NATO is generally thought of as a Cold War institution. It is better understood as a continuation of the World War II alliance that defeated Germany, although expanded and focused on a former ally, the Soviet Union. Looked at in that way, it was a response to the Munich Agreement, which symbolized the failure of Europe to prepare for war and deal decisively with Nazi Germany. NATO’s culture can be understood by thinking of how history might have changed had the British and French been prepared and proactive in dealing with Hitler.
NATO was created not only to bind together Western Europe, but to create a coalition that was prepared for war and on constant alert for threats. Most important, it had a clear mission, a consensus about the importance of the mission and a willingness to bear the real economic burden of defense and the risks of war.
The alliance continues to exist. But the consensus about what the mission is and the willingness to bear the burdens and risks of war have withered. Part of it has to do with the lack of a clear threat. Neither the Islamist threat nor the renewed threat from Russia have forged NATO into what it once was. There is no common understanding within NATO of the threat or the risks that might be borne. Neither its force nor its will can replicate the alliance structures of World War II and the Cold War.
In some ways, this scenario resembles pre-World War II Europe, though no threat comparable to Hitler exists today. The complacency and the aversion to burdens and risk are not dissimilar. Its fundamental problem is that two different cultures exist within NATO. One is led by the U.S., which remains willing to fund its military and engages in military actions, wise or not, as it thinks appropriate. Then, there is Europe, which is less prepared to fund its military and far less willing to engage in military action. There are gradations here of course, with Britain far more prepared, and far more capable, to go to war than the rest of Europe.
Still, there is a deep divide within NATO over what NATO should be and what members will spend on military preparedness and the threat of war. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that NATO is a habit that no one can overcome, but that has grown less relevant over time. It exists, but it is struggling to find a reason to live.
NATO is a formal alliance that is highly divided and has lost both its original purpose and capabilities. During the Cold War, NATO was a robust alliance while other initiatives floundered because it included the United States. The end of the Cold War, however, removed the common threat that held the alliance together and left NATO without a unifying mission.
NATO’s role and abilities have eroded since the end of the Cold War. Members diverge in their interests, military capabilities, commitment to the alliance and willingness to defend other NATO members. Much of NATO’s capabilities and real security guarantees revolve around one member – the U.S. In practice, there are strong limitations to NATO’s ability to react to crises and defend members. As a result, it is unlikely that NATO will survive as America’s chief vehicle for defense cooperation in Europe. The U.S. will replace NATO with bilateral and regional initiatives, as it is already doing in Eastern Europe.
A Divided Alliance
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded and designed to counter the Soviet threat to Europe. Countries joined NATO and contributed to its efforts because they feared Moscow’s aggression and influence. However, after the Soviet Union fell, NATO no longer had a common threat and unifying mission. Beginning in the 1990s, the U.S. used NATO as a vehicle for maintaining influence in Europe and as a military structure for operations further afield. At the same time, the alliance underwent a transformation of its military posture and focus.
But as NATO leaders prepare to meet in Warsaw in July to discuss the alliance’s next steps, it is becoming clear that diverse interests within the alliance have undermined its cohesion and led to a lack of a common strategy. New regional and bilateral alliance structures will likely replace NATO as the main tool for security and defense cooperation in Europe, with the U.S. seeking alternatives to the alliance.
The end of the Cold War and expansion of NATO changed the position of many Western European countries. They were no longer as interested in financially and militarily supporting other European countries, or allowing the U.S. to wield significant influence in European affairs.
Some Western European powers have long been ambivalent about NATO and U.S. dominance in European security matters. France, worried about maintaining the independence of its military and foreign policies under the weight of U.S. influence, withdrew its navy from NATO’s North Atlantic fleet in 1963 and abandoned NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966. It only returned in 2009. Nevertheless, even when France’s military was not part of the alliance’s military command, the country remained formally a member of NATO and benefitted from the U.S. security umbrella.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union removed the main threat that kept Western European capitals committed to alliance membership. During the Cold War, the lines between Soviet and Western forces were drawn in central Germany. Countries like France were directly threatened by Soviet aggression. The expansion of NATO, however, translated into the alliance’s borders moving farther eastward. This means that Russia poses much less of a threat to Western Europe than it did before 1991. Now, the most vulnerable NATO members are the frontline states – including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. As a result, a threat perception gap emerged among NATO members.
The crisis in Ukraine, which broke out in early 2014, heightened divisions within the alliance. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine deepened the fears of countries along NATO’s eastern edge that Russia would use hybrid warfare, influence over ethnic Russian minorities, or even direct attacks against them.
