, now the organization can redefine its mission. NATO should capitalize on this opportunity by deliberately identifying immediate security threats and develop effective plans to counter them. Few would argue that Russia’s actions along NATO’s eastern frontier do not top that list.
The U.S. and NATO maintain a symbiotic relationship and the capacity to continue exerting influence in an ever-changing world, so long as we support it. With the growing threats that illiberal forces present to the established international order, NATO can serve as a vessel that supports Western interests across the globe.
[i] David G. Haglund, “NATO in the Post-Cold War Era.” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d., https://www.britannica.com/topic/North-Atlantic-Treaty-Organization/NATO-in-the-post-Cold-War-era.
[iii] Mary O’Connell, “The UN, NATO, and International Law After Kosovo,” Human Rights Quarterly 22 (2000).
[iv] “Collective Defence – Article 5,” NATO, February 08, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm.
[v] John Vandiver, “Ten NATO Members Now Meet 2% Defense Spending Benchmark, but Not Germany,” Stars and Stripes, 2020, https://www.stripes.com/news/europe/ten-nato-members-now-meet-2-defense-spending-benchmark-but-not-germany-1.649349.
[vi] Patrick O. Cohrs, “’Pax Americana’: the United States and the transformation of the 20th century’s global order,” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(2), e002. November 29, 2018, 13, https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201800202.
[vii] Liana Fix and Bastian Giegerich, “European Security in Crisis: What to Expect If the United States Withdraws from NATO,” War on the Rocks, November 28, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/european-security-in-crisis-what-to-expect-if-the-united-states-withdraws-from-nato/.
[viii] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal
Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5, 82, (September/October 2014).
[ix] Natalia Antonova, “The Russian Mothers Waiting for News of Their Missing Soldier Sons,” Newsweek, September 2, 2014, https://www.newsweek.com/russian-mothers-waiting-news-their-missing-sons-267909.
[x] “Unprecedented Footage Shows Front Line of Ukrainian Conflict with Russia – CNN Video,” CNN, April 12, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2021/04/12/zelensky-ukraine-matthew-chance-pkg-intl-ldn-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/around-the-world/.
[xi] Charlotte Mitchell, “UK Warships Will Set Sail for the Black Sea next Month as Tensions between Russia and Ukraine Soar,” Daily Mail Online, April 19, 2021. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9485589/UK-warships-set-sail-Black-Sea-month-tensions-Russia-Ukraine-soar.html.
[xii] Rose Gottemoeller, interview with Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group, podcast audio, November 24, 2020, https://podcast.ausha.co/war-peace-5/s2-episode-6-the-future-of-nato.