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Why is NATO still needed, even after the downfall of the Soviet Union?

Question submitted by Michael Varacalli, from New York University, March 6, 2013

Answered by: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an international military alliance that was created to enable its members (the United States, Canada, and their European partners) to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Alliances usually come to an end when the threat that led to their formation disappears. However, NATO defies the historical norm, not only surviving well beyond the Cold War's end, but also expanding its membership and broadening its mission.

NATO remains valuable to its members for a number of reasons. The expansion of the alliance has played an important role in consolidating stability and democracy in Central Europe, where members continue to look to NATO as a hedge against the return of a threat from Russia. In this respect, NATO and the European Union have been working in tandem to lock in a prosperous and secure Atlantic community.

Meanwhile, NATO has repeatedly demonstrated the utility of its integrated military capability. The alliance used force to end ethnic conflict in the Balkans and played a role in preserving the peace that followed. NATO has sustained a long-term presence in Afghanistan, helping to counter terrorism and prepare Afghans to take over responsibility for their own security. NATO also oversaw the mission in Libya that succeeded in stopping its civil war and removing the Qaddafi regime. All of these missions demonstrate NATO's utility and its contributions to the individual and collective welfare of its members, precisely why they continue to believe in the merits of membership.

Looking forward, NATO will face a challenge from shrinking defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic. And as the NATO mission in Afghanistan winds down, its members will be reevaluating the pros and cons of taking on commitments far from NATO territory.