A February 2016 study by the RAND Corporation found that Russia could deploy about 27 maneuver battalions from its Western Military District and Kaliningrad should Moscow choose to try occupying Estonia and Latvia with little warning. Russian snap combat military exercises in the Western Military District and Northern Fleet over the past few years have involved as many as 40,000 troops. But for governments in places like Madrid or Rome, Russia’s resurgence – while concerning – is far from an existential threat, or one that their governments wish to spend their limited economic and military resources addressing.
Similarly, the disintegration of Syria and Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State are security concerns for European states that fear increased terrorism at home or are concerned about the high flow of refugees from the region. But the perception of the threat from Syria and Iraq – and the willingness to spend resources to address it – varies across the alliance.
For Turkey, the fates of Syria and Iraq are critical. However, NATO members – especially the U.S. – are pushing for Turkey to take more responsibility in addressing this threat and become more involved in Syria. The U.S., Britain, France and Germany are all involved in combating the Islamic State, mostly through airstrikes. But no NATO state is willing to commit significant ground troops in Syria or Iraq. As in Eastern Europe, there are limits to how much blood and treasure NATO members are willing to spend on helping a fellow member state bolster its defense.
At the same time, the disproportionate American contribution to NATO is eroding the alliance’s value to the U.S. During the Cold War, Europe was under threat from the Soviet Union, Germany was divided and economies were recovering from the carnage of World War II. So a high level of U.S. support for Europe’s defenses was acceptable to American decision-makers. However, the reunification of Germany, expansion of NATO and emergence of the European Union as a large-scale economic bloc mean that many European countries now have the resources to significantly boost their investments in defense. Nevertheless, European governments have shown little willingness to take on a greater burden. Only the U.S., U.K., Poland, Estonia and Greece met the alliance’s target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2015, according to official alliance data.
Comparing NATO’s role and capabilities during the Cold War with those of today reveals how much the alliance’s unity and importance have eroded since the fall of the Soviet Union.
NATO in the Cold War
NATO succeeded in becoming a robust alliance while similar initiatives foundered because it included the U.S. as a member. Following World War II, there were several initiatives to boost military and security cooperation in Western Europe. The Western European Union, a defensive alliance composed of 10 European states, was founded in 1948. Efforts to create a European military through a proposed European Defense Community failed in 1954.
The North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1949, succeeded where other proposals had failed and came to define Europe’s defense strategy. The alliance had 12 founding members: the U.S., Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the U.K. In 1955, an important 13th member joined – West Germany.
The inclusion of the U.S. was critical. Fears of Soviet intentions in Europe increased quickly after the war. U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall presented his plan to help reconstruct Europe’s economies in 1947, and it was approved a year later in large part as an effort to undermine potential Soviet influence in countries emerging from the ruins of the war.
By 1949, the U.S. and Soviet Union were the world’s only nuclear powers. Europe was still recovering, and Western European powers had relatively few resources at their disposal. Moreover, the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 heightened fears in Europe of a possible Soviet attack. Faced with a growing threat from the Soviet Union, as well as a limited ability to defend their own borders, Western European states depended on the U.S. to deter potential Soviet aggression and help defend Western Europe in case of an attack.
At the core of NATO is Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which declares:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
For the U.S., NATO and its collective security principle furthered the goal of preventing a hegemon from dominating the European Continent. The U.S. could not maintain wartime troop levels in Europe, but wanted to guarantee that it would still have influence on the Continent and that Soviet control would not spread into Western Europe. NATO provided the legal, operational, logistical and political framework for achieving U.S. aims in Europe. While some European countries, especially France, had qualms about NATO and the U.S.’ role in the organization, they continued to rely on the U.S. to guarantee their safety.
The alliance’s membership and geography gave NATO a host of strategic advantages. With allies on both sides of the Atlantic, along the Mediterranean coast, and in northern Europe, NATO is able to dominate the seas surrounding much the European Continent. Turkey’s accession into the alliance meant that a NATO member controls the Bosporus, and thus holds the key to the Black Sea and could limit the Soviet Union’s – and later Russia’s – access to the Mediterranean.
