The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
Updated: August 5, 2014

Karl Anderson/U.S. Navy

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Cold War cornerstone of transatlantic security, has significantly recast its role in the past twenty years. Founded in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet aggression, NATO has evolved to confront global threats ranging from piracy off the Horn of Africa to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. But while the modern NATO is generally more recognized for its role beyond rather than within Europe, Russian actions in recent years, particularly its 2014 intervention in Ukraine, have refocused the alliance's attention on the continent. Recent developments have also exposed unresolved tensions over NATO's expansion into the former Soviet sphere.

A Post-Cold War Pivot

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Western leaders intensely debated the future direction of the transatlantic alliance. The Clinton administration favored expanding NATO to both extend its security umbrella to the east and consolidate democratic gains in the former Warsaw Pact. Others wished to peel back the Pentagon's commitments in Europe with the fading of the Soviet threat.

Across the Atlantic, NATO allies were also split on the issue. London feared enlargement would dilute the alliance, while Paris believed it would give NATO too much influence. Many in France hoped to integrate former Soviet states via European institutions. There was also concern about alienating Russia.

For the White House, the decision held larger meaning. "[President Clinton] considered NATO enlargement a litmus test of whether the U.S. would remain internationally engaged and defeat the isolationist and unilateralist sentiments that were emerging," wrote Ronald D. Asmus, one of the intellectual architects of NATO expansion, in Opening NATO's Door (2002).

In his first trip to Europe as president (January 1994), Clinton announced that NATO enlargement was "no longer a question of whether but when and how." Just days before, alliance leaders approved the launch of the Partnership for Peace, a program designed to strengthen ties with Central and Eastern European countries, including many former Soviet republics like Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Headquartered in Brussels, NATO is a consensus-based alliance, where decisions reflect the membership's collective will. But individual states or subgroups of allies may initiate action outside NATO auspices.
Beyond Collective Defense

Many defense planners also felt that a post-Cold War vision for NATO needed to look beyond collective defense—Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty states that "an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all"—and focus on confronting acute instability outside its membership. "The common denominator of all the new security problems in Europe is that they all lie beyond NATO's current borders," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) in a 1993 speech titled "NATO: Out of Area or Out of Business."

The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the onset of bloody ethnic conflict tested the alliance on this point almost immediately. What began as a mission to impose a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina evolved into a bombing campaign on Bosnian Serb forces that military experts say was essential in ending the conflict. It was during Operation Deny Flight (April 1994) that NATO conducted its first combat operations in its forty-year history, shooting down four Bosnian Serb aircraft.

NATO Operations

As of 2014, NATO pursues five missions: peacekeeping operations in Kosovo; anti-terrorism patrols in the Mediterranean Sea; anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa; assistance to the African Union in Somalia; and the top alliance priority, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan.

Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, NATO is a consensus-based alliance, where decisions reflect the membership's collective will. But individual states or subgroups of allies may initiate action outside NATO auspices. For instance, the United States, France, and the UK began policing a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya in early 2011, and within days transferred command of the operation to NATO (once Turkish concerns had been managed). At the same time, all member states are not required to participate in every operation. For instance, Germany and Poland declined to contribute directly to the campaign in Libya.

NATO's military structure is split between two strategic commands: the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe located near Mons, Belgium, and the Allied Command Transformation located in Norfolk, Virginia. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe, always a U.S. flag or general officer (currently Gen. Philip M. Breedlove) heads all NATO military operations. Although the alliance has an integrated command, most forces remain under their respective national commands until NATO-specific operations commence.

NATO's secretary general (currently Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen) serves a four-year term as chief administrator and international envoy. (Former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg will take office October 2014.) The North Atlantic Council is the alliance's principal political organization, composed of high-level delegates from each member state.

Sharing the Burden

The primary financial contribution made by member states is the cost of deploying their respective armed forces for NATO-led operations. (These expenses are not part of the formal NATO budget, which funds civilian and military headquarters and certain security infrastructure.) As of 2014, the Pentagon accounted for more than 70 percent of all NATO defense spending, up from half during the Cold War.

Many U.S. officials have been critical of European members for hollowing their defenses. In 2006, members committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, but by 2012 just four met this target—the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia.

In his final policy speech as U.S. defense secretary in June 2011, Robert Gates criticized the weakness of some NATO members, saying that "many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can't. The military capabilities simply aren't there." He also reiterated his fears of a "two-tiered alliance," where some members specialize in "soft" humanitarian missions and others in "hard" combat roles.

Secretary-General Rasmussen echoed this concern in his 2012 annual report, warning of "an ever greater military reliance on the United States, and growing asymmetries in capability in European allies. This has the potential to undermine alliance solidarity and puts at risk the ability of the European allies to act without the involvement of the United States."

Afghanistan and ISAF

NATO invoked its collective defense provision (Article V) for the first time following the September 11 attacks on the United States, perpetrated by the al-Qaeda terrorist network based in Afghanistan. Shortly after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in Kabul, the UN Security Council authorized an International Security Assistance Force to support the new Afghan government. NATO officially assumed command of ISAF in 2003, assuming its first operational commitment beyond Europe. The fact the alliance was used in Afghanistan "was revolutionary," said NATO expert Stanley Sloan in a 2012 CFR interview. "It was proof the allies have adapted [NATO] to dramatically different tasks than what was anticipated during the Cold War."

