The Future of NATO: The Purpose of the Alliance after the Cold War

By Moon, Younghoon | Harvard International Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Future of NATO: The Purpose of the Alliance after the Cold War


Moon, Younghoon, Harvard International Review


The Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, likes to say that NATO is the "most successful alliance in history." Few would dispute his claim. During the Cold War, NATO served as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. By uniting the West, it deterred Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Following the collapse of communism, NATO extended membership to former communist countries. Today, no other military pact can rival NATO's political and military clout.

While these facts are beyond dispute, many critics have questioned the purpose of NATO in the post-Cold War era. The "future of NATO" is a topic that looms over all of its summits. Critics argue that NATO has a past to be proud of, but no future to look forward to. If the military alliance has no purpose, then there would seem to be no point in discussing issues like its organizational capacity.

Critics will rightly point out that NATO has not strictly been needed to resolve the conflicts in which it has recently intervened (such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya) and that NATO continues to suffer from a deficit of vision. In these cases, the United States could have taken unilateral action, or several key European states could have led the mission. When the heart of Western Europe was under direct threat, a transatlantic military alliance was exactly what was needed. In contrast, today NATO is often just one of many possible ways to tackle international security challenges.

No longer uniquely indispensable, the worth of NATO in the twenty-first century depends on whether the benefits it confers are great enough to justify its use over other comparable solutions. In a world where threats are many and options to neutralize those threats are diverse, NATO's relevance is a function of its organizational strength. NATO's recent mission in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, provides a starting point to considering this question.

Operation Unified Protector

As Libya became embroiled in a civil war, the United Nations Security Council established a no-fly zone on March 17, 2011 to protect civilians caught in the conflict. The United States, United Kingdom, and France were among the first to take the initiative, and once consensus formed regarding NATO's intervention, the Alliance took control of the operation. By the time Operation Unified Protector ended, Gaddafi was dead, and a transitional government claimed sovereignty over the devastated country.

As Operation Unified Protector unfolded, commentators began to tout NATO's mission in Libya as a model for the future: Europe would shoulder a larger burden, unlike in times past, when the United States assumed the lion's share of the work. The United States, which was already embroiled in two wars, played a supporting role. Praising the apparent collaboration between members of the alliance, President Obama remarked, "That's how our alliance must work in the twenty-first century."

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In terms of the objectives set at the beginning of the mission, NATO's operation was a success. The way in which the Alliance attained those objectives, however, belies the self-congratulatory tone struck by its supporters. Firstly, NATO was slow to respond in the early stages of the intervention, as member states disagreed over its role in Libya. Internal division became apparent early on: France initially opposed authorizing NATO to take command of the Libyan campaign, while Germany withdrew its support from the mission on pacifist grounds and Turkey also objected to the intervention.

Political obstacles aside, shortcomings in NATO's capabilities posed serious risks to the success of the mission. Where the mission ran smoothly, the indispensability of the United States became evident, and where the mission did not, the unpreparedness of other member states became conspicuous. In addition to providing precision-guided missiles and specialized aircraft, which were crucial for intercepting the Libyan army's communications, the Pentagon furnished. …

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