The Relevance of NATO in the Modern World

By Neil Misra

At the height of the Cold War, the threat of Soviet invasion lurked constantly in the minds of Western Europeans. Their fears were not unfounded: a majority of the land that lay to the east of the “Iron Curtain” had become subjected to the direct influence of the Kremlin. The Kremlin’s coercive arm, the Red Army, stood at the ready along multiple European borders. It was in this context that the governments of the Western world sought to pool their collective military forces in order to better withstand any potential Soviet aggression. Thus, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (or NATO) was born.

Signed in 1949, the Washington Treaty officially formed the NATO alliance. Photo from official NATO website.

Signed in 1949, the Washington Treaty officially formed the NATO alliance. Photo from official NATO website.

Unified in their solidarity against the communist menace, the member states of NATO shared common purpose. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, however, deprived them of this common purpose: no longer was there an imminent, existential threat to the capitalist countries of Western Europe. Many would argue that NATO, with its original rationale for existence made inapplicable years ago, is irrelevant in the modern era. Yet this could not be further from the truth. NATO is still a highly relevant organization within the framework of contemporary international affairs due to the active role it plays in collective security, humanitarian intervention, and international politics, and therefore will become all the more prominent in the future.

In the post-Cold War era, NATO is becoming increasingly indispensable to its member states as the West transitions from a security landscape defined by a single, dominant threat, to one defined by a diverse range of credible threats. As previously explained, NATO was originally established to respond to the possibility of a Soviet offensive against Western Europe. Its sole objective was to protect the borders of its constituent states from unwelcome intrusion by the Eastern bloc. In these circumstances, few additional issues were of particular concern to NATO. This alliance against a mutual Soviet nemesis would persist throughout the duration of the Cold War, right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, once the U.S.S.R. withered away into the pages of global history, NATO suffered from what some characterize as an “identity crisis,” (Friedan, Lake, and Schultz 187). Stripped of its source of strategic unity, NATO had no inherent reason to exist.

However, the reality of security threats imperiling the people of the West did not spontaneously vanish after 1991: a variety of new threats are emerging in today’s rapidly globalizing world. Examples include, but are not limited to, transnational terrorism, cyber terrorism, piracy on the high seas, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (Robertson 11). Altogether, these threats represent a legitimate danger, both directly and indirectly, to a vast majority of the NATO member states.

As such, the member states now share a joint interest in defending themselves against these new common threats. They have acknowledged that the issues confronting them in the post-Cold War era are no longer confined to the boundaries of the European continent, but rather extend across the globe. Daalder and Goldgeier vividly illustrate the point of “globalized threats” with their conceivable scenario of “terrorists born in Riyadh and trained in Kandahar hatch[ing] deadly plots in Hamburg to fly airplanes into buildings in New York,” (105). In order to adequately address these global threats, cooperation at an international level is absolutely essential. For this reason, NATO has successfully made the transition from a wholly North Atlantic defensive alliance to a collective security organization with a scope reaching far beyond the immediate North Atlantic region (Friedan, Lake, and Schultz 187). It is no longer bonded by the singular security threat posed by the Soviet Union to Europe, but by the ideal of coordinated resistance against the innumerable security threats prevailing in the world today. In this way, NATO has been able to forge a new, definitive identity for itself after the conclusion of the Cold War.

NATO’s ability to effectively and efficiently mount responses to a range of different modern security threats are a substantial part of the reason why it is still highly relevant as a military alliance. Multiple examples exist of NATO successfully deploying its immense resources in order to protect its mutual interests. Paramount among them is NATO’s reaction to the September 11th attacks, in which it invoked Article V (an attack against one is an attack against all) of its charter (Gordon 36). Following this invocation, NATO dispatched a sizeable naval contingency to the Mediterranean for the purpose of curbing oceanic terrorist activities (Robertson). It further contributed to anti-terror efforts by inheriting partial command over the American mission in Afghanistan. In this endeavor, it has aided substantially in the stabilization of Kabul (Friedan, Lake, and Schultz 187). Moreover, NATO has maintained a considerable presence in the Gulf of Aden with the intent of inhibiting Somalian piracy (Robertson). Troops have been deployed in Somalia to assist the African Union with its various other combat missions (Robertson). These and other actions demonstrate the critical role that NATO continues to play in the field of collective security, even after the Cold War.

In addition to negotiating the pressing security threats of today, NATO is enormously active in carrying out many humanitarian ventures. The same massive resources that permit NATO to engage said security threats also grant it the capability to intervene in humanitarian crises around the world. On more than one occasion, NATO has been the first to take up arms after a United Nations mandate had been administered condemning human rights violations in a specific country or region (e.g. in Libya) (Robertson). In this capacity, it has periodically acted as the coercive arm of the United Nations. NATO’s record for other humanitarian and peacekeeping undertakings is unparalleled: from halting a potential genocide in Kosovo, to providing provisions to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, NATO is frequently at the frontlines of many catastrophes (Daalder and Goldgeier). NATO’s ability to bring about meaningful change in human disaster situations offers further credence to the fact that it is still relevant within the context of the modern world.   

While NATO plays important roles in the areas of collective security and humanitarian efforts, the primary justification for its continued global significance is its centrality in international politics. Currently, its principle objective is to forge a community of nations with common values, specifically nations that cherish liberal, democratic government, the protection of human rights, etc. (Sjursen 687). NATO no longer exists solely for defending borders; it also exists for defending values. This mission, too, extends beyond the realm of Western Europe and North America, which explains NATO’s exponential expansion in recent years. Particular emphasis for expansion has been placed on the regions of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where efforts of growing the “community of common values” have been the most visible.

