The 30-member NATO meeting in the Spanish capital Madrid has just ended. In its 32nd summit, it has been decided that the military alliance would be further expanded to accommodate Finland and Sweden. By next year or so, NATO will have 32 members.
A study in 2010 by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, counted 63 major military alliances over the previous five centuries, of which just ten lived beyond 40. The average lifespan of collective-defense alliances was 15 years.
Against this background, if NATO, which was established in 1949, is still expanding, it must be arguably the strongest and most successful alliance in history. It has expanded from 12 members at its birth to 30 – soon to be 32 when Finland and Sweden join.
For its first four decades, NATO was busy deterring the Soviet threat. Its role was to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”, as its first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, put it.
But after communism collapsed and the Cold War ended, the alliance did not proclaim victory and shut up shop; instead, it reinvented itself, helping to, what it claimed, “stabilize the new democracies of “Eastern Europe” that were earlier either the constituents of the then USSR (Soviet Republics) or in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
It never ceased to think that “Moscow constitutes a threat to the democratic world”. And now, as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, this belief has become stronger.
NATO & Russian Threat
Of course, there are ongoing debates among the experts whether NATO, particularly its existence after the Cold War ended, has exacerbated the tensions between the West led by the United States and Russia or otherwise.
But the fact remains that “threats from Moscow”, whether directly or otherwise, remain the key rationale for NATO’s relevance.
In fact, when NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, technically speaking) was formed on April 4, 1949, many had questioned the move on the ground that it was unnecessary since the United Nations had been established after the end of the World War II to look after the world’s peace and security.
But the then US Secretary of State Dean Acheson had explained that the postwar system to maintain peace and security was not working because the Soviet Union was purposefully misusing its veto to interfere with the UN Security Council’s ability to maintain international peace. Because of this, the North Atlantic pact was needed to achieve peace and security and to prevent war, he argued.
In sum, the explanation of the West was that the formation of NATO was a deeply considered and measured response to nearly four years of Soviet postwar actions in Europe.
NATO was meant to send two signals. One was that its members would remain committed to the UN Charter and were joining together to do what the United Nations was being prevented from doing.
And, second, no longer would they be picked off, one by one, by any aggressor. NATO was the collective transatlantic response to the Soviet threat to world peace. In short, because the Soviet Union was working to undermine the existing system, NATO was formed to preserve it, so ran the argument.
But what was its relevance when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved? All told, Moscow’s principal worry even at the time of reunification of Germany in 1990 (the USSR had to agree to East Germany’s merger with West Germany to become a unified Germany) was the enlargement of NATO.
While Moscow did concede that a unified Germany would remain in NATO, it had to be assured that NATO would not include in future the Warsaw Pact countries that the Soviet Union led. Warsaw Pact was eventually dissolved.
The declassified documents that are available today clearly show that there were security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from James Baker (US Secretary of State) George H W Bush (US President), West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French President Francois Mitterrand, and British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, among others.
Even many influential policymakers and experts in the West had argued during the 1990s against any idea of expanding NATO. According to them, NATO enlargement will provoke Russia and create new dividing lines in Europe, which, in turn, will keep the continent always conflict-prone. They had also argued that the cost of enlarging NATO exceeded the benefit.
However, none of these arguments convinced the proponents of a stronger and expanded NATO. They said that Russia would always seek “power and influence too far in excess of its reasonable security requirements,” much like the Soviet Union after World War II.
Besides, the proponents argued that the enlargement of NATO began only in 1999, after discerning the Russian behavior for nearly a decade, during which Moscow “ sought to recapture its former sphere of influence, reintegrate the Russian empire, and reemerge as a great power.”
It seems the Russian invasion of Ukraine will see a pause in this debate, though it can be argued that Ukraine’s (Ukraine, all told, was a part of Russia for centuries) desire to join NATO left Moscow with no alternative but to take peremptory actions.
Why Is NATO Important
However, the Russian threat apart, it is equally important to note that NATO has kept its relevance in some other ways. If one looks at European history, its leading countries have invariably fought among themselves, leading to major wars and two World Wars. Their common membership in NATO has now almost eliminated any fear over the repeat of that history.
Secondly, NATO has advanced the principles of liberal democratic governance. Nearly all its members have democratically elected governments that are accountable to their citizens, bound by the rule of law, and dedicated to upholding political and civil rights.
In fact, Article 2 of NATO’s founding treaty committed members to “strengthening their free institutions.” In that sense, NATO has played a key role in bolstering liberal democracies and creating trust among countries that had spent centuries fighting one another.
Thirdly, NATO has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to the times, undertaking operations outside Europe, including in Afghanistan. All told, there is Article 5 of its treaty that says that an armed attack against one member will be considered an attack against them all.
So there could be circumstances in which NATO could intervene anywhere (as happened in Afghanistan after the September 12, 2001 attack on the US). Its purview now could be expanded even to the Indo-Pacific, where three of its members – the US, France, and the UK – continue to be major players and their presence is being challenged by the Chinese hegemony.
As Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General of NATO has said, China has become hard for the alliance to ignore.
For him, “China coming closer to us” in all sorts of ways, from the Arctic to Africa, and from cyberspace to 5G networks and other infrastructure investments in Europe, not to mention intensified joint exercises with Russia.
NATO may not move one of its units to the South China Sea soon (unless one of its members is attacked there), but Stoltenberg has advocated closer collaboration with like-minded countries in the region, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Incidentally, all these countries were invited to the Madrid summit as special guests.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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