ANXIETY ABOUT the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) future is older than the actual alliance. Its founders worried about the prospects for its survival before the Washington Treaty was fully drafted, much less signed and ratified. Today’s concerns about NATO’s future are, in a sense, old hat.
From another perspective, however, the NATO of 2019 is profoundly different from that of 2009, 1999 and 1989, not to mention the newly-minted alliance of 1949. In fact, 1989 was the true turning point for NATO, and we are only now confronting the accumulated consequences of haphazard U.S. and Western policy choices over the past three decades, which help to explain why NATO faces the problems it now confronts, including challenges to its mission, its capabilities and its values.
On November 21, 1990, the United States, the Soviet Union and the nations of Europe adopted the Paris Charter for a New Europe. The document symbolically closed the Cold War by pronouncing enthusiastically but in hindsight prematurely that “the era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended.” The Warsaw Pact formally dissolved itself the following year. No one expected NATO to disband so swiftly, given that Europe’s security environment remained unsettled as the Soviet Union disintegrated and Yugoslavia exploded into civil war. Yet both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “peace dividend” in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. The United States began to slash defense spending, while Western Europe accelerated the process towards deepening and widening European integration, as epitomized by the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht creating the European Union (EU) in 1992.
The Soviet Union’s collapse rendered obsolete NATO’s primary mission to deter a Soviet invasion, and failing that, to defend Western Europe. NATO member states saw diverse new dangers elsewhere, initially in Yugoslavia’s civil wars but later from broader global problems like terrorism, migration and climate change. Established as a defensive military alliance, NATO was ill-suited to address many of these newer transnational challenges—most of which affected some members more than others—and struggled to define a coherent new mission that could hold together the alliance. A few wags rechristened the “NATO” acronym to stand for “Now Almost Totally Obsolete.”
At a series of post-Cold War conclaves, notably the 2002 Prague “Transformation” Summit, the alliance members argued about the desirability and feasibility of reconfiguring NATO as a “rapid reaction force” that could be deployed anywhere in the world to tackle global “hot spots”—particularly failed and failing states. At the same time, the United States encouraged other NATO members to spend their defense budgets not for European territorial defense, as in the Cold War, but in developing the deployable specialties expected in a post-Cold War world—mobile hospital units, chemical weapons decontamination squads, security force trainers or specialized counter-terrorism units—that could be sent beyond the European theater to tackle challenges before they metastasized into new threats to the security of the trans-Atlantic world. The U.S. effort to push the transformation of NATO into a global security provider, however, ran into significant resistance in a number of European countries that were leery about becoming enmeshed in America’s worldwide military operations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also coincided with the third wave of democratization. For most of its history, the ideological glue that held together the Scandinavian socialists, continental Christian Democrats, British Tories and a series of military rulers in a single alliance was opposition to Soviet Communism, not a commitment to secular liberal pluralism. By 1991, however, fifteen of NATO’s sixteen members were considered to be consolidated or restored liberal democracies, and Turkey’s own process towards democratization was considered to be irreversible. Some believed that NATO could then evolve from being an alliance of collective defense against a Soviet threat based on geopolitical imperatives into an alliance to promote shared values where ideological criteria had superseded hard security considerations.
Of course, Russia itself had not disappeared. The West received a momentary shock when, at an Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in December 1992, Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev appeared to announce that Russia would seek to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Kozyrev’s stunt, designed to alert his audience to the dangers of Russian revanchism, temporarily raised hackles but was ultimately ignored as, during the 1990s, Russian military capabilities precipitously declined while the Boris Yeltsin administration seemed to acquiesce to the policies of the West and accept the guidance of the United States in terms of international affairs. Indeed, the prevailing assumption was that Russia would cease to have any significant differences of opinion with the West on any international issue, and, even if it did, it would not matter, because Russia had ceased to be a great power in any meaningful sense.