NATO’s role and strategy evolved throughout the Cold War. The alliance’s new chief challenge was to find a financially and tactically effective, sustainable way to address what NATO strategists saw as the Soviet armed forces’ conventional superiority in Europe. NATO opted to compensate for this conventional gap by making nuclear weapons a core part of its strategy for defending Europe. In fact, in the alliance’s first memorandum in October 1949 on the “Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Area” (declassified in 1997), officials wrote that one of NATO’s basic undertakings is to “insure the ability to deliver the atomic bomb promptly. This is primarily a U.S. responsibility assisted as practicable by other nations.”
This approach gained further traction under the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, whose “New Look” policy focused on reducing the size of the U.S. Army and relying more on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. By the late 1950s, NATO’s doctrine revolved around the concept of “Massive Retaliation” – if the Soviet Union were to attack, NATO forces would respond with nuclear weapons. This strategy was designed to deter Soviet aggression.
However, this strategy evolved as Western strategists and leaders in the 1960s found that a heavy reliance on nuclear weapons limited Western powers’ ability to respond to the complexities of Cold War competition. In a secret directive issued in April 1961, the U.S. National Security Council emphasized that “first priority be given, in NATO programs for the European area, to preparing for the more likely contingencies, i.e., those short of nuclear or massive non-nuclear attack.”
The administration of President John F. Kennedy thus devised a new strategy, Flexible Deterrent Options, which NATO later formally adopted in 1967. Flexible Response, as the strategy came to be known, called for NATO to use proportional responses to attacks and invest more resources in non-nuclear responses.
NATO’s structure and posture on the ground in Europe also changed as the alliance’s threat perception, capabilities and priorities evolved. When the alliance was founded in 1949, it had a loose operational structure: the 1949 treaty created the North Atlantic Council (the alliance’s political decision-making body), a Defense Committee (composed of defense ministers), and a Military Committee (made up of national defense chiefs). However, due to fears of Soviet aggression, this quickly changed, and a consolidated NATO command structure was formed.
One of the most strategically significant NATO activities involved the alliance’s forward deployment in West Germany, along the border with East Germany and Czechoslovakia. For much of the Cold War, NATO responsibility for defense of the region was split between the Northern Army Group (NORTHAG), and the Central Army Group (CENTAG). NORTHAG consisted of five Army Corps, with troops from the U.S., Germany, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. CENTAG included four Army Corps, with forces provided by Germany, Canada, and the U.S.
The U.S. maintained a major presence in the region throughout the Cold War. It is estimated that between 1950 and 2000, one-third of U.S. foreign deployments were to Germany. During the 1980s, about 200,000 U.S. troops were permanently stationed in Europe. Despite strategic shifts throughout the Cold War, NATO – and U.S. commitment to the organization – remained critical for European security.
NATO in the American Age
Strategic considerations in the early 1990s contributed to the U.S. decision to continue providing allies, old and new, with a security guarantee through NATO. The fall of the Soviet Union heralded the American age: for the first time, the U.S. was the world’s sole hegemon, with uncontested dominance of the seas and North America.
The Soviet Union’s breakup into 15 different sovereign states removed the existential threat to Western Europe and the ostensible reason for a U.S.-led transatlantic military alliance committed to collective security. And yet, despite some public debates throughout the 1990s, NATO not only survived, but expanded to include former members of the Warsaw Pact and three former Soviet republics. The U.S. had three main goals for the post-Cold War alliance.
First and foremost, the reunification of Germany threatened to reignite old fears of a powerful country in the center of the Continent posing a threat to countries like France. Maintaining NATO as an overarching security umbrella in Europe, with the Continent’s leading powers – the U.K., France and Germany – as members, allowed the traditional rivals to be interdependent in terms of defense and thus less likely to see each other as threats.
Second, the endurance of NATO as an institution gave the U.S. the opportunity to retain significant influence in the European Continent. With much of the Continent dependent on U.S. security guarantees and cooperating closely in military affairs, the U.S. could manage the balance of power among states and influence decision-making in European capitals. The U.S. could also retain a military presence in the region, giving U.S. forces geographic proximity to the Middle East, Russia and North Africa, as well as a firm presence in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. By supporting the expansion of NATO and bringing the borders of the alliance close to Russia’s core, the U.S. also limited Russia’s ability to fulfill its basic strategic goal of maintaining a buffer area between Russia and European powers.
Finally, NATO gave the U.S. a ready-made structure for military cooperation and joint operations abroad. NATO’s Article 5 was invoked for the first time about 24 hours after the 9/11 attacks. NATO responded by sending an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to help patrol U.S. skies and a naval mission in the Mediterranean to combat terrorism. Later, NATO countries contributed to operations in Afghanistan. When intervening in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the U.S. had a military coalition already adept at operating together and sharing responsibilities. After 1991, NATO militaries shifted to lighter projectable expeditionary forces, replacing the large numbers of territorial defense units that existed to protect Western Europe.
