NATO ’s relevance in today’s world has been at the centre of political and international security discussions.
“NATO is in danger of losing its collective relevancy for all its members,” said Dr. Sara Moller, an assistant professor of international security at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, during a debate on NATO’s relevance, hosted by the Atlantic Council. She explained that NATO is at risk of becoming irrelevant because it lacks a strategic focus. “During the Cold War, NATO had a very clear and defined purpose to deter and defend against the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, NATO has been engaged in never-ending transformations.”
“We have the classic split in the alliance between the eastern and southern flank,” Moller said. “We have a NATO member Turkey who’s purchasing weapon systems from Russia. We have countries like France, who are exploring rapprochement with the Russians.”
As such, she said, the lack of consensus between NATO members about its strategic purpose jeopardizes its future relevancy.
Understanding NATO’s purpose has always been about understanding great power politics. The world has undergone two fundamental shifts in the distribution of power since the Cold War. One was the movement from bipolarity (like during the Cold War) to unipolarity. Now, it is shifting again, from unipolarity to multi-polarity.
NATO’s supporters reiterate that the Alliance is necessary to prevent great power conflict in Europe, even if its members do not agree on its overarching purpose.
“Allies usually find a way to resolve their differences, because Alliance unity is too important to put at risk,” said Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO, during the debate.
“In such a complex, multipolar world, states need allies more than ever,” Vershbow said. “And having alliances like NATO with like-minded members and other partners who share the same values and are ready to share risks is ultimately an advantage.”
He said that allies are a crucial advantage when facing threats.
“China and Russia have no allies, we do. We do not want to toss away this key advantage,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst. As a multi-national Alliance, NATO successfully deters threats, especially near-term threats like Russia, which Herbst called “truly destabilizing”.
“The Kremlin is responsible for the new Cold War in Europe because it insists on dominating its neighbors,” he said. “If Russia is a great power rival, which it is, why should we cede Ukraine to Russia? Ukraine is able to withstand Russia with our help to do it successfully.”
“I think we have an opportunity to shape a new strategy for Russia, which today is characterized by strategic competition,” he said. “If we can come up with a more effective mix of carrots and sticks, we may be able to steer Russia back towards a more cooperative stance.”
After all, Vershbow said, it is in the world’s interests that Russia’s neighbours be independent and that their sovereignty is respected. “Otherwise, Russia will sooner or later feel that it has opportunities to take a bite out of the Baltic states. And the world will be back into the old Cold War,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty about NATO’s future, the Alliance has been a source of strength and effectiveness over the years. “It’s both a military and a political alliance. It’s a force multiplier. It’s a source of legitimacy when we need to use force,” said Vershbow, adding that this should not be put at risk.
And yet, NATO’s critics, like professor of political science at the University of Chicago John Mearsheimer, argue that NATO’s relevance has been reduced mostly because there is no regional hegemon in Europe today or on the horizon. In response to how important is the security of Baltic states, Mearsheimer said during the debate that “Europe does not matter very much at all (to the U.S.), because there is no potential hegemon there today”.
To Mearsheimer, the current Russian threat was created by the expansion of NATO.
“It was NATO expansion, coupled with EU expansion in the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, that caused this crisis with the Russians,” he said.
As such, Mearsheimer believes that Ukraine’s security hardly matters at all. “Those countries were dominated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And it didn’t matter for us then and it doesn’t matter for us now and it won’t matter in the future,” he said. He thinks if the United States had not expanded NATO and provoked the Russians, there wouldn’t be a threat of the Russians interfering in the Baltic states.
“We wouldn’t have the problem that we’re facing in Ukraine today,” he said.
Today the main question should be, “What does NATO need to do to remain relevant in the face of new threats and challenges?” Ambassador Vershbow outlined four key ideas to improve NATO’s relevance:
NATO needs a new transatlantic bargain on burden-sharing. “We need to stay in Europe; we need to do better and move beyond today’s narrow focus on defence spending, aiming for a more balanced partnership for the long term,” he said.
NATO is the proper forum to share intelligence and set policy on immediate security threats, like protecting 5G networks, transportation infrastructure, medical supply chains, and figure out how to engage China on arms control.
NATO needs a more effective Southern strategy to mitigate instability in the Middle East and North Africa. NATO’s training and capacity-building programs are woefully underfunded and have little strategic effect.
NATO needs a more dynamic approach to Russia.
Both critics and proponents of NATO agree that NATO must figure out what kind of an Alliance it wants to be. Currently, NATO faces many internal challenges, including erosion of U.S. leadership and frictions with Turkey, Hungary and other illiberal member states. The result is that NATO’s members no longer see eye to eye; the clearest example of this is concerning Russia.
But NATO was never a single mind. Yes, it was established principally as a military alliance, however, it was always more than that. “It was a democratic club, which reflected values which are important in and of themselves,” Herbst said.
Is NATO still relevant? Absolutely it is, said Vershbow.
“NATO remains essential to deter Russian aggression, which is a real threat. It’s also a standing coalition of like-minded democracies that the United States can still call upon to defend shared interests and project stability beyond NATO’s borders,” he said.
This article is written under the Local Journalism Initiative agreement