The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the cornerstone of European security and U.S. foreign policy for more than sixty years. Founded in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet aggression, NATO has expanded significantly since the end of the Cold War, evolving to confront global threats ranging from counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa to counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Indeed, the NATO of the twenty-first century is generally more recognized for its role outside rather than inside Europe. As the threats facing the alliance change, it remains a community united in the shared values of democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law.
NATO is also no stranger to criticism. Detractors on both sides of the Atlantic have questioned its raison d'ętre as the Soviet specter fades. Many U.S. observers condemn what they see as the United States' disproportionate financial and military contributions to NATO. But proponents still see the alliance, for all its faults, as the preeminent institution for projecting Western interests, particularly at a time when the locus of global power is shifting east.
A Collective Security Framework
Ten western European nations, the United States, and Canada formed NATO in 1949 as a collective security alliance that would act primarily as a backstop to Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe. The NATO covenant is perhaps best embodied in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that "an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." The security umbrella provided by NATO after WWII was an essential condition for the economic reconstruction of Western Europe under the U.S. Marshall Plan.
In the mid-1950s, Greece, Turkey, and West Germany joined the alliance. In response, the Soviet Union and seven Eastern European states signed the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Just six years later, the ideological divide bisecting the continent was physically realized with the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Now twenty-eight members strong, the alliance has, since the fall of the Soviet Union, decided to tackle a broad array of new threats. Terrorism, weapons proliferation, piracy, regional and ethnic conflict, and other security challenges have replaced the menace of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. As of 2012, NATO has five ongoing missions: peacekeeping operations in Kosovo; anti-terrorism patrols in the Mediterranean; 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.
NATO's three primary tasks are collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security through partnerships. Dozens of partner nations collaborate with NATO in a variety of areas, but without the decision-making privileges of member states.
A Consensus-Based Alliance
NATO is both a political and military alliance. Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the principal political organization is the North Atlantic Council, a body composed of high-level delegates from each member state, supported by diplomatic staff. NATO decision-making requires the unanimous consent of its members, a system designed to express collective will while preserving the sovereignty of individual states. Other important civilian bodies include the Nuclear Planning Group, the chief authority on nuclear issues, and the Military Committee, which provides direction to NATO's two Strategic Commanders.
The NATO covenant is perhaps best embodied in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that "an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."
NATO's military structure is divided 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, currently U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, heads all NATO military operations. Although the alliance has an integrated military command, few forces are dedicated to NATO exclusively; most remain under their respective national commands until members commence NATO-specific operations. The alliance also has a secretary general, currently Danish politician Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who serves a four-year term as chief administrator, consensus-builder, and spokesperson.
Sharing the Burden
The NATO budget comprises three separate accounts that fund common alliance activities: the civil account, which supports civilian headquarters and international staff; the military account, which funds military headquarters and international staff; and the security investment account, which funds investments in certain security infrastructure. Member countries contribute to these budgets in accordance with a cost-sharing formula that factors a country's relative economic size. As of 2012, the U.S. contribution is roughly 22 percent across all three accounts.
Perhaps more importantly, the primary financial contribution made by member states to the alliance is represented by the costs associated with deploying their respective armed forces for NATO-led operations. These costs are not, however, incorporated into the formal NATO budget. As of 2012, the U.S. defense budget accounted for 75 percent of all NATO defense spending (WashPost), up from half during the Cold War.
A Post-Cold War Pivot
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact military alliance in the early 1990s presented NATO with a major crisis of relevance. Rather than declare victory for the West and disband, the alliance issued a new Strategic Concept that promised a broader approach to security in the new multipolar system.
The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the onset of a bloody ethnic conflict presented NATO with an opportunity to enter the post-Cold War fray almost immediately. The Balkans intervention constituted NATO's first-ever combat operation (PDF) and symbolized its new embrace of a crisis management role. 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 proved essential in ending the conflict. Just four years later, another NATO bombing campaign helped bring an end to the war in Kosovo. NATO forces still preside over peacekeeping operations in the country as of 2012.
"Rather than wait for threats to arrive at its borders," writes NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General Jamie Shea, "the Alliance has chosen to confront them at a strategic distance … In short, NATO has evolved from a defense into a security organization."
NATO expanded its membership in 1999, admitting the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
Afghanistan and ISAF
In a notable show of solidarity, NATO invoked its collective defense provision (Article V) for the first time in its history following the September 11 attacks on the United States. Shortly after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in Kabul, the UN dispatched an International Security Assistance Force to support the Afghan transitional government. NATO officially assumed command of ISAF in 2003, taking on its first operational commitment outside of Europe. The fact the alliance was used in Afghanistan "was revolutionary," says NATO expert Stanley Sloan. "It was proof the allies have adapted [NATO] to dramatically different tasks than what was anticipated during the Cold War."