Thus, NATO’s purpose evolved following the end of the Cold War. From an organization focused on deterring and defending Europe from Russian aggression, NATO became primarily a vehicle for aiding the U.S. in managing its relationships in Europe and obtaining political and operational support when intervening in other regions.
NATO’s Diverse Capabilities
NATO is still the world’s most powerful military alliance, but its role and abilities have eroded since the end of the Cold War. There are great disparities within the alliance. Members diverge in their interests, military capabilities, commitment to the alliance and willingness to defend other NATO members. Much of NATO’s capabilities and real security guarantees revolve around the U.S.
Burden-sharing within the alliance in terms of defense expenditures and investment in building defense capabilities is very uneven. In 2015, official alliance data showed that while the U.S. makes up about 50 percent of the alliance’s GDP, its defense budget accounted for over 72 percent of member states’ total defense spending. The second largest spender on defense within the alliance is the U.K., with about 9 percent of NATO’s aggregate defense expenditures. France, the third largest spender in NATO, makes up about 4.8 percent of spending. The U.K. spent about 2.07 percent of its GDP on defense in 2015, while France spent approximately 1.8 percent. The three Baltic states – the most vulnerable countries in the alliance – together represent less than 1 percent of NATO members’ total defense spending.
These huge discrepancies among NATO member states’ financial commitment to defense are significant because they translate into substantial differences in military capabilities and the ability of countries to defend themselves – and others – across the alliance.
Western European militaries, despite their countries’ high economic output, grapple with shrinking resources and aging weapons. According to the British Ministry of Defense, the number of full-time servicemen and servicewomen in the British Army was cut from 102,260 in 2010 to 81,700 in 2015. During the same time period, the Royal Air Force lost 8,500 personnel and the Royal Navy about 5,500. In fact, cuts in British military personnel have been so severe that they led to concerns that Britain may lack sufficiently trained personnel to effectively operate and maintain its military equipment and infrastructure. Similarly, France planned to cut about 34,000 jobs between 2014 and 2019, though this number was later revised to 15,500 in large part due to concerns over terrorism. Moreover, Iceland, a member since 1949, does not have its own standing army and only contributes funding and civilian personnel to the alliance.
At the same time, some Western European militaries are much weaker than they appear, as they fail to replace or upgrade weapons and equipment. Germany’s main battle tank is the Leopard 2, developed in the 1970s for the West German military and in need of modernization. During the Cold War, West Germany boasted a fleet of about 3,500 tanks. In 2015, it only had 225 tanks in service, and decided to bring tanks out of storage to increase the number to 325 in response to the conflict in Ukraine. France and Germany are working together to develop a Main Ground Combat System to replace the Leopard 2 and Leclerc main battle tanks, but the change may only take place after 2030.
Despite some modernization efforts, Germany’s weapons and equipment are still quite outdated. In June 2016, Lt. Gen. Jörg Vollmer, the inspector general of the German land forces, said that it would take years to build up Germany’s capabilities to required levels, and that it would cost billions of euros for Germany to purchase new tanks, radios and other much-needed equipment.
Deep differences in NATO members’ military capabilities are most apparent along the alliance’s eastern edge. The Estonian Regular Armed Forces, according to official data, are made up of merely 6,000 people in peacetime, half of whom are conscripts. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated in 2015 that the three Baltic states can together field merely 10,000 active-duty soldiers. Moreover, Albania, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Slovenia are all NATO member states that do not have their own Quick Reaction Alert (interceptor) aircraft. As a result, other NATO member states provide aircraft and personnel for air policing missions in these countries. For example, eight aircraft – four from Portugal and four from the U.K. – are currently on rotation in the Baltic states.
NATO’s newer eastern members are far less able to defend themselves than their western counterparts. However, Western European powers still contribute far less proportionally to the alliance’s defenses than the U.S. NATO’s ability to function as a military alliance, therefore, currently depends heavily on U.S. commitment to European security.
The divergence in allies’ military contributions can be seen in NATO members’ responses to the crisis in Ukraine and the need to boost defenses along the bloc’s eastern borders. While some NATO assistance to the Baltics and Poland is still pending, making it difficult to quantify Western military presence in the region, we can estimate that over half of the Western defense assistance and military presence in NATO’s eastern member states comes from the U.S.