But some critics questioned NATO's battlefield cohesion despite the historic nature of the mission in Afghanistan. The allies agreed on the central goals—the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan—but some members restricted their forces from participating in counterinsurgency missions and put operational restrictions on them, a practice known as "national caveats." Troops from the United States, Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands saw some of the heaviest fighting and bore the largest casualties, stirring resentments among alliance states.

As of June 2014, there were roughly fifty-thousand ISAF troops [PDF] from nearly fifty countries (twenty-eight NATO) serving in Afghanistan, of which thirty-three thousand were U.S. forces. Most are scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014.

Many current and former Russian leaders believe the alliance's inroads into the former Soviet sphere are a clear betrayal of alleged guarantees to not expand eastward after German reunification in 1990.
Relations With Russia

Moscow has viewed NATO's post-Cold War expansion in Central and Eastern Europe with great concern. (As of 2014, twelve Partnership for Peace members have joined NATO.) Many current and former Russian leaders believe the alliance's inroads into the former Soviet sphere are a betrayal of alleged guarantees to not expand eastward after German reunification in 1990—although some U.S. officials involved in these discussions dispute this pledge.

NATO's Expanding Membership Map

To be sure, most Western leaders knew the risks of enlargement. "If there is a long-term danger in keeping NATO as it is, there is immediate danger in changing it too rapidly. Swift expansion of NATO eastward could make a neo-imperialist Russia a self-fulfilling prophecy," wrote then secretary of state Warren Christopher in the Washington Post in January 1994.

Over the years, NATO and Russia have made significant attempts toward reconciliation, particularly with their signing of the 1997 Founding Act, which established an official forum for bilateral discussions, but experts say that a persistent lack of trust has plagued relations.

NATO's Bucharest summit in the spring of 2008 sharply deepened the distrust. The alliance delayed Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia but declared its support for eventual full membership for both, despite repeated warnings from Russia of political and military consequences. Russia's invasion of Georgia in the summer was a clear signal of Moscow's intentions to protect what it sees as its sphere of influence, experts say.

In 2014, Russia's annexation of Crimea and alleged military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, including the provision of heavy weaponry, will likely poison relations with NATO for the foreseeable future. "We clearly face the gravest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War," said Secretary-General Rasmussen of Russia's intervention.

In a March 2014 address honoring the annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin made explicit Russia's deep-seated grievances with the alliance. "They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO's expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders," Putin told Russia's parliament. "In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous [Western] policy of containment, led in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, continues today."

Another perennial point of contention has been NATO's ballistic missile defense shield, which is being deployed across Europe in several phases. The United States, which developed the technology, says the system is only designed to guard against limited missile attacks, particularly short- and mid-range strikes from Iran. However, the Kremlin says the technology could be updated and fears it may eventually tip the strategic balance toward the West. "The military people realize missile defense is part of the strategic arsenal of the United States," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in February 2014. "When a nuclear shield is added to a nuclear sword, it is very tempting to use this offensive defense capability."

A Revived Alliance?

Fears of further Russian incursions have prompted alliance leaders to reassess NATO's defenses in Europe, particularly in the East. "This is a wake-up call for the Euro-Atlantic community, for NATO, and for all those committed to a Europe whole, free and at peace," said Secretary-General Rasmussen in March 2014.

Gen. Breedlove, NATO's top military commander, said in May that the alliance needs to prepare for a future in which Moscow can no longer be viewed as a partner. He urged a strategic reevaluation of the NATO Response Force, the alliance's rapid deployment force, and said that permanently positioning troops in eastern Europe should not be ruled out. While Poland has requested a permanent NATO presence on its territory, the Czech Republic opposes the basing of troops.

The United States has shored up NATO's air presence over Poland and the Baltic states, and other allies, including Britain, Germany, and Denmark, are looking to provide reinforcements as well. NATO will also increase outreach to Ukraine—an alliance partner since 1994—including promotion of defense reforms and capacity building. But as a non-member, Ukraine remains outside of NATO's defense perimeter, and there are clear limits on how far it can be brought into institutional structures.

The conflict in Ukraine rippled across the globe in July after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over rebel-held territory, killing all 298 passengers. NATO governments believe the commercial airliner was destroyed by a rocket fired by pro-Russian insurgents who thought they were targeting a Ukrainian warplane.

The Ukraine crisis will dominate discussion at the NATO summit in Wales in September, where military planners are expected to announce additional measures to strengthen the alliance's collective defenses. In July, a cross-party group of British officials warned that NATO was ill-prepared to counter the military threat from Russia, and questioned whether the alliance had the political will to deter an attack. Among other things, their report recommended that leaders address "the Alliance's vulnerabilities in the face of asymmetric (ambiguous warfare) attacks."

In the longer term, some defense analysts believe the alliance should consider advancing membership to Finland and Sweden, two Partnership for Peace countries with a history of avoiding military alignment. (Nordic peers Denmark, Iceland, and Norway are charter NATO members.)

Additional Resources

This video from NATO Review magazine examines the roots of the current friction between Russia and the alliance.

Foreign Affairs interviews NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen amid the crisis in Ukraine.

In Opening NATO's Door, Ronald D. Asmus bears witness to the politics behind alliance enlargement after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Walter Russell Mead describes the "Return of Geopolitics" and old-fashioned military power plays, like Russia's Crimea intervention, in the pages of Foreign Affairs.

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