Issue Briefs

NATO in the Twenty-First Century

NATO in the Twenty-First Century

Bruce Weinrod

April 20, 2016  

Since its very inception and until the present day critics have questioned whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is important, or indeed even necessary. These critics, however, overlook the fundamental importance to international security of a standing multilateral organization with strong and flexible core military capabilities.

Beginning in the 1990s, new international security threats, unrelated to NATO’s traditional mission, arose. In response to these emerging challenges, NATO took several important steps, including adopting a new strategic concept, gradually assuming new missions, undertaking unprecedented military operations, expanding its membership and developing a much wider range of global relationships that was true during the Cold War.

NATO’s most significant new mission has been combatting terrorism. Beginning in 2003, NATO deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan through its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and a residual force remains at present. A second new mission has involved military actions that have been motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns. A third new mission for NATO has been missile defense. NATO has allocated substantial resources to developing a core capability that can protect its bases and logistics sites, while also providing the framework for broader national territorial and population defense capabilities.

Further, NATO has also assumed responsibilities in areas, including implementation of a cyber-defense capability, monitoring potential threats to energy resources through for example Central Asia and the Arctic region, and responding to the threat of piracy on the high seas.

In addition, NATO has developed close security ties with a number of non-member nations and international organizations through the Partnership for Peace. The Partnership has 22 members located in Western Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. NATO has also expanded security connections to the Middle East, North Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Asia. NATO has also established bilateral structures, including the NATO-Ukraine Council and the NATO-Georgia Commission, and maintains an ongoing dialogue with other key nations. Other  ad hoc frameworks include China, India, and Pakistan.

An important result of this trans-European effort has been that thanks to NATO there has been a development and the de facto emergence as a global security network. NATO’s interactions with members of this security network cover activities ranging from political-military dialogue to military capacity-building programs designed to raise other militaries to NATO standards and develop equipment interoperability. Such programs can help interested nations to become useful associates of NATO, or even ad hoc members of military coalitions.

Not only does NATO remain relevant today, but more importantly the Alliance continues to support and advance allied security interests. Most importantly, NATO provides a standing multilateral military capability that can deter attacks or be deployed, should a significant security threat arise. Because NATO has a military capability in place, the core elements for mobilization, deployment, and sustainment of substantial multilateral military forces already exist.

In this regard, NATO needs to take several steps to ensure that allied nations sustain and fund the necessary military capabilities, in spite of their constrained economies. This would include enhancing sub-regional military structures and relationships that can pool resources to ensure the most effective military spending and also enhance overall defense cooperation.

NATO also needs to bring Asia-Pacific democracies such as Australia and New Zealand into a closer long-term military relationship. Furthermore, NATO should enhance its presence in Central and Eastern Europe as well as update its contingency plans and its logistics system for response to potential Russian aggression. Given Turkey’s proximity to the Syrian conflict and Russian military actions in the region, as well as general Western security interests, NATO also needs to prepare for any possible Middle East contingency. This would have to include developing an enhanced naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Over and above specific security missions, NATO should encourage the expansion of democracies and further develop its unique role as a coalition of democracies.

After playing a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has transformed itself into a multi-mission organization addressing 21st century security challenges, while adding new members, establishing global security relationships, and responding to Russian adventurism.

NATO has thus demonstrated in the post-Cold War era that it is an organization with the capacity to adapt and even to reinvent itself. At the same time, NATO nations have allowed significant military deficiencies to develop within NATO.  Going forward, the true test for NATO’s continuing relevance will be whether NATO member-states provide sufficient resources to deter or, if necessary, prevail against significant threats as well as to fulfill its other important missions.

Bruce Weinrod is an attorney and international business consultant. Appointed by President George W. Bush, Mr. Weinrod served from 2007 to 2009 as the Secretary of Defense Representative for Europe/Defense Advisor to the US Mission to NATO, where he was the senior Department of Defense official based in Europe. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Weinrod served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy from 1989 to 1993. In that capacity he helped formulate and implement US transatlantic political-military and security policies and the US/NATO relationship with the newly independent nations of Central and Easter Europe. He also coordinated allied involvement in the first Gulf War.