NATO assistance has thus far been modest, with new deployments to be finalized during the July Warsaw summit. The four Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have pledged to send a total of 600 troops (150 each) to the Baltic states in 2017. Germany currently has 250 troops conducting training in Lithuania, while the U.K. announced in October 2015 that it would send a company-sized contingent to the Baltics and Poland. NATO members are also participating in alliance-led air policing and naval missions in the region. In the upcoming NATO summit, alliance members are expected to finalize details on the planned rotation of four multinational battalions – the equivalent of 4,000 troops, to be led by the U.S., U.K. and Germany – in the three Baltic states and Poland. France and Denmark are also expected to contribute to this force.
However, the U.S. has taken significant steps to boost defenses in the region bilaterally. The U.S. began rotating troops in the Baltics and Poland in early 2014, and then added Romania and Bulgaria to the program, bringing the total number of troops to 1,900. In March 2015, 3,000 U.S. troops and 750 tanks began arriving in the region for monthslong exercises. In June 2015, the U.S. announced that it was prepositioning a so-called European Activity Set (which includes one armored brigade combat team’s vehicles and associated equipment) in the Baltics, Poland and Romania. By the end of 2017, the U.S. will have a full armored brigade deployed in the region, rotating continuously.
Overall in Europe, there will be a continuous presence of three fully equipped army brigade combat teams (ABCTs) – one armored, one airborne and one Stryker – as well as one prepositioned set of combat-ready equipment to support another ABCT. A U.S. armored brigade generally consists of about 5,000 troops. The U.S. military’s presence along NATO’s eastern edge, therefore, will likely be larger than the combined contribution of all other NATO member states.
Beyond the contributions of individual members, NATO’s capabilities are constrained. NATO operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS. The AWACS serve multiple purposes, from aiding in air policing to evacuations and crisis response, and have been used in missions as diverse as air support in the Baltics and large-scale sports events. Furthermore, the organization is working on developing NATO-owned and operated Alliance Ground Surveillance. As part of this effort, the first of five NATO Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles conducted its first flight in December 2015.
Limitations to Collective Defense
NATO is a military alliance that for the most part depends on direct contributions from members for specific exercises, training efforts and missions. In practice, as the interests of NATO members continue to diverge, there are strong limitations to NATO’s ability to react to crises and play a role in defending members.
NATO’s ability to react to an immediate threat to a member state centers around the alliance’s Response Force. In 2014, the size of the force was tripled (from 13,000 to about 40,000) as a result of the conflict in Ukraine and tensions along the alliance’s eastern borders. These troops are stationed in their home countries and on call in case NATO decides to deploy.
Within this Response Force, the alliance created a “spearhead force” called a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. This force comprises about 20,000 personnel. It has a brigade-sized multinational land component (about 5,000 ground troops), while other components include air, maritime, logistics and special operations forces. Parts of this force can deploy within a few days from home bases.
Nevertheless, NATO’s structure emphasizes national-level political decision-making and contributions, so NATO is heavily affected by decisions made in 28 different capitals. While NATO’s Response Force is, in theory, on call to respond rapidly to threats, the decision to deploy this force is made by the North Atlantic Council, a body made up of representatives from all member states. The council operates based on consensus, rather than voting, meaning that the opposition or hesitation of even a few member states can slow down decision-making in situations where rapid response can make a significant tactical difference.
The alliance also relies on national-level political decisions to raise troops and equipment for specific missions. NATO maintains some of its own equipment, but for major missions it relies on personnel and equipment provided by member countries on an ad-hoc basis. When NATO embarks on a new mission, the alliance calls a force generation conference, where NATO military commanders draft lists of the troops and equipment needed. Governments then make offers of what kinds of forces they are willing to contribute to the mission. This system both slows down NATO responses to new challenges and injects uncertainty to the alliance’s defense commitments, since governments can choose whether they wish to contribute forces on a case-by-case basis.
The national-level governments can also add caveats during force generation – specific restrictions on their own troops based on geography, logistics, rules of engagement and command status. These caveats limit the effectiveness of NATO forces and reduce the flexibility of forces on the ground. For example, in Afghanistan, NATO troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) initially grappled with a total of 83 caveats. Only American, British, Canadian and Dutch forces were free to engage in combat without restrictions from their home governments. For context, in late 2009, ISAF was made up of 42 contributing countries, with the U.S., U.K., Canada and the Netherlands together representing about 68 percent of the 67,700 allied troops, according to official NATO data.
