NATO is a political and military alliance whose core competencies are to provide collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. Originally, this alliance was developed to discourage the westward expansion of Soviet and Communist influence in Europe. In the days of the Cold War there was no doubt of the necessity of NATO and that an attack on any NATO nation would elicit a response from all of its members. This served as a powerful deterrent in the Cold War years. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union some 20 years ago, is NATO still relevant?
I would argue that NATO continues to play a vital role in security, stability, and peace throughout the transatlantic region and the world. Although the likelihood of a large-scale Russian invasion of Western Europe is extremely unlikely, we continue to see “new countries joining NATO for the old reasons.” These Central and Eastern European nations realize that an all out war with Russia is very unlikely as well; however, there still exists a fear of operations less than full war, including the use of the military instrument of power. The NATO alliance, and specifically, the relationship between European nations and the US is an important deterrent and a security blanket for the peace of mind for Central and Eastern European nations. The Open Door policy of NATO and its willingness to take on new members will become increasingly important in upcoming years and these decisions must be considered carefully.
In addition, NATO provides a forum for military leaders of like-minded countries to share information on best practices, tactics, techniques and procedures, as well as intelligence on current and future security threats. This communication of sensitive and sometimes classified information among friendly nations is crucial to enhance security and increase the capabilities of member nations. NATO also provides a mechanism for sharing capabilities that might otherwise be unattainable for individual member nations and increases the efficiency of military expenditures. An expansion of military expertise allows more members to contribute to common causes and deters aggression among unfriendly nations and non-state actors. NATO also enhances the interoperability of military forces by conducting multinational exercises and war-gaming scenarios. NATO further contributes to security and defense by expanding non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) initiatives. Ultimately, an aggressor is less likely to take hostile action towards a capable counterpart and less likely to do so with WMD.
Because NATO actions require consensus among all member nations, actions by NATO, especially those at the request of the UN, are typically accepted as the legitimate use of force. The US reserves the right to protect its interests by all means necessary, including the use of military force, even in a unilateral fashion. However, this is only carried out after exhausting all of the means and methods available to avoid conflict. Furthermore, when military action is taken, the US aims to act through organizations, such as the UN and NATO, in order to garner support from the international community. This enables the US to maintain the moral high ground when confronting security threats abroad.
With the drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan and a general war weariness of the world, one may expect a slowing of military operations worldwide. Although I agree that there will be fewer combat operations for NATO forces in the near future, current uprisings, civil unrest, natural disasters or other unforeseen circumstance may require the use of the military to maintain security, prevent injustice or provide humanitarian aid and support following these situations. The crisis management and cooperative security competencies will continue to remain a priority for NATO in the future.
In conclusion, NATO is not without problems but its positive impact on security and stability is still necessary. It must follow through on the ideas in the current Strategic Concept and commit to constant improvement and evolution to meet current and future threats. Although the circumstances surrounding the inception of NATO have certainly changed, an effective, efficient, and flexible NATO alliance is important to maintain security in today’s uncertain world.
These thoughts and ideas are from Tom Heier, a Major is the US Air Force and a Marshall Memorial Fellow (Summer, 2013). Quotes and paraphrased ideas are not attributed to any individuals in honor of Chatham House Rules. This blog contains the opinion of the author and does NOT reflect the official position of the US Air Force, Department of Defense or US government.