Chris White: NATO’s continued relevance

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 22, 2022

By Chris White 


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has received renewed attention since Russia began its brutal, unprovoked and ill-advised invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Founded in 1949, NATO’s original purpose, according to its first Secretary General Lord Hastings Ismay, was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Although the German threat is no longer relevant and the Cold War ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, over seven decades after its creation we are witnessing the continued relevance of the NATO alliance as it confronts myriad global challenges, most importantly blatant aggression from Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. Despite the predictions of some international relations scholars of NATO’s imminent demise, it appears that the alliance will endure for some time to come.

NATO reached 30 member states when North Macedonia joined in 2020 and may soon expand to 32 if Finland and Sweden’s applications for membership go through as expected. These two Nordic countries have held tightly to their neutrality for decades, which they believe has been in their national security interest, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the calculation and led them to pursue NATO membership. Both nations already participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. They have years of experience working with NATO members and would be significant contributors from the outset.

Over a billion people currently live in NATO member countries, which in total represent two-thirds of global defense expenditures. Russia’s invasion has taken on particular importance for members that border Ukraine — Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia — and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which share a border with Russia. As you might expect, promoting coordination and cooperation in an alliance with such a diverse membership is an enormous effort. For instance, the US now has a population of over 330 million people and is by far the largest NATO member, while Iceland, the smallest, has only about 350,000, which means it has fewer people than Raleigh.

NATO is an intergovernmental political-military alliance, where there is no overarching central authority for resolving disputes. Although it has a Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg from Norway since 2014, he does not have direct authority over national leaders and instead serves as NATO’s principal spokesperson and facilitates consultation and decision-making across the alliance. Each member country is supposed to meet a benchmark of spending two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. While most have not yet met this goal, many have committed to do so, and budgets have increased over the past few years.

The alliance has two strategic commands that reflect its transatlantic formation. Allied Command Operations (ACO) is in Europe and is responsible for the planning and execution of all NATO military operations. The other, which is not too far from Salisbury, is Allied Command Transformation (ACT), headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia and known as NATO’s warfare development command. Indeed, most Americans are unaware that NATO has a presence in the US.

During my doctoral studies at Old Dominion University, I worked on a strategic initiative in 2008-2009 at ACT called the Multiple Futures Project, which was the brainchild of General James Mattis, the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation at the time. He would later serve as President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense. The project was designed to encourage strategic dialogue, inform defense planning, and investigate future challenges to the alliance. It was outstanding to see people from so many different countries working together with a shared vision and purpose.

NATO’s relevance has been questioned frequently in the post-Cold War period, but new challenges ranging from global terrorism to the rise of authoritarian regimes, have demonstrated the continued significance and value of the alliance. The US was instrumental in founding the United Nations in 1945 following the devastation of World War II, when over sixty million people died, and then NATO several years later. These international institutions have been essential components of advancing American foreign policy goals despite their obvious imperfections. For example, the one and only time Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty has been invoked was in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US, which is the alliance’s core principle of collective defense and means that an attack against one NATO member is considered as an attack against all members. The invocation of Article 5 after 9/11 eventually led to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has benefited immensely from its involvement in NATO, and political leaders from both sides of the ideological spectrum have recognized the crucial role it continues to play with respect to national security. As General Mattis said, “Throughout history, we see nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither.”

Chris White is an associate professor of political science at Livingstone College.