Another structural problem that undermines the alliance’s ability to reliably respond to threats and emergencies is that NATO has to get permission to move troops and equipment across borders of some of its own member states. On June 6, Foreign Affairs quoted an unnamed NATO official as saying that while NATO had good arrangements with member states regarding troop movement across borders in the Cold War, it does not have the same kind of provisions with its newer members. The official reported that in most countries along NATO’s eastern edge, getting clearance to move troops would require five days or fewer, but in one unspecified country, obtaining clearance would still take more than five days. So in the event of an attack or heightened tensions in Central and Eastern Europe that required rapid movement of troops, it is possible that NATO might not be able to rely on one or more of its own member states.
NATO also struggles with intelligence-sharing. This is not a new problem: deciding who should provide intelligence and how it should be shared plagued the alliance during the Cold War. Since NATO’s inception, intelligence was generally regarded as a national-level responsibility. This led to two problems that still persist. First, there has always been a large disparity among alliance members’ intelligence capabilities. Gen. Bernard Rogers, who served as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1979 to 1987, said that 90 percent of his intelligence came from U.S. sources.
Moreover, while allies share information, elements in the intelligence community fear sharing some sensitive material with allies, or integrating allies too closely into U.S. intelligence systems. NATO governments are currently considering a proposal for creating the post of assistant secretary general for intelligence within the alliance, with the aim of integrating intelligence. But it remains unclear whether such an intelligence czar could overcome some NATO governments’ misgivings about sharing sensitive information.
The Future of NATO
The divergence of members’ interests and the continued contributions gap makes it unlikely that NATO will survive as America’s chief vehicle for defense cooperation in Europe. The threats facing NATO are evolving. Over the past two years, NATO’s Article 4 – which allows allies to call consultations when they feel their security is under threat – was invoked twice: first by Poland in 2014 over concerns regarding Russian aggression in the region and then by Turkey in 2015 following terror attacks in its territory. This was not the first time Turkey requested consultations and assistance under Article 4. Following the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian forces in 2012, Turkey asked for consultations and Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. agreed to deploy Patriot missile batteries to help protect Turkish territory.
The three principle threats for NATO are in the northeast, where Russia presents a threat to the Baltics and Poland; in the strategic Black Sea region, where tensions between Russia and Turkey, as well as NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria pose a challenge; and in the southeast, where Turkey is grappling with the impact of the wars in Syria and Iraq (especially with the Islamic State and concern about the Kurds).
Moscow’s moves may unite European governments in the short term, but as already seen in the diverse levels of defense contributions to the alliance’s eastern members, Russian aggression is not creating long-lasting cohesion among Western governments. Western European governments are less committed to NATO than in the past, and in general are not willing to greatly boost defense spending or use resources in NATO’s most threatened areas. NATO may still play a role in security cooperation and counterterrorism activities, but when it comes to providing significant military assistance to vulnerable members, the alliance is becoming less reliable.
Instead, bilateral and regional defense arrangements will play a greater role. U.S. bilateral assistance in Eastern Europe already demonstrates that Washington prefers to funnel much of its military activities through direct channels (that do not require agreement from all 28 member states) when it comes to allies under threat from Moscow.
The U.S. has a strong interest in limiting Russian influence in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. Moreover, a stable Turkey, able to both limit Russian ambitions in the Black Sea and help bear the burden of managing crises in the Middle East, is also a key part of U.S. strategy. Alliances along the Intermarium – the region that stretches from the Baltics in the north to the Black Sea region in the south – as well as bilateral alliances among European powers, will likely come to the fore. Without a greater European contribution to the alliance, the U.S. will increasingly sideline NATO in its activities, seeking alternative alliances to achieve strategic goals.
The transatlantic alliance established in 1949 to help deter the Soviet Union and defend Western Europe is still intact, but its original purpose and posture are no longer relevant. While the U.S. has used NATO as a vehicle for influencing European allies and cooperating on operations as varied as Bosnia, Afghanistan, humanitarian relief and counter-piracy, diverging interests and uneven contributions are undermining the alliance’s cohesion and effectiveness.
NATO members face serious threats, from Russia to the Islamic State, but their diverse approaches, military capabilities and strategic priorities translate into relatively modest joint efforts to combat these threats. As NATO’s role declines, the U.S. will opt to work with allies on a bilateral or regional basis. NATO may continue holding summits, issuing statements and making plans, but the alliance as a whole is unlikely to be the chief body addressing Europe’s future challenges.