NATO’s Adaptation

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is a military alliance formed in 1949 when twelve countries (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and United States) signed the North Atlantic Treaty. Sixteen additional countries joined between 1952 and 2009. The treaty obligated members to act as a deterrent against possible invasion of western Europe by the Soviet Union and its allies. Collective defense was established by the treaty’s Article 5, which stated: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

During the years of the Cold War, NATO members faced an identifiable enemy. A consolidated command structure was established following the outbreak of the Korean War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO’s attention turned to two other goals: deterring the rise of militant nationalism and providing the foundation for collective security that would encourage democracy and political integration in Europe.

In the mid and late 1990s NATO engaged in direct military action in conflicts in Yugoslavia and in peacekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at times acting in concert with the United Nations. On the day following the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, NATO invoked the Article 5 collective defense provision for the first time. The coalition of countries that joined the U.S. in the military intervention in Afghanistan against al-Qaida included many NATO allies. The U.N.-authorized multilateral force deployed to stabilize the country was handed to NATO in 2003.

Decisions taken at NATO’s July 2016 summit in Warsaw acknowledge changes in the international security environment over the last twenty years. A series of reports by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) leading up to NATO’s Warsaw summit in July admitted to a divergence of interests as impacts of recent events vary among members. Aggression by Russia in Ukraine and mass migration into Europe from the Middle East are the primary sources of dissimilar security threats.

According to one of the GMF reports, “Baltic States and Central European countries… were concerned that if Russia succeeded in coercing Ukraine into its orbit, it would next want to test the willingness of the Alliance to defend all of its members.” Yet Russia is a major trading partner of members of the European Union. And while the U.S. has become less dependent on energy imports, Russian exports of energy to European countries will likely increase. NATO members also need cooperation from Russia in battling terrorism.

Migration and refugee flows into southern Europe from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) not only test the ability of directly-affected countries to absorb the masses, but also raise concern throughout the West over terrorism. Europe questions U.S. commitment to accept a share of the migrants, and NATO members on both sides of the Atlantic are dealing with popular backlash against migrants due to terrorism risk and threats to national identity. The flow of migrants has divided Europe between north and south, just as the threat from Russia is of more concern to countries in the east than in the west.

Looking forward, according to a GMF report, “The U.S. 2016 elections and finally the French and German general elections in 2017 will also be decisive moments for the transatlantic partnership.” If populists take power and adopt anti-immigration stances, international obligations will be at risk. Populists blame the EU for creating the migrant crisis (and potential terrorist infiltration) by abolishing internal borders, and blame NATO for tension with Russia because NATO took in new members.

The GMF report says to address root causes: “The foreign policy crisis with Russia or the threat posed by ISIS will not be adequately addressed unless transatlantic allies agree on a more sophisticated and shared comprehension of the domestic dynamics driving Moscow’s strategic decisions and of the socio-political struggles in the MENA region.”

The Warsaw Summit renewed NATO’s emphasis on deterrence and collective defense. A greater military presence has been committed in the east, and civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia have been suspended. However, NATO remains dedicated to a peaceful solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and return of Crimea to Ukraine.

In the MENA area, NATO’s commitment to defeating Islamic State includes addressing the establishment of legitimate and inclusive governments in Iraq and Syria. Beyond defending against terrorist attacks, NATO’s post-summit communique pledged to “address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.”

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