ISSN 2330-717X

Strategic Relevance Of NATO In The 21st Century – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila

“NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats and they are difficult to hold together once the threat is gone…………… To give US interventions a veneer of legitimacy and to give itself something to do, in recent years NATO has tried to transform itself into some sort of global expeditionary force. Unfortunately, not only is a multilateral alliance with twenty eight members a very ungainly structure for conducting this sort of operation, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the folly of this sort of global policeman role” — Stephen Walt, FOREIGN POLICY, 2011.

Introductory Observations

In the 21st Century when massive global conflicts on the scale of World War II stand credibly ruled out and where in Central Europe the Cold War congealed lines of military confrontation between massed armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact melted with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the significant question that arises is whether NATO continues to have a strategic relevance in the 21stCentury?

This question assumes greater significance when viewed from two other angles. Firstly, following the demise of the Soviet Union no global power or a rival military alliance has emerged to threaten European or North Atlantic security. Secondly, the European nations are passing through an intense financial crisis precluding exorbitant military expenditures on sustaining NATO’s current military deployments and operations. This is evident from some major European nations opting for premature military withdrawals from Afghanistan only five NATO nations out of twenty eight participating in NATO military intervention in Libya to displace the Gaddafi regime.

The United States too is no less affected by the financial crisis and under pressure from the US Congress to drastically cut down US military expenditure. When it comes to NATO, the United States underwrites 75% of NATO’s military operational expenditure and there is growing resentment in Capitol Hill as to why the United States should be bearing this disproportionate load when the European countries of NATO are not spending enough on maintaining credible military forces and that the US economy itself is under strain.

Strategically unexplainable is the fact that with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 when NATO became strategically redundant, NATO’s membership expanded from sixteen to twenty eight in the post-1991 period. With no military threat emanating from a militarily and economically enfeebled Russia to NATO the expansion of NATO was in actual fact a “Mission Creep” geopolitically towards the periphery of a Russia in dire straits. This was being implemented by inducing the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO.

Looking into the future perspectives of the powerful military rise of China, and NATO ‘creep’ towards Russian and Chinese peripheries, one can assess that the European countries of NATO would not be inclined to be involved in any armed conflict between the United States and China or even in any military brinkmanship between the United States and China.

Therefore it is right to conclude as many agree that post-1991 NATO transformed from a “Military Alliance with Political Overtones ‘to a “Political Alliance with Military Overtones”. This process seems to endure as NATO gets involved into “Out of Area’ military operations more determined by political objectives in the garb of regime changes on humanitarian grounds.

Having laid the context, this Paper now intends to examine the main theme of this analysis under the following heads:

  • NATO Geopolitical Expansion from European Collective Security Organization to Global Partners Spread
  • NATO Transformation of its Strategic Blueprint: Major Changes
  • NATO Threat Perceptions in 21st Century Analysed
  • The Strategic Relevance of NATO in the 21st Century is Questionable; Is NATO’s Demise A Possibility?

NATO Expansion from European Collective Security Organization to Global Partners Spread

In the absence of any credible military threat to Europe or the United States from any major power or any coalition of powers, the sizeable expansion of NATO post-1991 was not warranted by any strategic analysis or strategic logic. Yet NATO expansion has been an established fact. The global spread of NATO under different heads recounted below illustrates that NATO has transgressed from European security and collective defence to play the role of a ‘global policeman’’ The latter role is not sanctioned by the international community or the United Nations.

NATO now lists on its official website in addition to its twenty eight members, four other categories of nations across the globe under the heads of “NATO Partner Countries”; “NATO Mediterranean Dialogue”; “Istanbul Initiative” and the “NATO Partners Across the Globe”. NATO Partners include Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia &Herzegovina, Macedonia, Georgia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. NATO Mediterranean Dialogue comprises Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Istanbul Initiative is composed of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates.

The NATO Partners Across the Globe comprises Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Republic of Korea and New Zealand. This category is the most interesting as it expands the global reach of NATO to South Asia and the Pacific. The official document states that these nations are not part of NATO structure but these countries develop cooperation with NATO in areas of mutual interest including energy security challenges, and some contribute effectively to NATO operations Notably, Pakistan falls into this category and the US Secretary of State in early 2000s Colin Powell had honoured Pakistan with the designation of “Major Non-NATO Ally.

Surprisingly, no South East Asian country seem to have been co-opted by NATO in the last named category and they skipped across to Pacific counties.

