Nato Comes Full Circle

Over more than 75 years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) has continued to reinvent itself in response to a world in transformation. Nato was redefined in the post-Cold War period, expanding its membership to include former Soviet-bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Nato also transitioned from a purely defensive alliance into one capable of offensive military intervention. Within Europe, it dealt with the consequences of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Beyond Europe, it sent forces to Afghanistan and Iraq, while also launching an air campaign against Libya. Today Nato is refocusing its attention back to Europe to confront an assertive Russia, which flexed its muscles by annexing the Crimea in 2014 and by intervening in Syria in 2015. Nato continues to push eastward, with both Ukraine and Georgia seeking to join its ranks, while at the same time it looks to expand its reach to the Pacific. In many ways, Nato is returning to its original mission but in a different form — no longer as purely a trans-Atlantic alliance.

Nato’s first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, is famously quoted in 1954 as saying that the purpose of the trans-Atlantic alliance at its founding was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The “keep the Russians out” represented the fear of Soviet expansion into Western Europe, either through direct force or political manipulation. “Keep the Americans in” reflected the reality that while many Western European nations wanted a postwar European security alliance, this was not possible without US involvement. Finally, “keep the Germans down” underscored the fact that even in defeat most of Europe recognized that Germany had the potential to again become Europe’s most powerful nation, both militarily and economically. By linking West Germany to Nato, the hope was that it would embrace a rules-based international order, damping any resurgence of German nationalism.

While this line of thinking captured Nato’s essence at its inception and throughout the Cold War period, the unification of Germany in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, meant that Nato needed to redefine itself in order to remain a viable institution in the post-Cold War era. In the immediate aftermath of the unification of Germany, in January 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker told Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that German unification came with a guarantee that there would be “no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction for forces of Nato one inch to the east.” The very next month, this sentiment was echoed by German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. “We are aware,” Genscher said, “that Nato membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: Nato will not expand to the east.”

These pledges, however, turned out to be empty after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nato, like the rest of Europe, was compelled to deal with the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the outbreak of major fighting in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Despite Russia’s opposition to Nato acting in an offensive capacity, the alliance, at the behest of the US, carried out air attacks and deployed ground forces in military operations targeting pro-Russian Serbian forces. This Russian opposition, combined with ongoing Russian military operations in Chechnya dating back to 1994, helped create the impression of a resurgent Russia that might pose a threat to nations once under the USSR’s sway. Despite the assurances given to Soviet authorities not to expand Nato eastward, in 1999 the trans-Atlantic organization welcomed three new members — Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — all former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. In the years that followed, several more former east-bloc nations, including the three former Soviet Baltic republics, joined Nato.

Beyond further alienating Russia, the eastward expansion of the alliance brought a fundamental change in how Nato viewed itself — and how others viewed it. This is perhaps best illustrated in statements by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in early 2003. Regarding European qualms about joining the US in a war against Iraq. “You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France,” Rumsfeld noted. “I don’t. I think that’s old Europe. If you look at the entire Nato Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east and there are a lot of new members.”

While the US saw the expansion of Nato as a way of increasing leverage over an old alliance, Moscow viewed it as a dangerous empowerment of a bloc openly hostile to Russia. However one interprets the impact of the eastward expansion of Nato, the fact is the alliance undertook a radical transformation away from a European-centric alliance to one which deployed forces to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, to Iraq as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition, and conducted air attacks on Libya in support of rebel opposed to Muammar Ghaddafi. Nato has also expanded its political and military outreach to North Africa and the Middle East during this time.

Likewise, Nato’s posture toward Russia has become increasingly antagonistic, a stance that predates the 2014 Ukraine crisis. While Nato’s eastward expansion did not prompt the world events that the alliance responded to, there can be no doubt that Nato’s willingness to engage in military operations outside the traditional European theater of operations reflects US influence on new members to support such an expansive role. Likewise, while Nato-Russian relations have been strained since the early 1990s, current tensions are exacerbated by the Russophobia of the newest members.

Deja Vu All Over Again

In many ways, the modern mission posture of Nato is a continuation of Lord Ismay’s 1954 observation. By acceding to US demands that it expand the scope and scale of its reach to include regions beyond Europe, Nato is fulfilling the role of “keeping America in.” Likewise, by expanding its membership in a way that creates an influential pro-American “new European” bloc, Nato is “keeping Germany down.” And finally, by viewing Russia as the modern-day incarnation of the former Soviet Union, Nato is “keeping the Russian’s out.” Like the baseball player Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

But the world is also a very different place than in 1955. The rules-based international order that organizations such as Nato were created to support has less of a following, especially in both Russia and China. The assumption of US economic supremacy is no longer valid, nor is the assurance of US military superiority. A recent Nato meeting of defense ministers underscored the fragility of the current US position by agreeing to help underwrite the cost of deploying US forces to Poland and the Baltics, and by expressing its willingness to help the US out in the Pacific. These Nato moves underscore the reality that the US can no longer afford to project its power everywhere at once.

In order to keep Nato viable, the trans-Atlantic alliance will have to continue to help prop up the global policies of the US. If not, there is the possibility of the US reassessing the value of a European alliance while confronting ongoing threats in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as Chinese economic and military muscle flexing in the Pacific. While configured as a military alliance, Nato’s foray into global geopolitics will require the organization to become engaged both diplomatically and economically. From an energy perspective, this will require the alliance to look beyond regional issues such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and start considering energy security matters in other regions, as well as the geopolitical ramifications of climate change and development of renewable energy.

While some Nato members, exemplified by French President Emmanuel Macron, would like the alliance to acquire “new political momentum,” which can be achieved through a “clarification of its strategic concept,” it is not certain that the alliance can sustain a non-European mission focus economically or politically. The costs associated with confronting Russia in Eastern Europe are enormous, and there is a legitimate question whether many of Nato’s members have the will or wherewithal to pay them. By expanding Nato’s mission in Iraq, by extending its mission in Afghanistan, and by actively considering a Pacific role for the alliance, Nato’s resources will be even further stressed. Nato is undergoing a period of massive transition that will challenge it as an institution. Whether it is up to these challenges is not at all clear.

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