And Still It Moves: A New NATO for New Security Challenges
"The Alliance still has an important role to play in the multilateral security architecture of tomorrow, even if it requires some changes in its organizational structure and orientation," writes Northwestern professor Hendrik Spruyt.
In the annals of history few security arrangements have been as successful as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Perhaps only the Congress of Vienna, which kept the major powers in relative peace for four decades after the Napoleonic wars, comes close. If, as the old adage goes, NATO aimed to “keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in,” it has succeeded beyond one’s wildest dreams. The Soviet Union folded, Germany is fully committed to multilateralism, and the United States has continued its global leadership role throughout the post-1945 era.
It is that very success that, for some, makes NATO a relic of the past. Without the external threat of the communist bloc the alliance has lost its raison d’ être. Indeed, one might wonder why it continues to exist twenty years after the breakup of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact.
The conventional view holds that bureaucratic inertia is to blame. Unlike old soldiers, organizations do not even fade away. They continue to exist well beyond the expiration of their primary functions. No doubt NATO shares many features of such inertia. However, there are other, more substantive reasons why NATO continues to exist. The Alliance still has an important role to play in the multilateral security architecture of tomorrow, even if it requires some changes in its organizational structure and orientation.
Those who argue that NATO has become obsolete tend to focus on the diminished external threat. But this argument overlooks important changes within the membership itself. These changes have created quite a different NATO than the one that was formed more than 60 years ago.
From the beginning NATO members have had a common foreign policy objective in confronting communism, but they have been widely diverse in other respects. NATO embraced democratic regimes side by side with the fascist dictatorships of Salazar and Franco. Military oligarchies in Greece and Turkey were welcomed as well. Some of the main actors aimed to maintain colonial rule, while its strongest member, the United States, sought to end formal imperialism. As some of its members took off in economic miracles—not least the late-joining Germany—others remained abjectly poor, such as Portugal. The parallel economic organization of the European Economic Community included some NATO members but excluded many others. Greece and Turkey clashed openly on long standing historical issues, such as Cyprus.
In other words, the NATO members showed great diversity in the nature of their regimes, economic wealth, and fundamental principles. They united only in the face of the Warsaw Pact threat. NATO showed homogeneity in foreign policy but great heterogeneity among its membership.
Sixty-three years later, the exact opposite is true. The Alliance is internally homogenous but fragmented in the objectives that its membership wants to pursue. Nevertheless, this homogeneity also creates the space in which collective action in foreign policy might take place.
First, the current NATO membership shows a remarkable convergence in regime type. Gone are the Iberian fascist states and the Greek military junta. And while one might debate the depth of Turkish democracy, it is a far cry from the heavy handed militarism of the past. NATO has also expanded its membership eastward with former communist states riding the wave of democratization.
Second, economic multilateralism in Europe has expanded such that most members of NATO are now also members of the European Union. This has not only led to greater wealth due to diminishing barriers to trade and increasing efficiencies of scale, but it has also led to issue linkage. The increasing density of interaction and functional cooperation has deepened the European project. For all the talk about the European financial crisis and the status of the Euro, surely the degree of cooperation in Europe today is far more extensive than even one decade ago. In many key areas, Brussels—not Berlin, Paris, or London—has become the locus of decision making.
Third, NATO remains incredibly powerful. No doubt newly emerging major powers are shifting the relative balance of power. But the EU and the United States remain by far the largest economic entities. Their combined military power, particularly given the unrivaled strength of the U.S. Armed Forces, makes it the most powerful multilateral organization bar none.
Finally, as all security regimes, multilateral institutions require leadership—often single leadership. The United States has continued to fill this role after the end of the Cold War, even if its penchant for multilateralism has wavered on occasion.
In other words, had the earlier diversity of the membership continued to exist, the lack of an external threat would have rendered the organization obsolete in short order. But the transformations of the past decades instead have created convergence among the NATO members. They share fundamental objectives and normative principles. It is a club of democracies, and a powerful one at that. One need only think of the close Anglo-American relation to remember that shared identities and beliefs can be a basis for cooperation in pursuing foreign policy objectives.
To conclude, the greater homogeneity among the NATO members has improved the ability for joint action in certain areas, even if it sometimes proves to be an exercise in herding cats. Whereas the earlier NATO purpose was a reactive posture against the Soviet threat, NATO now has a different composition and a different stance that might lead, for example, to pro-active behavior in supporting democratic movements abroad or state building efforts out of area. But while this greater convergence leads to the opportunity to unite in such common endeavors, it also comes with a need for recalibrating when and where NATO should act and when it should refrain from doing so. I turn to this in my next commentary, with particular reference to dealing with failing or fragile states.