The Invisible Alliance? NATO's Future after the Prague Summit

The Invisible Alliance? NATO's Future after the Prague Summit

This past Monday, I took part in a forum at Georgetown University, the purpose of which was to examine the implications, for both American and European security, of the enlargement of NATO.

This past Monday, I took part in a forum at Georgetown University, the purpose of which was to examine the implications, for both American and European security, of the enlargement of NATO. (1) The fact this event took place is itself not remarkable, given that the Prague Summit (at which the enlargement and transformation of the alliance will be discussed) is but a few weeks away; it is the near-total lack of public interest in this subject, however, that deserves comment.

The first round of post-Cold War NATO expansion provoked a great deal of debate, especially in the United States. Could new members afford the burdens of membership? Was NATO expansion necessary to stabilize east-central Europe? Would expansion dilute the nature of the alliance, transforming it from a security organization into a political institution? Would adding former Soviet bloc members to the alliance violate "understandings" reached with Moscow as part of the process of German unification, and would it risk fomenting a "new division" in Europe? (2)

Today, in contrast, nearly everyone accepts (or is resigned to) a second and even more dramatic expansion of the alliance, as it is expected that seven countries (including the three Baltic States) will receive invitations to join NATO. Other than a few voices calling for delay--to allow the alliance to sort out some of its difficult existential problems (including revamping what was a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union into a body capable of dealing with international asymmetric threats, such as terrorism; or coping with the "free rider" issue (3))--most NATO member-states seem to believe that enlargement and reform can occur simultaneously. Some maintain that the overall lack of concern over the second round is a sign that the kinks visible in the process during the first have been smoothed out.

The general lack of public discussion (notwithstanding the quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Bush Administration and the other NATO allies and aspirants) may be a more troubling sign--that there is little political will or public pressure in Washington or its leading European partners for tackling major issues. In 1999, most European states were not prepared to make the conceptual leap (followed by appropriate levels of investment) that NATO, having succeeded in preventing major wars in Europe, needed to become more active in coping with crises outside of Europe that might threaten the peace and stability of the Euro-Atlantic community. NATO had been created to forestall a massive Soviet drive through the Fulda Gap; it had never envisioned itself responding to crises in other parts of the world.

It is not clear whether, even in the wake of 9/11, those attitudes are likely to change. A NATO that remains configured to deter a large-scale invasion of Europe from Russian territory is not an alliance that is prepared to deal with the threats of organized crime and terrorism emanating from failed states along the Eurasian periphery. Nor is it likely that NATO could play a key role in helping to stabilize the Eastern Mediterranean by providing credible security to enforce peace settlements in Cyprus and Israel, as some have envisioned.

For its part, there is diminished interest in Washington for the United States to continue to invest treasure and personnel if the primary raison d'être for the alliance is to ensure that the United States continues to act as Europe's pacifier and protector. A diminished NATO, in turn, accelerates calls for the United States to simply strengthen bilateral ties with specific states able and willing to join Washington in ad hoc "coalitions of the willing." Interestingly enough, some of the east European states are more inclined to work directly with the United States on matters of shared concern; the Romanian contingent in Afghanistan, for example, is larger than some of the forces deployed by current NATO members.

What is apparent, however, is that NATO must openly and directly address two existential questions in the near future if it is to remain viable as a security alliance. The first revolves around purpose. European states need to collectively develop a rapid-reaction force with adequate deployment capabilities if Europe, as a whole, is to continue to function as a partner with the United States. Since it is unlikely that they will duplicate efforts, they must choose between housing such a force under the umbrella of the EU or that of NATO. Keeping such a force within NATO gives the United States a consultative role in how it is used, something that would not happen if it were housed within the EU.

The second is the future of Russia within the overall structures of European security. The NATO-Russia Council is only an interim measure. Russia will either eventually be considered for membership, or the alliance must make a clear decision to "end" Europe at the Baltic and western Black Sea coasts. It is still not evident, however, in what direction the U.S.-Europe-Russia relationship will evolve. How will the emerging U.S.-Russia partnership take shape--and how much of that partnership would (and should) occur within the framework of NATO? Will forces in Europe seek to draw Russia into closer cooperation with EU defense structures, eschewing Russian participation in NATO, as a way to balance the United States (for example, in the area of European theater missile defense, as the Greeks have proposed)?

No one is prepared to accept the actual demise of the alliance qua alliance, but this process is nonetheless underway. The ongoing, gradual transformation of NATO into a version of what the OSCE could (and should) be--an organization that promotes collective security within Europe by reducing the likelihood of conflict between its member-states, but which has no real military or security role in a larger world, not even within what conceivable could be defined as the "North Atlantic" region--continues apace. (However, unlike OSCE, even a reduced NATO would continue to be to provide for joint training among its members so as to allow for interoperability of forces in U.S.-led "coalitions of the willing.") (4)

NATO has, for the most part, kept the peace in Europe, and it remains one of the primary threads holding together the Euro-Atlantic community. But alliances are formed and maintained because states perceive a common threat and believe that concerted, cooperative action is a better way to cope with the challenge. I am sure that the Prague Summit will resound with speeches celebrating the commonly held values of NATO members and aspirants. But if the members do not agree that these values are in fact threatened (and from what quarter the threat emanates), then NATO's days as a security alliance are likely to be numbered.


Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.

  1. The forum (entitled "NATO Enlargement: What's Next?") was organized by the Georgetown European Foreign Service Association and was held on November 11, 2002. In addition to the author, the panel consisted of Charles Kupchan (Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations), Jan Gavrila (Romanian Ministry of Defense and an International Fellow at the National Defense University), and David Merkel (Senate Foreign Relations Committee). A full transcript of the evening's proceedings will be prepared by the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (
  2. Adam Garfinkle expertly summarized the various arguments, in an article still well worth reading. "NATO Enlargement: What's the Rush?" The National Interest (Winter 1996/97).
  3. The "free rider" issue lies at the very core of the widening capabilities gap between the United States and its European allies. Currently, only seven other members of the alliance are committed to defense spending at the recommended levels; and both Hungary and the Czech Republic have admitted they have been unable to modernize and adapt their forces as previously expected.
  4. See the comments of Philip Gordon, "Reforging the Atlantic Alliance", The National Interest (Fall 2002).