by Kathleen Taylor
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 to contain Soviet aggression. Given that the Cold War ended over two decades ago, analysts frequently debate whether NATO is still relevant. The answer is a resounding yes: its mission and operational necessity in the 21st century will only grow more vital, and its operational capability more agile, versatile, and adaptable as the world faces new challenges.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 as a “bulwark against Soviet aggression” allowing the United States, Canada, and their European allies to contain the threat of the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. Throughout the Cold War, NATO concentrated almost solely on the European continent, along with the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, and gave little attention to events occurring outside its immediate area. NATO was the cornerstone of transatlantic security in the 20th century; yet once the Cold War came to an end, the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance came into question. Although its initial purpose is no longer relevant, NATO has adapted to meet the needs of the 21st century, proving that it remains an essential tool for maintaining global security and stability.
Immediately following the end of the Cold War, Western leaders debated the direction that the alliance should take as it moved into the 21st century. Within the United States, the Clinton administration supported NATO’s expansion to “extend its security umbrella in the east and consolidate democratic gains made in the former Soviet bloc,” although others wanted to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Europe. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, worried expansion would “dilute the alliance” while others, including France, feared NATO would become too influential if it grew. Ultimately, events would push NATO into a new, more expansive role despite lingering political concerns.
The political instability in Europe and devastating conflicts following the end of the Cold War caused a number of changes and new policies for NATO. Western leaders were eager to strengthen NATO’s ties with countries from the former Soviet bloc, including the possibility of helping the Central and Eastern European countries transition to democratic, capitalist countries. Concerned about the possibility of alienating Russia, NATO began its expansion into Central and Eastern Europe with a program called the Partnership for Peace. Yet in response to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the bloody ethnic conflicts that followed, NATO assumed a military role for the first time in its history, engaging in bombing campaigns against Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and once again in Kosovo in 1999. These campaigns later developed into peacekeeping missions. NATO’s expanded role in the region was crucial to the consolidation of stability and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, making a strong case for NATO’s continued relevance. By adding a military dimension, NATO demonstrated its capacity to adapt in order to address emergent threats. This adaptability has allowed NATO to transition from one era in history to another with vastly different security concerns.
NATO again proved its resilience and relevancy after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when it invoked its collective defense promise for the first time in history. The alliance was instrumental in the U.S.-led fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, even assuming command of the International Security Assistance Forces in 2003. The war in Afghanistan marked the first time NATO had assumed an operational commitment outside of Europe. Almost a decade later, in 2011, NATO led the United Nations Security Council-mandated intervention into Libya. Although this intervention created significant controversy, largely due to a lack of clarity around whether military intervention was exclusively to prevent genocide or if it extended to regime change, NATO’s role was largely considered a victory for deposing Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. NATO’s role in Libya also highlighted a fundamental shift in its scope. As increasingly complicated security threats arose outside of Europe’s immediate boarders, it had become clear that NATO could support global security through training, arms, and troop presence. Moreover, by expanding NATO’s purview beyond Europe, the United States and its European allies could have more influence over global matters and do so in a more justifiable, multilateral manner. NATO’s expansion beyond Europe has legitimized the alliance as an international actor with valid means to address global security threats.
Due to these changing roles for NATO, the alliance has continued to experience tense relations with Russia. Moscow sees NATO’s expansion and military power as a growing threat in its backyard. Modern tensions between Russia and NATO date back to 1990, when NATO promised it would halt its eastward expansion if Russia permitted Germany to become a member, which Russia then did. NATO broke this promise in 1999, when three strategically important countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—all become members of the alliance. The United States has also suggested including Ukraine and Georgia, a suggestion Russia felt directly encroached on its sphere of influence. Some analysts see Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 as a direct response to the threat of growing NATO power in Eurasia.
The Ukraine crisis has brought NATO’s attention squarely back to Europe and to its historic roots as a counterweight to Russian influence. It has also clarified NATO’s importance not only to European security but also to global security. Russian aggression toward Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, including its annexation of Crimea, has “infused new relevancy” into NATO’s role, demonstrate that no country in Russia’s sphere of influence is safe. Ukraine has certainly realized this, and recently lifted a law “barring participation in NATO.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko stated of the decision, “Finally, we corrected a mistake.” Ukrainian membership in NATO would be beneficial to the country as it produces a strong deterrent effect to outside aggressors, serving as a counterweight to Russia. NATO is already taking steps to “bolster the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe in response to increased fighting in eastern Ukraine.” NATO, thus, further proves its continued relevance in the 21st century by remaining a key player in European and global security issues, as evidence by continued support and loyalty from its membership and nations with which it has close ties.
The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance has increasingly proved its resilience and adaptability as it entered into a new century with new security concerns, establishing a military capacity and expanding its scope from concentrating primarily on Europe to a more global vision. Although NATO’s primary mission has changed and enlarged since 1949, it has thrived throughout its evolution. And one purpose remains constant: providing collective security for its member states. As the members’ security interests grow more complex and as new security threats emerge, such as the continued rise of the Islamic State, NATO’s mission and operational necessity will only grow more vital, and if true to form, its operational capability will continue to grow more agile, versatile, and adaptable.
Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.