Foreign Policy Blogs

Fighting the Last War

(Courtesy: Google Images; Times of London)

(Courtesy: Google Images; Times of London)

Multilateralism has been a key feature of Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision since he first entered the political arena.  The recent National Security Strategy correctly characterizes NATO as “the pre-eminent security alliance in the world today”,  and in order to maintain this designation, the Obama Administration states its intention to use NATO’s Strategic Concept Review as an opportunity to “revitalize and reform” the alliance.  In politics, we have grown accustomed to the word “reform” being used to mean “rooting out corruption from“, which is distinctly not how it is meant here.  Rather, a slighter version of the literal deconstruction meaning “to form again” is the goal.

NATO, it must be remembered, was custom-built for meeting the challenge posed by Soviet expansionism at the end of World War II.  It presented a two-part counter to the USSR: First, in establishing a defensive alliance, it created an unambiguous boundary that the Soviets were not to violate.  Second, it set up a “tripwire” that would lead to military consequences should the Soviets attempt to cross this boundary, and it backed up this threat with the power of the U.S. military.  This tripwire was enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which states that an attack against any of the Parties in Europe or North America is an attack against the entire alliance, authorizing collective action consistent with Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Although it was often an alliance of foul-weather friends, the existence of NATO neutralized the possibility of a hot war in Europe.  Instead, Cold War conflicts would be fought in third countries elsewhere around the world where the results were traumatic, but at least less likely to result in a nuclear exchange than a European one.  It was a classic demonstration of collective security.

NATO’s success was ultimately owed to its well-tailored Cold War strategy, but when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, it was generally left without a coherent purpose since it no longer had its existential enemy.  Critically, it succeeded in helping the former Warsaw Pact countries transition back into Europe; this was an important and positive development.  However, it did not, and has not, adapted to the challenges facing its members in the post-Cold War world.

The problem is that NATO members now face challenges that collective security cannot check.  It failed to deter terrorists on 9/11, 7/7 and other occasions, and it is largely irrelevant to the challenges posed by failing states.  Moreover, NATO expansion without a genuine mission redefinition is perceived as a threat by Russia, which has complicated relations between NATO members and that country.

The Group of Experts committee chartered by NATO to make recommendations for the improvement of the alliance recently completed and published its findings.  Many regard these findings as too vague.  They don’t provide a new mission for the alliance or clearly delineate what the non-Article 5 animating terms will be, but it may just be that those terms will be less clear in the post-Cold War world.  Making this most important alliance work is going to be a critical test of the Obama Administration’s commitment to multilateralism.

Any restructuring of NATO will need strong leadership by an American president, as NATO is essentially built around the U.S. military, especially in the Afghanistan campaign.  Key questions for thought must include:

  • What unites NATO, and what is its mission?  Is NATO still a defensive alliance, or is it a more formalized “coalition of the willing” that will take on a variety of generally accepted threats like radical Islam on an ad hoc basis?
  • Now that the Soviet Union is gone, what is NATO’s Russia policy?  Is it a friend?  A foe?  A member?  An associate?  How and where will cooperation work?  Which leads to the next question…
  • What are the limits of NATO expansion?  Membership for Ukraine and Georgia appears to have stalled out for the moment, but is there a better reason for this than to avoid poking the Russian Bear?  How should expansion be connected to the new mission?
  • What responsibilities come with NATO membership?  For what missions could members – especially European members – contribute treasure and manpower?

These questions need to be answered with a maximum degree of honesty.  NATO was held together during the Cold War by the threat of instant, global annihilation.  Now that this threat has largely passed, NATO needs a new unifying objective to define what it is and what it will do, or Afghanistan might be its last big stand.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.