Thus, after 1991, for many of the legacy NATO members, particularly those along the southern flank, a post-Soviet Russia was no longer a central security concern. Over time, instability in the Middle East and North Africa became a much more pressing issue. For many of the major Western European states like Germany, France and Italy, no longer worried about the prospects of a Soviet invasion, the goal was to push for closer Russian political and economic integration into Europe. No longer seen as an existential enemy, political leaders in Rome, Berlin and Paris now viewed Moscow as an emerging partner in the east—while at the same time showing some reluctance to becoming involved in Russia’s disputes with its other, post-Soviet neighbors. But throughout Western Europe, the prevailing sentiment was that, once the Yugoslav wars were over, the prospect of major armed conflict breaking out on the European continent was negligible. Secure in that knowledge, most legacy NATO members allowed their defense spending to wane—while the United States increasingly shifted its focus of attention to the Middle East and Asia, with Europe viewed primarily as a staging ground for American operations elsewhere in the world.
Conventional wisdom is that the Ukraine events of 2014 brought all of these problems with NATO into stark relief. Not so. NATO already had a clear warning of the problems that were accumulating when the alliance experienced a mini-crisis in February 2003. As it became apparent that war was imminent in the Middle East, Turkey requested that the alliance take concrete steps to defend its southeastern frontiers from any spillover that the coalition invasion of Iraq might generate. France, Germany and Belgium—which opposed the George W. Bush administration’s plans for Iraq—did not want the alliance to be drawn into any aspect of a Middle East conflict, even if a NATO member was attacked; in essence, this was not the war they believed NATO members had signed up for. Among the new members and the aspirant countries, the so-called “New Europe” (in the formulation of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld), there were offers of support for the U.S. coalition—but quietly, the Turks discerned that when it came to NATO, Eastern Europe wanted no distractions from the focus on Russia. Ankara invoked Article IV of the Washington Treaty which obligated the alliance to hear Turkey’s security concerns, but this was the start of Turkey’s gradual disengagement from NATO. Subsequent events over the next fifteen years would reinforce a suspicion in Turkey that, despite the ritual bows to the sainted Article V, any security threats to Turkey—Iraq, Kurdish terrorism, spillover from the Syrian Civil War, even a possible confrontation with Russia—was not really of concern to its allies. In turn, the dramatic shift in Russia-Turkey relations—from Turkey’s traditional position in retarding Russian access to the Mediterranean towards a close partnership with Moscow—made it clear how old assumptions were no longer valid. It also signaled that Ankara, like other legacy members of NATO, was not going to subordinate Turkish interests in Russia to any sense of NATO solidarity.
The evolution of Turkey’s position should have been a warning that the alliance needed to reconceptualize its role for a post-Cold War world. Instead, NATO continued to drift, in search of a strategic rationale for its existence. But a NATO that could define its role or missions in a post-Cold War world could therefore not define the criteria that should guide the admission of new members. This has meant that, in contrast to Cold War period of NATO expansion, since 1989, strategic considerations would be replaced by political ones as the drivers of NATO enlargement.
WHEN THE Soviet Union collapsed, the George H.W. Bush administration touted a continuing role for NATO in European security but saw no need to enlarge the alliance to continue its mission. This inclination was buttressed by Pentagon assessments that highlighted the decrepit state of post-Warsaw Pact militaries and concerns about strategic overstretch. At its 1991 Rome Summit, NATO invited the former Warsaw Pact states to begin a dialogue about using the OSCE—which included NATO members as well as Russia and the former Warsaw Pact states as members—to extend security across the continent. The summit communique declared that NATO would “cooperate and consult” with its new partners, a message confirmed at the summer 1992 OSCE summit in Helsinki. While the emerging European Union committed to broadening its membership, NATO promised only to establish “patterns of cooperation” with former Soviet bloc states. However, the implication was that NATO would extend a zone of security over the entire continent, even if specific countries were not members. At the same time, while the EU began to lay out a process for enlargement, the criteria agreed to at Copenhagen would require extensive reforms and were expected to take many years to be completed—meaning that the first generation of post-Communist leaders in the former Soviet bloc would have to endure the uncertainties about their future position in Europe—and the risk of being assigned to permanent second-class status in shaping the destinies of the continent.