NATO'S Future: Facing Old Divisions and New Threats

By Goldgeier, James | Harvard International Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

NATO'S Future: Facing Old Divisions and New Threats

Goldgeier, James, Harvard International Review

NATO has much to celebrate in the year of its 60th anniversary. In the twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, NATO has incorporated much of Central and Eastern Europe into its membership. It responded to the threat that emerged on September 11, 2001 and sent troops far from home to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda and to help reconstruct a war-torn country. And the French decision to rejoin NATO's integrated military command after a four decade absence will enable deeper cooperation both across the Atlantic and within Europe. But while NATO has gone far in adapting to the world after the earth-shattering events of 11/9 and 9/11, it continues to confront the existential question it has faced since the end of the Cold War: is an alliance of transatlantic democracies built to counter a possible Soviet attack the best instrument for combating the threats of the 21st century?


NATO members have launched a process to articulate a new strategic concept in the coming year that will define their purpose going forward. In doing so, they must respond to at least three critical challenges. First, the alliance has only a handful of members willing and able to engage in military operations in places such as Afghanistan, and cajoling by the Secretary-General and others about the need for the rest to do more has had little impact. Second, its relations with Russia remain rocky even as a new US administration has promised to push the "reset button" with the Kremlin. Finally, some NATO members have understood the alliance must develop closer ties to non-European democracies in a globalizing world, but the majority of members fear a dilution of the alliance's transatlantic character if NATO "goes global."

NATO After 11/9

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, there seemed little reason to expect NATO to remain in business. After all, history suggests that alliances form against threats; when those threats disappear, so do the alliances. The United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union formed the Grand Alliance to defeat Nazi Germany. That alliance did not long survive the end of World War II. But while NATO was formed primarily to defend against a Soviet attack, that was not its only rationale. NATO Secretary-General Lord Ismay famously declared that NATO was necessary not just to keep the Russians out, but to keep the Americans in and the Germans down. It thus always had a stabilizing mission in Western Europe: as long as the United States stayed engaged on the continent and helped ensure that no military rivalries emerged in the West as they had before World War II, countries could be assured of security and stability.

With the collapse of communism, NATO's main role soon became to reach out to the former Warsaw Pact nations to extend that zone of security and stability. George H.W Bush declared in May 1989 that the United States' goal was to help foster a Europe "Whole and Free," and his administration-as did the administrations that followed-saw NATO as central to that task. First by establishing partnerships with Central and Eastern European militaries, and later by holding out the prospect for membership in the alliance, NATO became essential to fostering political, economic, and military reform.

In Bill Clinton's first term, two other policies emerged as part of the United States' NATO policy. In 1995, NATO used air power to bring the Serbs to the negotiating table; the Dayton accords signed in November of that year put an end to Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II. NATO also reached out to Russia-including it in the Partnership for Peace, bringing the West's former adversary into the Implementation Force that kept the peace in the Balkans, and creating the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.

Ultimately, NATO's actions in the Balkans (which culminated in the 1999 war against Serbia to defend Kosovo) and its enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe hindered the effort to reach out to Russia. …

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