If one follows today’s geopolitical conversations, they are likely to notice that the current world order is being questioned by politicians and citizens across the world, most recently in the United States and the United Kingdom. Multilateral organizations and trade agreements are not functioning, with their costs over weighing their benefits.
One such organization, which has been persistently questioned, is NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO has been in existence since 1949 and it is an organization worth examining. In order to understand the importance of NATO, one must analyze its impact on European security, its adaptability to 21st century challenges and its significance to the U.S. In this essay, I explore how NATO enlargement contributed to security in Europe and how NATO has been restructured to meet 21st century challenges. In the end, I examine how the organization contributed to U.S. defense post 9/11 and even today.
While it seems tempting to dismiss NATO as obsolete, the organization’s structure is necessary to resolve rising challenges. NATO is able to create collaborative spaces for countries across Europe and beyond to discuss terrorism and cyber security. Without the cooperation of NATO the resolution of security challenges would be slower and less effective.
NATO History and Enlargement
In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in the midst of fears of Communist expansion. In 1948 the Soviet Union sponsored a coup in Czechoslovakia overthrowing its democratic government and replacing it with a communist one. The United States and Europe, fearing further destabilization in Europe, crafted a joint security agreement, which came to be known as NATO. This agreement was meant to protect European allies from Soviet invasion. The creation of NATO signaled an important shift of U.S. foreign policy because for the first time since the 1700s the U.S. tied its security to that of its European allies.
Today, NATO is a political and military alliance, consisting of 28 member states. Politically, NATO promotes democracy and encourages cooperation on security issues. Militarily, NATO manages crises that would pose a threat to the security of member states. Such crises can be humanitarian, political or military. Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty stipulates that an armed attack against one or more of the member states is an attack against them all. Member states agree that if such an attack occurs, they will assist each other to restore security.
The promise of collective defense has prompted many countries in Europe to seek NATO membership. The conditions placed for membership in NATO created a more peaceful Europe. The criteria for joining NATO spans across military and political dimensions. The membership action plans prepared for countries who want to join NATO are a process by which current members can review the progress of potential members in meeting the necessary conditions which encapsulate five areas: political economy, defense, resources, security; and legal issues. The political economic conditionality is that countries must have a democratic system of government, have good relations with their neighbors, show commitment to human rights and have a market economy. The defense section encourages countries to strengthen their military so they can contribute to collective defense and the resource section focuses on increased funding for defense. The security and legal sections require protection of sensitive information and bringing national legislation in line with the alliance.
The settlement of disputes with neighboring countries is a pivotal condition for joining NATO. Current member states do not want to inherit the territorial conflicts of new member states. These conflicts can turn into wars and can trigger Article 5, forcing member states to defend new members in conflicts that could have been prevented. Through its conditions for membership, NATO plays an integral role in mitigating potential disputes in Europe by encouraging countries to settle these disputes peacefully. In order to join NATO, for example, Hungary gave up territorial claims in Romania. NATO also encourages the strengthening of democratic institutions across Europe by placing an emphasis on stopping corruption and stopping maltreatment of minority groups. These contributions to the security of Europe must not be overlooked when debating the validity of NATO.
Adaptability to 21st Century Problems: Terrorism and Cyber Security
While NATO began as a defense mechanism against the Soviet Union, the organization has restructured itself to meet the challenges of the 21st century such as terrorism and cyber security.
In an effort to ease the transfer of information between Middle Eastern states and NATO, NATO established the Mediterranean Dialogue. The Mediterranean Dialogue members are Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. The annual Work Program of the dialogue includes seminars and workshops focused on border security, small arms and light weapons as well as consultations on terrorism. The annual program also includes an invitation to representatives of the Dialogue countries to observe NATO military exercises and attend courses at the NATO School in Germany and the NATO Defense College in Rome. The Mediterranean Dialogue is the main instrument available for these Middle Eastern countries to coordinate on shared security concerns.
Through the NATO Training Cooperation initiative, NATO also created a “NATO Regional Cooperation Course” which is a strategic course focused on security challenges faced in the Middle East. The course links issues of importance in the Middle East with the international community. The course is open to officers of the rank of Brigadier General, Colonel, and Lieutenant Colonel as well as civilian officials. It is geared toward Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Initiative member countries.
The Mediterranean Dialogue and the strategic courses focused on the Middle East show the flexibility and necessity of NATO. NATO has moved away from its original mandate to recognize the rising challenge of terrorism and it has created a space to deliberate best solutions for not only countries in Europe but also in the Middle East. Without NATO, the level of coordination on combatting terrorism across countries and continents would be difficult to realize.
