Since its inception in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been a staple example of international cooperation and organisation. As a military alliance formed by Western European and North American states aligned against the USSR during the Cold War, NATO has demonstrated how it has been a force for stability in the world. However, with the changing nature of warfare and new threats to domestic and global security that are emerging, is NATO outdated?
NATO demonstrated its ability to be a force for stability in the world by providing a counter weight for the military and economic capabilities of the Soviet Union, later Russia. NATO’s continued presence in the international system deterred military conflict between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War and continues to provide discouragement to contemporary Russian aggression. However, given the current military aggression exhibited by states such as Russia does not conform to the traditional notion of military aggression, can NATO still serve as a vessel of stability?
Vladimir Putin, in search of domestic political support, has turned to military aggression abroad, as seen in the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russian intervention in Syria, contributing to Russia remaining an ongoing military threat to European and global stability. Such blatant violations of international law show how NATO remains a necessary player in the international system. This demand for action has been met by NATO as it has increased its military support of Eastern European states through extensive military supply to the Baltics and Balkans, as well as an increased security presence in Crimea in order to prevent further Russian escalation of conflict and an expansion of membership to include vulnerable states, in order to reduce Russia's capacity to expand.
Such a strategy started in 1999 and 2004 when NATO incorporated Central and Eastern European states to push back against the Russian sphere of influence. This was compounded at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, where NATO pledged to increase its military presence along borders with Russia and commit additional funds for ‘defences against Russian revanchism and coercive diplomacy’ being provided under the European Reassurance Initiative. Therefore, with regards to the ever-present threat posed by Russia over the past seventy years, one sees how NATO not only remains an important player in the international system, but a necessary one in rebuffing Russian aggression and expansionism.
NATO has also maintained its status as an effective organisation of stability and peace through its continued initiatives and partnerships such as its ‘Individual Partnership Action Plan, the ‘Mediterranean Dialogue’ and ‘Global Partners’. These partnerships serve to counteract the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and institutions created by China, with Russia’s support, with the goal of stifling NATO’s capacity to develop global military hegemony.
Furthermore, NATO's evolution in international conflict has allowed it to retain its position as an important international actor. This was demonstrated most effectively by its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which utilized soldiers from NATO allies to execute missions aimed at regaining regional control and peace, bringing about regional - and by extension global - stability. It is clear to see that NATO has developed as a global alliance and, through expanding its membership to a vast array of member states and through military missions outside of the North Atlantic, allowing it to remain necessary for the current world order.
However, NATO's missions have been said to have been lacking in international legitimacy, thereby undermining the process of entering into military conflict and setting a precedent of unwarranted military action, destabilising the integrity of state sovereignty. This can be seen across NATO’s history of international interventions. Its involvement in the Balkans wars has been argued to be lacking in international legitimacy, their mission in Iraq was led without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, as well as their intervention in Libya being similarly illegitimate. As such, NATO’s actions over the past two decades have been littered with military intervention that are lacking in international legitimacy, undermining and destabilizing the military authority of global institutions.
Further, the efficacy of their interventions has been questioned, particularly in their intervention in the Balkans, as the inefficacy of NATO missions ‘permitted ethnic cleanings to continue’ as they were unresponsive and disproportionate, particularly in Yugoslavia. As a result, there have been calls for NATO to disband and either reform as a new organisation with a clearer mandate, or revise its current mission to give it a more appropriate and effective mandate for the modern international system.
Overall, NATO has demonstrated it can revise its aims and practices to best serve the international community. After 9/11, NATO switched its approach from security to a broader, more comprehensive attempt and creating stability where conflict exists. This was noted by Julian Lindley-French who saw how NATO, as it has developed, had identified eight core aims that it wished to tackle. One of the most salient of these is to adapt and counter ‘mutating terror threat’ that the world faces and sustain international stability. NATO has also developed alongside the contemporary security threats and cooperated with other supranational institutions, such as the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), thereby enhancing the ability of the transatlantic community to fight international-terrorism-and spread military and economic stability in the world.
NATO has maintained its ability to act as a force for stability in the face of evolving threats and new means of international aggression. Through NATO’s ability to counteract the aggression and military endeavours of the Soviet Union/Russia and its ability to deal with modern security threats whilst simultaneously cooperating with other supranational organisations, NATO remains an important and necessary organisation for international security and peace.
Author: Nathan Irwin
Nathan is a Politics and International Relations student at the University of Durham