As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) heads into its summit in Warsaw, Poland, next week, questions continue to arise about the role of NATO in today’s threat environment. Everyone from Secretaries of Defense to Donald Trump have criticized NATO in the past few years, much of which has been focused about roles, cost-sharing, and purpose.
First, why was NATO founded, and what was its original purpose? According to NATO’s website, NATO originally existed for three primary reasons:
– Deterring Soviet expansionism
– Forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent
– Encouraging European political integration
NATO originally had only twelve members, but today it has expanded to include twenty-nine. At the time of the original signing, Europe was in both political and economic shambles after World War II and the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on its newly controlled satellites while stirring up conflict elsewhere. Three articles of the NATO charter (out of fourteen) were especially relevant:
– Article 5 allowed for a collective defense in case of an attack against alliance members (although Article 6 limited the scope of how an attack against an alliance member was defined)
– Article 2 allowed for cooperation on non-military projects
– Article 3 set the groundwork for military cooperation and required minimum levels of member military funding (set at 2% of gross domestic product)
In the entirety of NATO’s history, Article 5 has only been invoked once – in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, leading to the eventual NATO takeover of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. However, NATO has been involved in military operations throughout the world, including patrols against Somali pirates, intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, and refugee operations in the Aegean Sea.
Criticism of NATO
Criticism of NATO typically centers around two core arguments:
– NATO is no longer relevant since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the European Union (EU), particularly as it relates to America’s security
– NATO partners are not shouldering their part of the burden
The first criticism recognizes the fact that the world is a fundamentally different place than the world into which NATO was born. No longer is there a defined, fixed enemy that threatens to roll over or nuke Europe, per se (more on modern Russia later). Now we live in a world of asymmetric threats: terrorism (not just state-sponsored, but international fundamentalist organizations and homegrown extremists), cybercriminals, and many more. The European Union is now the primary vehicle for non-military cooperation amongst European nations, despite its occasional fragility.
Europe has rebounded in economy, infrastructure, and unity, yet the United States still insists on being NATO’s leading member. NATO has also expanded to include states that are significantly less capable of defending themselves than the older members, and by doing so has essentially bound itself to being the “big brother” looking out for the little guys (http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-skeptics/it-time-america-quit-nato-15615). NATO’s unnecessary expansion, critics argue, actually causes greater harm in terms of damaged diplomatic relations than it reaps in the benefits of additional allies.
The second criticism has been leveled at NATO members by a wide-ranging group that includes Donald Trump and Secretaries of Defense Gates, Panetta, and Hagel. It’s not all political grandstanding – historically, of the twenty-nine countries in NATO, very few actually rise to the levels of funding required by Article 3. In fact, only five members actually made the 2% mark in 2015. The United States accounted for over 72% of the NATO defense expenditures last year. Critics question why the United States is willing to spend so much on NATO when the members most directly threatened aren’t. Recent world economic downturns have further reduced already low military spending.
Arguments for NATO
While proponents of a continued NATO will rarely argue with the need for members to contribute more to their own security, they take issue with the idea that NATO is outdated and irrelevant. First, not all NATO members are members of the EU. Norway, Albania, Iceland, and Turkey (and maybe soon the United Kingdom) are all NATO members that are not included in the EU framework. Therefore, NATO still provides an avenue for economic and military cooperation between the United States, the EU NATO members, and the non-EU NATO members. Second, while the USSR is gone, Vladimir Putin’s Russia behaves an awful lot like Putin misses his KGB days. Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine scare many of the USSR’s former satellite countries, and their actions in Syria and provocative air and sea intercepts and probing of NATO member countries’ patrols and territory are disconcerting to say the least. While critics rightly point out the dangers of accepting more and more countries under the Article 5 umbrella, they miss the training opportunity that this threat provides. New NATO members are frequently more willing to train and procure interoperably than older NATO members with an established, modern military and procurement chain.
Is NATO outdated as a purely military force? Quite possibly, but it’s worth as a relationship-building tool remains. Poland recently agreed to deploy special operations trainers and surveillance aircraft in support of the fight against Daesh. The talks that led up to that agreement came during NATO discussions (http://www.dodbuzz.com/2016/06/22/kiwis-and-poles-bolster-non-combat-roles-against-isis-in-iraq/). Membership in NATO creates something of a quid pro quo situation, especially for newer, smaller members. The alliance agrees to protect the member, but in return there is an expectation that the member will provide resources to NATO missions, and new members are far more eager to meet that expectation than older ones, as they receive more perceived benefits.
As stresses on the EU grow, NATO may very well remain the more constant and stable of the two organizations, as well as the only one in which the United States has any official say. The EU has no military component and member states
have resisted the idea of creating one, as they prefer the cooperative model of NATO to the idea of a centrally managed European Army. The United States could still manage its many European alliances individually, but losing the NATO framework would certainly make it more complicated.
While there are solid arguments to be made both for and against NATO in its current state, realistically there is very little chance of NATO dissolution. However, the world of 2016 is very different from the world of 1949, and NATO must remain open to evolution to confront the threats of today while preparing for the threats of tomorrow.
About the author
Joel is a 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.