The world changed on Christmas Day in 1991. Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War was over. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had won. The world was safer than ever. However, instead of ending NATO, President Bill Clinton chose to expand it, garnering bipartisan support. His three successors all followed suit. The alliance grew from sixteen members at the end of the Cold War to its current twenty-nine—most recently adding Montenegro, with North Macedonia set to join by early next year .
The decision to enter into a military alliance should not be taken lightly. Ideally, the allies must share a common set of security concerns. That was certainly the case when NATO formed in 1949, and for the first forty years of its existence. That is no longer true today.
Today, NATO presents problems for the United States—and many of its other members. Russia seeks to reestablish its sphere of influence, especially in the countries along its border. Meanwhile, some members have begun to back away from cherished liberal values, and anti-democratic forces have gained traction.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. NATO expansion advocates offered the prospect of membership as a reward to former communist nations in Europe who embraced liberal democracy. The first new post–Cold War members admitted in 1999—the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary—qualified by those standards. In effect, however, this ignored NATO’s military character and treated the alliance instead like a social club for stable democracies .
Predictably, Russia did not take well to their former clients joining the western alliance.
This disquiet could easily turn violent. Consider: the second round of NATO expansion, in 2004, included the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—all once part of the Soviet Union. Today, over a quarter of Estonia’s and Latvia’s populations identify as Russian, and this minority often feels persecuted. Latvia, for instance, recently passed legislation requiring schools to teach the majority of classes in Latvian. If Russian speakers rose up against the democratically elected governments there, as well as Lithuania and Estonia, how should NATO respond?
And how would Russia respond? Russian president Vladimir Putin has already effectively reclaimed territory in Georgia and Ukraine as part of his bid to restore Russia to its former glory. If he ever used force to regain control of the Baltics, all NATO members would be obligated to assist them under Article 5 of the charter . The problem of defending against such aggression only grows harder as more countries on Russia’s borders are admitted to the alliance.
Internal factors also threaten to derail the alliance. Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and, most recently, Italy, have all seen the rise of nationalism, which has led to democratic backsliding. Freedom House, an organization that tracks democracy worldwide, recently downgraded Hungary from “free” to “partly free.” Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, is considered “not free.” Italy’s nationalist government has begun fighting with other alliance members like France and Belgium.
Hungary-U.S. relations have faltered under Viktor Orban. Orban closed George Soros’s Central European University despite American pressure not to. Hungary also slowed Ukraine’s invitation to NATO , despite America’s objections, over claims that the Ukrainian government mistreated its Hungarian population.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, continues to accumulate power and marginalize his opponents in Turkey at an alarming rate, most recently winning the ability to obtain emergency powers if he deems Turkey’s economy “under threat.”
Italy’s recent tumult spurred by its own nationalism has put it at odds with Macron’s Europhilic France . While the likelihood of war today between these two founding members of NATO is vanishingly small, the ongoing dispute between Paris and Rome reveals the cracks in NATO.
Despite all of these challenges, however, NATO can still contribute to continued peace in Europe—and maybe beyond. But the organization must change. NATO must decide its purpose, revisit its mission, and reevaluate its requirements.
The military alliance initially formed not to spread democracy but to protect it. It did this by balancing against the threat of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The post-Cold War existence of NATO, therefore, has confused and even irritated some foreign policy scholars, such as John Mearsheimer .
All members should decide if NATO is still a military alliance or, as Clinton and others believed, a social club for European democracies. If the former is true, all members must dedicate themselves to maintain adequate defenses. If the latter is true, they must abolish Article 5.
Once they settle on its core goals, it must then fix on how to achieve them. Having had only moderate success combating transnational organizations such as terrorism, it should focus its efforts on adversarial states once again. The most threatening states today are rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran. Fighting rogue states will help combat terrorism, curb nuclear proliferation, and ease Russian fears.
Finally, NATO’s leaders should reevaluate the criteria for continuing membership in the alliance and kick out countries that do not comply. Enforcing commitment to common political ideology similarities among alliance members will help ensure transparency and build trust within the alliance.
NATO is not perfect. It needs lots of work to provide collective security in the way it did during the Cold War. Or at all. But these changes can help modernize the military alliance.
Jonathan Ellis Allen is a freelance writer finishing graduate studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.