Does the last named category which is in embryonic form signal the formation of ‘Eastern NATO’? Is ‘Eastern NATO’, a proposal which has been aired spasmodically in Western strategic literature, aimed at “The China Threat” which now supplants the Cold War “The Russia Threat”?

NATO Transformation of its Strategic Blueprint: Major Changes

The NATO initial strategic blueprint was designed to cater for the following core challenges (1) Deterring Soviet expansion in Europe (2) Forestalling the revival of nationalistic militarism in Europe through a robust North American presence, and (3) Encouraging European integration.

NATO lists six phases in it’s over 60 year’s existence reflecting the changing security environment and the attendant challenges that confronted NATO. These six phases stand termed as (1) Treaty for Our Age 1948-1960 (2) Defence to Détente 1960-1970s (3) The Cold War Revived 1979-1980s *4) Be Careful What You Wish For 1989-1990 (5) The 9/11 Catalyst (6) A New Approach for a New Century 2011.

The changing face of NATO in terms of its main functions in each decade has been analysed in one document as follows:

  • 1950s-NATO was purely a defensive organization
  • 1960s-NATO became a political instrument for détente
  • 1990s-NATO was used for stabilization of Eastern Europe and Central Asia through the incorporation of new partners and allies.
  • 21st Century-NATO has a new mission’ Extending Presence through the Strategic Projection of Security.’

At the Lisbon Summit, November19-21 2011, NATO unveiled a New Strategic Concept to guide NATO as it proceeds to prepare the challenges it expects to face in the21st Century. There is a lot of lengthy rhetoric in the documents that were released at Lisbon and the aim is not to analyse the document. NATO’s New Strategic Concept attempts to impart greater global engagement as NATO shifts from a purely defensive collective security organization to something more enlarged to cater for increased ‘core roles’ to include energy security, climate change, global economic and financial governance etc.

Encapsulated in very brief terms was the characterization of NATOs changing strategic roles by the summation by former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates who stated as follows:

  • “At the strategic level, greatest evolution in NATO over the last two decades is transition from a static defensive force to an expeditionary force—from a defensive alliance to a security alliance”
  • “It is clear that our security interests are no longer tied to the territorial integrity of member states, as instability elsewhere can be a real threat”

The above stands borne out by the number of military interventions undertaken by NATO directly or under the fig-leaf of some UN Resolution or NATO nations acting in conjunction with United States. The list of military interventions stretches from the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in this century.

The major question that arises from the above is whether NATO is supplanting the United Nations as the international body charged for global security? Further from where has NATO derived such a mandate? Or is it that the United States in the first flush of its emergence as the Unipolar superpower after 1991 bypassed the United Nations and exercised unilateral military interventions on the specious grounds of intervention on ‘humanitarian grounds’ to serve its geopolitical interests.

Then is the question of the global spread of NATO in the last two decades in the guise of categories mentioned above. While NATO security concerns in the contiguous areas of the European periphery are understandable no militarily justifiable grounds exist for NATO involvement in Afghanistan. How does a turbulent Afghanistan affect European security? If Afghanistan security and stability required a global effort, why was the Afghanistan crisis not internationalised by NATO and the United States?

More significantly the hall-mark of all NATO “Out of Area’ interventions were not followed up with nation- building and reconstruction operations raising questions on NATO and United States intentions. Security and stability of crisis-ridden countries need such efforts but NATO did not provide them and shied away from nation-building strategies. Equally significant is the fact that NATO military interventions ended up without political or military successes and left in its wake disrupted and shattered countries and regional intranquility.

Following the Lisbon Summit in2010 a host of other ‘core functions’ have been added to NATO’s comprehensive security list which could be used as justification for more military interventions. Energy security and security of routes of energy supplies become more noticeable in relation to the Middle East and Iran.

NATO’s Threat Perceptions in the 21st Century Analysed

NATO’s threat perceptions can only be inferred from the priorities laid down in current strategy documents in the absence of any credible threats to European security from any other major power or military blocs which are in any case non-existent.

Foremost on NATO security agenda is establishing and operationalizing a Ballistic Missile Shield for Europe which is a sore controversy between NATO and Russia even though Russia is a NATO Partner. The question is from which country or region a ballistic missile threat to Europe emanates from?

Russia the erstwhile major military threat to Europe is no longer figuring in European perceptions even though the United States may perceive it as such. Major NATO countries like France and Germany along with smaller NATO nations have developed good working political and economic relations with Russia chiefly determined by their near total reliance on Russian energy supplies. European nations, even though members of NATO do figure in their calculations, Russian strategic sensitivities especially on the Middle East and Iran. Russia has also let it be known that Russian nuclear missiles would not be targeted against European countries. They would be targeted only if they host the US-sponsored Ballistic Missile Defence Shield infrastructure and assets on their soil.