In the case of Eastern Europe, incorporation into the NATO community has been generally beneficial. The countries that formerly participated in the Warsaw Pact had been left in poor shape after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. NATO, however, became a pioneer in integrating the former Warsaw Pact countries into the fabric of modern Europe. Integration was implemented through “Individual Partnership Action Plans,” which set forth standards that had to be met for a country to be admitted into NATO (Robertson). Some scholars argue the standards stipulated in these action plans gave several Eastern European countries sufficient incentive to improve the conditions within their territory. By forcing aspiring non-member states to adhere to its high standards, NATO essentially facilitated the modernization of much of Eastern Europe.  

Similar techniques have been applied in attempts to modernize the Balkans. Conflict had perpetually plagued that region of Europe following the disintegration of the Republic of Yugoslavia. So dire was the situation in the Balkans that NATO was compelled to intervene twice there in its history (during the Bosnian War and the crisis in Kosovo) (Hunter 199-200). After hostilities declined and conditions were somewhat stabilized, NATO put into place the same standards for admission as it did in Eastern Europe. Here, too, NATO has acted as a recognizable modernizing force.

In both the Balkans and Eastern Europe, NATO is striving to rehabilitate and integrate formerly oppressed or embattled states into the “community of common values.” Through its policy of openness and reconciliation, NATO has catalyzed the transition to a modern, democratic state for many of the nations in both of these regions. The successful completion of this transition permits these infant states to interact peacefully and productively with the other countries of Western Europe in the post-Cold War era. As it proceeds with this process of European consolidation, NATO once again demonstrates its prominent role in a Soviet-free political landscape.

Another expression of NATO’s pursuit of a “community of common values” is its recent attempts at cultivating increased communication with non-member democratic countries. NATO has been skillfully formulating its own sub-dialogue outside of the United Nations, consisting exclusively of democratic governments that share similar values to NATO (Sloan 220). Scholars explain that programs such as “Partnerships for Peace” and “Contact Nations,” have been established to formally institutionalize, and thus legitimize, these more informal political relations. With these two measures in place, NATO may discuss important issues with the broader democratic world and confirm its position as an influential actor in international affairs.

Given the already prominent role NATO plays on the world stage today, the prospects for its future are quite promising. Expansion in NATO membership shows few signs in declining, as the provisions put in place to enable admission into the organization have garnered much interest. Security threats and humanitarian crises are a mere fact of modern existence (no one can possibly guarantee that there will no longer be abusive authoritarian regimes or natural disasters), and, as such, are highly unlikely to go away anytime in the near future. Thus, with its main objectives far from satisfied, NATO is primed to gain in significance over time.

Several people would reject the notion that NATO is still relevant today and will inevitably become more important in the future. Individuals that assert NATO lacks any meaningful purpose after the fall of the Soviet Union may point to the Iraq War as evidence of an impending dissolution. Central to this argument is the apparent disunity and disagreement that consumed NATO preceding the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Frieden, Lake, and Schultz 187). However, the internal disagreement over Iraq must be regarded as an exception to the rule. In an overwhelming majority amongst its other endeavors (e.g. Afghanistan, Somalia, expansion), there is relative harmony to be found between the member states. In fact, even on an issue as divisive as Iraq, all the member nations were able to unanimously agree upon the resolution to deploy NATO military advisors to train the native Iraqi Army (Daalder and Goldgeier).

Another common contention made against NATO’s continued existence is that NATO does not hold the same level of relevance as it used to during the Cold War. This is actually a valid argument. The war in Afghanistan pales in significance to the possibility of the outbreak of World War III (during the height of the Cold War). However, that is not to say that NATO has no relevance whatsoever in the modern era: its new goals, outlined above, are adapted to the new challenges of today and give it a reason to endure past its original expiration date. To conclude otherwise would be illogical.

Through analyzing the evolution of NATO as an international institution in the last two decades, one can definitively conclude whether or not NATO has any substantial relevance in the modern world. There is a strong tendency within the general public to think of NATO as a vestigial remnant of Cold War era tensions. Once it was deprived of its original source of unity (i.e. countering the military threat posed by the U.S.S.R.), it had no apparent reason to continue on as an organization. However, instead of just quietly disbanding, NATO seized this opportunity to redefine itself and its objectives. As the West rapidly transitioned from a security environment with one major threat (the Eastern bloc) to a diverse range of potential threats (e.g. terrorism, piracy, proliferation of weapons, etc.), NATO adapted itself in order to counter these new challenges presented by an increasingly globalized planet (while simultaneously maintaining its original doctrine of mutual defense). Evidence of NATO’s commitment to collective security can be seen in its activities in Afghanistan, the Gulf of Aden, and beyond. NATO has also vested its vast resources towards the causes of humanitarian intervention and relief. Its ability to create a tangible difference in crisis situations with its extensive military infrastructure sets it apart from many other humanitarian groups. Finally, NATO’s influence on the international political stage is undeniable, as it seeks to develop a “community of common values” (i.e. countries that cherish democracy and human rights). One manifestation of this pursuit of a “community of common values” is the modernization and integration of former Warsaw Pact and Balkan countries into the political fabric of NATO. Another manifestation of this pursuit is the increased dialogue between NATO member states and democratic non-member states. The nearly guaranteed prospects of humanitarian crises and security threats in the future, in addition to the ongoing goal of expansion, indicate that there is a strong chance that NATO will only increase in importance from this point in time. Thus, it is nearly unquestionable that, while NATO does not fulfill the same function as it used to, it is still a highly relevant organization today due to the role it plays in collective security, humanitarian intervention, and international politics, and stands to escalate in prominence over time.

Neil Misra is a student at George Washington University, majoring in International Relations and Affairs.