Originally charged with securing Kabul and its environs, the NATO mission has expanded over the years to include nationwide counterinsurgency and the training of Afghan army and police. However, NATO allies at times have faced criticism from U.S. troops (USNews) for a perceived unwillingness to contribute more to the heavy fighting. The protracted war has been widely unpopular with the European public (LATimes), and many leaders have faced considerable political blowback at home for continuing to support it.
Some critics have decried ISAF's lack of cohesion. In the Washington Post, author and columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in 2009, "The members of NATO feel no allegiance to the alliance, or to one another." In contrast, CFR's Charles A. Kupchan lauded the European commitment, writing in 2012, "Although a good number of national contingents have limited responsibilities due to operational caveats, many Europeans have been very much in the fight. Indeed, British troops have faced higher casualty rates than their American counterparts." As of April 2012, there were roughly 130,000 ISAF soldiers from fifty countries (twenty-eight NATO) serving in Afghanistan (PDF), of which 99,000 were U.S. forces. Most troops are slated to leave the country by the end of 2014.
The Libyan Model
NATO's seven-month intervention in Libya beginning in March 2011, which aided the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, has also received mixed reviews. Operating under a UN mandate, international forces led by the United States, the UK, and France initiated a no-fly zone and an arms embargo over Libya in order to protect civilians from a bloody crackdown by the Qaddafi regime. NATO formally took over the Libya operation just days after its launch, but not without significant infighting between members over the mission's scope and command structure (Guardian). Before eventually endorsing the NATO transfer, Turkey, in particular, had voiced concerns with a Western-led intervention in the Arab World.
In his final policy speech as U.S. defense secretary in June 2011, Robert Gates criticized the weak involvement 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. "This is no longer a hypothetical worry," he said. "We are there today. And it is unacceptable."
"Rather than wait for threats to arrive at its borders, the Alliance has chosen to confront them at a strategic distance … In short, NATO has evolved from a defense into a security organization." - NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General Jamie Shea
Nearly a year later, U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo H. Daalder and top NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis trumpeted the Libya operation as "a model of intervention." They argue that the mission protected thousands of lives, minimized collateral damage, and enabled the overthrow of one of the world's most oppressive regimes--and without a single allied casualty. "When a group of countries wants to launch a joint intervention as a coalition--which confers political legitimacy--only NATO can provide the common command structure and capabilities necessary," say Daalder and Stavridis.
Whether NATO is able to adapt to a fluid mix of security challenges is a central question in the years ahead. Emerging new threats, many of them unconventional, will continue to challenge the alliance's relevance. NATO's current Strategic Concept, adopted in Lisbon in 2010, provides a vision for confronting this future by addressing issues such as cybersecurity, weapons proliferation, terrorism, and missile defense. Notably, members agreed in Lisbon to integrate existing ballistic missile defense capabilities in order to defend U.S. and European populations against attacks from states like Iran.
But a more formidable threat to the alliance may come from within. Economic and fiscal conditions on both sides of the Atlantic will likely force NATO to make some tough choices. NATO's "smart defense" initiative seeks to improve alliance efficiencies by encouraging members to cooperate in developing and maintaining military resources. "For a military alliance like NATO--composed of many relatively small countries," writes Small Wars Journal Managing Editor Robert Haddick, "uncoordinated defense spending leads to the fielding of incompatible equipment, non-economic production, and military forces that can't function together." Smart defense is a step toward solving this problem, he says.
In May 2012 testimony before Congress, CFR's Charles A. Kupchan provided a prescription for NATO's role in the changing geopolitical environment. NATO should serve as an "anchor of liberal values and democratic institution," he said. "Most emerging security challenges lie well beyond alliance territory, making NATO's ability to serve as a global security hub and to contribute to stability in other regions fundamental to its future relevance." The alliance's most important contribution to global security, he says, is likely to come in the form of capacity-building rather than war-fighting.
In this CFR Council Special Report, The Future of NATO, former senior fellow James M. Goldgeier examines what the alliance must do to preserve NATO's relevance in the changing global security environment.
This Congressional Research Service report explains the issues to be covered at the May 19-20, 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, where talks about Afghanistan, "smart defense," and partnerships with non-NATO members are supposed to dominate.
This report from the Atlantic Council, Anchoring the Alliance, underscores the enduring importance of the alliance and highlights ways the United States, Germany, France, the UK, and Turkey can lead.