This year NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary and a summit in London on Dec. 3-4 marked a sort of celebration at which crucial issues were addressed. Over time, the trans-Atlantic alliance developed by coping with occurring changes in the international system and countering related threats, and today it is still the largest multinational military and defense organization in the world. Established in 1949 as a defensive instrument, it was structured around anti-Soviet aims in 1952 to contain threats coming from the Warsaw Pact and the communist bloc.
Thus, with the collapse of the iron curtain after 1989, many scholars predicted that NATO would disintegrate, but instead, it became an even more relevant political actor. Indeed, there was the need for NATO to transform itself by adapting its tasks to new international conjunctures, by modifying its structures and eventually opening up to new members.
The crisis in the Balkans that nobody was able to forecast was the first stage to show the utility of NATO, as the situation required direct intervention. In January 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched to include former Warsaw Pact members and the new republics born from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This was the beginning of a new momentum along the so-called engagement and enlargement strategy of NATO.
At that time, there were no direct threats, hence enlargement had simple political connotations – to attract some Central and Eastern European countries and to mark the importance of full integration of Europe and of democracy as the only political regime providing peace and stability. Enlargement continued in the following years and some appeasement messages were sent to Moscow like the mutual cooperation signed in 1997. It was only with the 9/11 attacks that the world realized threats might have an asymmetrical nature. With these terrorist attacks, NATO experienced another historic moment. For the first time ever, the Atlantic Council declared that the casus foederis had been triggered.
Despite Article 5 having been invoked, the United States adopted a new narrative and launched a military operation in Afghanistan pivoting on a so-called "coalition of the willing" rather than on the efficiency of a permanent alliance. Hence, some tension arose among the American hegemonic leader and its European partners, which escalated with the subsequent war in Iraq. According to Washington, in Iraq, the alliance would have been involved not to operate but to play an advisory and legitimizing role for the coalition led by the U.S.
However, in 2003, serious division hit NATO, as within the alliance Belgium, France and Germany opposed applying defense measures for Turkey, which was considered a possible target of Saddam Hussein's retaliatory actions. After all, the invasion of Iraq by the Americans was supported by 49 countries, including 18 Europeans ones. NATO was a tool to stabilize both Afghanistan and Iraq and only in 2011 did some troops start to withdraw.
To some extent, the war on terror brought Washington closer to Moscow; in 2002, the NATO-Russia Council was established. However, relations deteriorated again following NATO's intentions to extend its membership to Georgia and Ukraine and after the Russian intervention in defense of the separatist regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. On the Crimea crisis, NATO went back to its initial strategy of deterrence against Russia, its first enemy. Certainly, today in a unipolar world we are witnessing the return of a sort of bipolar logic, but not only that. After 9/11, NATO began to operate outside its own borders by enforcing its main goals: defense and deterrence, the fight against terror and unconventional warfare, and the response to crises.
Nowadays challenges are urgent, such as the expansion of Russia and China. Indeed, it is evident that Moscow has extended its influence into new regions such as the Middle East and has installed operational bases in the Arctic, while China is investing in defense aiming at becoming the new hegemonic leader, thus directly challenging U.S. centrality in world affairs by collaborating with Russia. Furthermore, there are some problems within the Alliance too, as the U.S. itself has established defensive deals with regimes such as Saudi Arabia – far from the spirit of NATO.
Moreover, by undermining the effectiveness of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the regional status quo with unilateral decisions to move the capital to Jerusalem in spite of dozens of international resolutions, the U.S. seems to act according to its own political unilateral vision and not in a cohesive spirit. Added to this, the political crisis in the EU and the serious discrepancies among the Western allies do not help overcome these challenges. Indeed, as long as some members stand as spokespeople of the alliance, invoking "brain death" or denying legitimate national concerns of key partners, divisions will win over the unitary spirit.
In short, today’s NATO lacks effective policy to restore a mutual understanding and build trust between its own members and also face the threats jeopardizing all of them.
* Assistant professor at the University of the Turkish Aeronautical Association, Ankara