The Recurring Obsolescence of NATO: A Brief Lesson from Modern Political History

Comment: By Martin Belchev

Recent political developments in Europe and the US have served to spark a debate about the relevance of NATO in the twenty-first century, and its role as a global security actor.

President Donald Trump has voiced strong criticism in regards to current arrangements, going as far as to question the relevance of NATO in the modern multi-polar international environment. Even though many of these comments have since been retracted, with the argument shifting to the USA’s disproportionate commitment to the budget, the question of the organisation’s role in modern politics remains.

Reconsidering the role of NATO in the modern context seems somewhat ironic, especially considering the volatility of the current international system. Indeed, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the rise of militant groups in the Middle East, the failure to implement lasting peace solutions in North Africa, and the assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy in East Asia serve as a reminder of Ulusoy’s argument that security should be seen as both a public good and a commodity, which can be achieved through wider cooperation.

However, the debate around NATO’s role as a congruent and efficient security framework is not something recent or new. Similar concerns of relevance have been raised throughout the pact’s existence.

A familiar argument can be found in some quite influential works of scholars in the early nineties, in his 1992 seminal work ‘The End of History’ and ‘the Last Man’, Fukuyama argued that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the socialist project, liberal democracy represented the final stage of historical evolution. In his view, the development of hard power and military capabilities would slowly wither away, paving the way for increased trade between nations and foreign policies based solely upon the foundations of economic policies.

Fukuyama’s arguments became intrinsic to the Neoliberal theorists of the early twenty-first century, with scholars such as Kenneth Waltz pointing out that political developments at the time essentially spelled out the obsolescence of security organisations like NATO, and the rising prominence of economic blocs.

Thus it can be argued that NATO’s relevance to international politics has been a focal point of debate for international relations academics for some time. This can be explained by examining the very purpose of NATO’s creation. Though presented through the discourse of security cooperation and mutual defense, it was nevertheless formed out of the need of Western states to counteract the growing military and ideological threat coming from the Warsaw Pact.

The failure of the Soviet Union to hold as a cohesive political entity, and its consequent dissolution, meant that NATO’s main objective was no longer focal to Western foreign policy, and transnational political blocs, such as the European Union, were expected to play a much larger role in the preservation of geopolitical security, while also promoting the prevalence of trade and economic relations over traditional hard power capabilities.

The failure of the overoptimistic neoliberal line of thought and the continued importance of NATO, become more than apparent during the breakdown of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia.

The failure of the European Union to address the regional conflict occurring in its immediate geopolitical neighbourhood signalled the continued need of global security cooperation frameworks, such as NATO, in order to cope with increased intrastate conflict. Such developments have prompted experts such as Mary Kaldor to conclude that what the international political scene witnessed in the post-Cold War period was a rise in ethnic intra-state conflicts, which she branded as “new wars”.

While the concept has been heavily criticised, the dissolution of the bipolar international order has allowed for fringe parties, ethnic Identitarians and religious extremists to make their own bid for domestic power in conflicts across the globe.

The failure of the European Union to mediate a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Bosnia, and the subsequent Resolution 816 of the UN Security Council, prompted NATO members to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia. Furthermore, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the military response of the American-led coalition saw the deployment of NATO intelligence and surveillance capabilities in Turkey during operations Anchor Guard and Ace Guard.

In other words, regardless of the predictions made about NATO’s relevance to the Post-Soviet world order, the military alliance still remained a crucial global security player. Furthermore, NATO policy-makers sought to quickly establish peaceful relations with former members of the Soviet Bloc by founding the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, which was focused on active political engagement with non-NATO member states. The Council was later replaced with the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which serves as a multilateral forum aimed at increasing security cooperation with states on the European periphery, including formerly Soviet Baltic republics.

NATO officially recognised the new reality of geopolitics in its new strategic concept which explicitly stated that risks to the security of members were less likely to stem from carefully planned and calculated external aggression against the territorial integrity of the Allies, and more likely the result of intra-instability caused by social, ethnic and political convulsions.

According to Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, leading scholars in the field of security communities, the success of NATO can be attributed to the fact the very nature of the way the organisation managed to transform its purpose and account for the new reality of conflict during the last thirty years. The authors argue that strategic flexibility of NATO is the result of what they refer to as the “social learning capability” of a given organisation.

Further elaboration on their proposition suggests tight security formations, which have established comprehensive and elaborate institutional frameworks, are able to evolve and achieve considerable political resilience. Social learning in regards to NATO has been the direct result of the common perception of “Atlanticism”, shared by member states, which not only accounts for issues regarding security but is constitutive of certain political and social values, such as the idea of the liberal democracy and laisses-faire economics.

Furthermore, member states have been actively involved in a wide variety of economic, technological and political transactions long before the formal establishment of organisation. Following Adler and Barnett’s argument, it could be easy to conclude that NATO has managed to transform into a source of political identity, surpassing the purpose of its original design.

NATO’s subsequent enlargement policies, while initially successful, have cast doubt on the ability of the organisation to meet current challenges. While the initial expansion was lauded as a considerable step towards global stability, it has raised questions regarding new members’ commitment and actual capability or will to withstand external aggression. Many of NATO members have failed to reach the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP to their security budgets. A report conducted in 2014 has uncovered that just 4 of the 28 member states have managed to meet this objective and that the US remains by far the largest contributor to NATO’s budget.

Considering Russian’s foreign policy assertiveness, an unstable Middle East and China’s bid for power in East Asia, it easy to see why the new US administration has been quite vocal in its critique to the current institutional structure of NATO. Such problems resonate well with the realist assertion that weaker states will, in the end of the day, seek to increase their own security by simply bandwagoning with more powerful states, preferring to focus on their economic development instead.

Given the political reality of modern security challenges the question is then not if whether NATO is relevant to modern geopolitics, but whether it will be able to evolve once again, just as it did 30 years ago. The expectations of the new US administration for increased spending on security from NATO member states is not unrealistic, and it serves as a sober reminder of the fact that the current institutional framework of NATO may soon become unsustainable.

Such statements have served to rekindle multilateral negotiations between member states on how these new challenges can be addressed, and how must the organisation reform. Therefore it is of utmost importance that European member states do increase their military spending, even if it still does not meet the desired 2% of their GDP. The US administration nevertheless must encourage the former to do so through stronger commitment to the principles of NATO and recognising the need for the organisations, thus accounting for the fact that coercive comments about NATO’s existence are of little help to its ability to institutionally reform, and evolve.

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