In view of the above the question that emerges is as to which other missile threats are perceived in NATO strategic planning? Iran with its long range ballistic missiles does cover Europe and this can be said to be appearing foremost in NATO threat perceptions. Somewhere it has been said that the China missile arsenal also figures in NATO threat perceptions. But the moot question is that how credible are these missile threats to European countries of NATO?

The Strategic Relevance of NATO in the 21st Century is Questionable; Is NATO’s Demise A Possibility?

The 21st Century strategic landscape and global security environment when surveyed from the angle of threats to European security does not suggest any potent threat justifying continued existence of NATO as a military alliance or forging partnerships across the globe. Here two perspectives come into play when its strategic relevance is to be assessed. These pertain to NATO’s relevance to European security and relevance of NATO to United States security.

The persistent conclusion that is emerging in the course of this Paper is that in terms of European security no credible threats exist justifying the exorbitant expenditures in the sheer maintenance of the bloated bureaucracy of NATO Headquarters in Brussels, leaving aside the costs of its expeditionary missions outside NATO peripheries. As for catering for any asymmetric threats arising within Europe the European Union offers an alternative organization in which security capabilities can be woven into at a fraction of current NATO expenditures.

The United States as the major partner of NATO does find NATO as an asset and a strategic and political tool in the furtherance of its global strategies and global power-play to sustain its global predominance and global military superiority. A military alliance like NATO provides significant ballast to United States global strategic stature and image.

Some excerpts which reflect the current realities of questioning the strategic relevance of NATO are appended below:

  • “Trying to keep NATO relevant by artificially forcing all these issues’ (referring to NATOs new agenda of energy security, cyber warfare etc. other than defence of Europe) into its agenda is counter-productive, for the Alliance will not be able to solve them, it only risks being discredited without hope of achieving success.”………. Danish Institute of International Studies DISS Paper.
  • “The new NATO is a ‘transactional alliance’. And frequently some allies sit out a particular mission. Both Afghanistan and Libya have been fought on transactional terms”…… Yale Global Online 12 May 2011
  • “But NATOs repeated demonstration of resilience should not blind us to the fact that it no longer provides a healthy basis for trans-Atlantic security partnership. As long as NATOs ‘raison d’etre’was to keep the Russians out and the United States in NATO’s internal dynamics of American leadership and European obeisance was both inevitable and appropriate”……Nick Witney, The Guardian, 8 December 2011.

NATO itself is conscious that its new approaches for the 21st Century may be beyond its capabilities. One document reads: “In Afghanistan, in Bosnia and Kosovo, Allies have found that military power is no longer enough to secure any tangible victory. During the Cold War years, Allied security had entailed the defence of the North Atlantic Allies; now the definition of “security “ has radically expanded to include the individual’s freedom from violent extremism bred by instability and nation-state failure. Successful peacekeeping has come to entail not merely providing a baseline of security but assisting in the construction of modernity itself. This task is beyond NATO and the Allies know it.”

The biggest challenge confronting NATO today is more financial than divergences in strategic perspectives. This finds reflection in the frustrations in American strategic discourse where questions are being raised as to why the United Sates should continue to bear nearly 75% of NATO expenditure when European members of NATO are not inclined to increase their defence budgets.

The former US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates in many of his statements and observations had been cautioning and advising NATO members on this controversial issue. One such observation merits citing as it looks into the future and even hints at the possible demise of NATO, and he said: “ Future United States leaders –those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on American investment in NATO worth the cost”

Concluding Observations

In the second decade of the 21st Century, the global strategic landscape and American perspectives on the same stand considerably changed, Global security and global security challenges are no longer Europe-centric. In United States global strategic perspectives Russia stands replaced as a major threat perception by The China Threat.

The United States strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific itself is the strongest indicator of the shift in global strategic power-play. As part of this shift, the maximum relocation of US Forces to Asia Pacific will be from Europe. In United States future strategy, Europe at best will serve as a transit point for US Forces moving for contingencies in the Middle East. European nations with declining defence budgets and with no pronounced threats from China which the United States perceives, are likely to question the very strategic relevance of NATO in the 21st Century.

As a parting thought, one would repeat again the observations of Stephen Walt, who observes:

“A continent that is shrinking, aging, and that faces no threat of foreign invasion isn’t going to be an enthusiastic partner for future adventures, and it certainly isn’t likely to participate in any future United States effort to build a balancing coalition against China”

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SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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