Stephen M. Walt

Is NATO irrelevant?

NATO is by common consensus the most successful political-military alliance in modern history. It has lasted longer than almost all others, incorporates more members, and it achieved its central purpose(s) without firing a shot. After the Cold War ended, it managed to redefine itself by taking on a broader array of security missions and has ...

Carolyn Kaster - Pool/Getty Images
Carolyn Kaster - Pool/Getty Images

NATO is by common consensus the most successful political-military alliance in modern history. It has lasted longer than almost all others, incorporates more members, and it achieved its central purpose(s) without firing a shot. After the Cold War ended, it managed to redefine itself by taking on a broader array of security missions and has played a modest but useful role in the war in Afghanistan. By surviving well beyond the demise of the Soviet Union, it has also defied realist predictions that its days (or at least its years) were numbered.

Nonetheless, I share William Pfaff’s view that NATO doesn’t have much of a future.

First, Europe’s economic woes are forcing key NATO members (and especially the U.K.) to adopt draconian cuts in defense spending. NATO’s European members already devote a much smaller percentage of GDP to defense than the United States does, and they are notoriously bad at translating even that modest amount into effective military power. The latest round of defense cuts means that Europe will be even less able to make a meaningful contribution to out-of-area missions in the future, and those are the only serious military missions NATO is likely to have.

Second, the ill-fated Afghan adventure will have divisive long-term effects on alliance solidarity. If the United States and its ISAF allies do not win a clear and decisive victory (a prospect that seems increasingly remote), there will be a lot of bitter finger-pointing afterwards. U.S. leaders will complain about the restrictions and conditions that some NATO allies (e.g., Germany) placed on their participation, while European publics will wonder why they let the United States get them bogged down there for over a decade. It won’t really matter who is really responsible for the failure; the key point is that NATO is unlikely to take on another mission like this one anytime soon (if ever). And given that Europe itself is supposedly stable, reliably democratic, and further pacified by the EU, what other serious missions is NATO supposed to perform?

The third potential schism is Turkey, which has been a full NATO member since 1950. I’m not as concerned about Turkey’s recent foreign policy initiatives as some people are, but there’s little doubt that Ankara’s diplomatic path is diverging on a number of key issues. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have been steadily ratcheting up pressure on Iran, while Turkey has moved closer to Tehran both diplomatically and economically. Turkey is increasingly at odds with Washington on Israel-Palestine issues, which is bound to have negative repercussions in the U.S. Congress. Rising Islamophobia in both the United States and Europe could easily reinforce these frictions. And given that Turkey has NATO’s largest military forces (after the United States) and that NATO operates largely by consensus, a major rift could have paralyzing effects on the alliance as a whole.

Put all this together, and NATO’s future as a meaningful force in world affairs doesn’t look too bright. Of course, the usual response to such gloomy prognostications is to point out that NATO has experienced crises throughout its history (Suez, anyone?), and to remind people that it has always managed to weather them in the past. True enough, but most of these rifts occurred within the context of the Cold War, when there was an obvious reason for leaders in Europe and America to keep disputes within bounds.

Of course, given NATO’s status as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity, no American president or European leader will want to preside over its demise. Plus, you’ve got all those bureaucrats in Brussels and Atlantophiles in Europe and America who regard NATO as their life’s work. For all these reasons, I don’t expect NATO to lose members or dissolve. I’ll even be somewhat surprised if foreign policy elites even admit that it has serious problems. 

Instead, NATO is simply going to be increasingly irrelevant. As I wrote more than a decade ago:

. . .the Atlantic Alliance is beginning to resemble Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, appearing youthful and robust as it grows older — but becoming ever more infirm. The Washington Treaty may remain in force, the various ministerial meetings may continue to issue earnest and upbeat communiques, and the Brussels bureaucracy may keep NATO’s web page up and running-all these superficial routines will go on, provided the alliance isn’t asked to actually do anything else. The danger is that NATO will be dead before anyone notices, and we will only discover the corpse the moment we want it to rise and respond."

Looking back, I’d say I underestimated NATO’s ability to rise from its sickbed. Specifically, it did manage to stagger through the Kosovo War in 1999 and even invoked Article V guarantees for the first time after 9/11. NATO members have sent mostly token forces to Afghanistan (though the United States, as usual, has done most of the heavy lifting). But even that rather modest effort has been exhausting, and isn’t likely to be repeated. A continent that is shrinking, aging, and that faces no serious threat of foreign invasion isn’t going to be an enthusiastic partner for future adventures in nation-building, and it certainly isn’t likely to participate in any future U.S. effort to build a balancing coalition against a rising China.

The bad news, in short, is that one of the cornerstones of the global security architecture is likely to erode in the years ahead. The good news, however, is that it won’t matter very much if it does.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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