After a Russian linked cyber attack on Estonia in 2007, NATO also implemented a cyber defense capability, which did not exist previously. Through cyber defense initiatives, NATO seeks to prevent the theft or damage of software, hardware or information from computers. In 2014, NATO members agreed that cyber defense is part of the core task of collective defense committed to by NATO. In 2016, member states added cyberspace as an operational domain for NATO, in addition to sea, air, and land. Through its cyber security initiative, in 2017 NATO will define targets for countries to implement their own national cyber defense capabilities. Through the Smart Defense Initiative, member states work together to develop cyber security capabilities that they could not afford to create or procure on their own.
Through its cyber security program, NATO protects its own systems but also helps member states develop their own protection. NATO officials recognized the importance of cyberspace in today’s world and developed innovative ways to integrate it into their defense mission. Again, without NATO the sharing of information and innovative ways to combat threats would be more costly and difficult. NATO is then necessary because it has the ability to unite countries across Europe and beyond to meet rising challenges. NATO is not outdated, as it has proven able to incorporate new global threats into its already established structure to find solutions.
NATO and the U.S. post 9/11
Another reason why NATO should not be dismissed as unnecessary is the defense the alliance provided to the United States after 9/11. Despite persistent criticism that NATO allies are free riders by America’s president elect, the only time the collective defense article of NATO was invoked was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
After an October 2nd, 2001 briefing, NATO’s political decision making body agreed that if an attack was directed from abroad against the U.S, it would violate Article 5. NATO agreed to eight measures to support the United States in its fight against terrorism. These measures included an increase of intelligence sharing between the member states and a provision of capabilities for countries that may be subject to terrorist threats. NATO countries also agreed to provide over flight clearance for U.S. flights related to anti- terrorism and to provide access to ports and airfields.
On the request of the U.S., NATO launched its first ever anti-terror operation, Eagle Assist from October 9, 2001 to May 16, 2002. Seven NATO aircraft patrolled U.S. skies in order to prevent any planned attacks by air.
On October 26th, 2001, the Alliance launched Active Endeavor from Naples, Italy. Under this mission, naval forces were sent to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean and monitor shipping to detect terrorist activity, including illegal trafficking. Active Endeavor also offers escorts to ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco. In 2004, the operation was extended to monitor the whole Mediterranean Sea and to analyze regional shipping patterns in order to target suspicious activity. This NATO operation has both enhanced security and commerce in the Mediterranean region. After 9/11, NATO contributed to the defense of the United States and continued to support America in the fight against terrorism.
NATO and U.S. Today
NATO continues to support the U.S. by facilitating military operations through logistical support. For instance, in 1991 NATO supplies and bases were used by the U.S. led coalition to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Today, the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is used against ISIS in an operation not conducted by NATO. Without NATO, the U.S. military would need to craft separate bilateral and multilateral agreements in order to facilitate the use of bases and equipment from its European allies. Such agreements might even need legislative approval so U.S. military operations would be slowed down.
Since the United States’ political and military agendas may not be acceptable to some countries, NATO also exists as a channel through which to sidestep potential bilateral tensions. In 2003, the United States proposed sharp cuts to U.S. forces in Germany after persistent German opposition to the Iraq War. Although Germany did not deny access to American bases during the war, the German government announced that it would not recognize the validity of a war against Iraq without United Nations approval. At the time the Pentagon said that the withdrawal of troops had nothing to do with German opposition to the war. Yet, American officials showed a preference for stationing troops in places that approved of the unilateral invasion of Iraq. The multilateral nature of NATO operations decreases this type of tension. European allies are much more likely to approve military operations that are multilateral, and therefore such diplomatic tensions as the ones, which arose after the invasion of Iraq, can be avoided.
While it seems tempting to dismiss multilateral organizations, NATO is an organization worth maintaining because of its adaptability and practicality. NATO managed to reimagine itself from an organization designed to promote democracy to one which combats terrorism and cyber warfare. Additionally, NATO facilitates the sharing of information across borders and access to bases and equipment around the world.
Moving forward, we must recognize that defense spending is a valid concern about NATO, but also acknowledge that the same levels of spending cannot be duplicated across countries. While the cost sharing within NATO can be renegotiated, there are also alternative methods to ensure that defense spending is maintained without burdening member nations. Recognizing their own tightening budgets, NATO countries have figured out innovative ways to share the costs of defense spending. The Nordic Defense Cooperation is one organization, made up of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. The organization works on cost sharing and developing joint solutions. Defense cooperation agreements between countries not only save money but are also a space for more information sharing and potential innovation.
Whether through cooperation agreements or re-negotiating contributions, NATO allies must move forward to create an organization that is equally valuable to all members. Throughout this process, however, leaders in Europe and the United States must reflect on the importance of NATO to the security of Europe, the United States and even the Middle East. Only after such reflection will the world understand the importance of multilateral agreements such as NATO.