NATO at 50: The Summit & Beyond

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

June 1, 1999

At the threshold of a new century, NATO needs a new purpose. A NATO maintained solely as a hedge against an uncertain future (including a possibly resurgent Russia) will become increasingly marginal to the interests of its members. A shift in emphasis to defending common global interests risks magnifying discord among Alliance members. Instead, NATO’s purpose should now be to extend security and stability to all of Europe. This will require placing more emphasis on the ability to conduct crisis management operations in the region and taking practical, visible steps to keep the door to NATO membership wide open.


Born to defend a Europe devastated by war and confronting the threat of growing Soviet power, the North Atlantic Alliance evolved into the most successful military alliance in history. It achieved a stunning victory in the cold war, vanquishing the Soviet Union without ever firing a shot. But as allied leaders meet in Washington this month to celebrate NATO’s fiftieth anniversary, they face a critical question: in the absence of the Soviet threat, what is NATO’s future?

For nearly ten years the Alliance has avoided answering this question, embarking instead on a series of ambitious but disparate initiatives. In 1991 NATO adopted a new strategy emphasizing dialogue, cooperation, and crisis management over collective defense. In 1994 it embraced the East through its Partnership for Peace initiative. In 1995 it ended the war in Bosnia. In 1996 it solidified its European pillar by offering Europe the military capacity to act together without direct U.S. participation. In 1997 it invited new members to join the Alliance. And as this brief goes to press, NATO is attempting to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo.

Although valuable taken individually, these initiatives together do not provide a clear, convincing, and overarching purpose for the Atlantic Alliance. And without a central purpose, critical policy issues—when, where, and how NATO should threaten and use force and which, if any, additional applicants to allow to join the enlarging Alliance—will remain contentious and unresolved. Even its very existence could be called into question.

Why NATO? What NATO?

NATO’s demise would have serious consequences. For fifty years the Alliance has been a principal source of security and stability in Western Europe, strengthening democratic institutions and enhancing prosperity throughout the region. NATO has provided the United States with the institutional entrée into Europe that it lacked before both world wars. The U.S. presence in Europe has helped pacify intra-European disputes and resolve security dilemmas that once spawned conflict and war. The Alliance also has provided a framework for resolving disputes among its members without resort to force. As a result, Europe has been able to direct its energies to achieving a far-reaching economic and political integration, which has, in turn, facilitated Germany’s return to normalcy.

NATO’s intra-European successes emerged as by-products of its principal purpose of defending Europe against an overwhelming Soviet threat. With that threat now gone, the Alliance needs a new purpose to sustain its role in Europe. In theory, NATO can pursue any of three—providing for its members’ collective defense, defending their common interests globally, and extending to all of Europe the security and stability they have long enjoyed. In practice, only the last of these will be sustainable over the long run.

NATO could hold fast to its traditional purpose—providing for the collective defense of its member’s territory against direct attack. Uncertainty about developments inside Russia and the possibility of a new threat elsewhere give reason to maintain NATO for the foreseeable future. But with no major threat likely to materialize for a decade or more, a NATO prepared solely to meet a revived, Soviet-style threat is bound to become increasingly marginal to the interests of its members. Although one of its core objectives must be to hedge against an uncertain future (including, but not limited to, political and military developments inside Russia), that cannot be NATO’s principal purpose.

Second, NATO could shift emphasis from defending common territory to defending common interests. Because these interests are not generally threatened in a relatively peaceful Europe, NATO’s focus would have to shift beyond Europe to the Middle East, Persian Gulf, Northeast Asia, and other regions where the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disruption of energy supplies, terrorism, and challenges to regional power balances may threaten U.S. and European interests. Although this goal enjoys widespread support within the U.S. government, European allies—including Great Britain and France, whose interests extend well beyond Europe—are skeptical. For them the Alliance remains a quintessential European security organization. And even if the allies were supportive in principle, moving NATO’s focus out of Europe is unlikely to be effective in practice. As transatlantic disputes over weapons proliferation and the Middle East have underscored, Europe and the United States often differ over what interests are at stake, how (and whether) those interests are threatened, and how to respond.

Finally, NATO can adopt the goal of extending to the rest of Europe the security and stability its members have long enjoyed. In so doing, the Alliance can fulfill George Marshall’s vision of a Europe “united in peace, freedom, and prosperity,” a Europe in which democratic forms of government would be the norm, individual liberty and minority rights would be protected and upheld, and open market economies would provide an expanding basis for the welfare of all its citizens.

An Alliance for Europe

Ensuring security and stability throughout Europe is the right focus for NATO in the coming century. Collective defense is too restrictive a purpose and provides insufficient grist for NATO’s large, dynamic, and increasingly flexible military machine. Defending collective global interests is too expansive a purpose and risks increasing discord over how far the Alliance’s writ should extend both geographically and functionally. Instead, NATO should strike a middle course, limiting its involvement to Europe and preparing for the kind of crisis management it has undertaken in the Balkans. Given the region’s war-torn history, success in creating a secure and stable Europe would be no small accomplishment.

NATO’s future agenda, to be launched at the Washington summit, should be twofold:

  • to develop a strategic concept that adjusts the balance in preparing for collective defense toward crisis management to promote stability and security in Europe; and
  • to take practical, visible steps to keep the door to NATO membership wide open.

The New Strategic Concept—When, Where, and How to Use Force

The new strategic concept adopted by allied leaders at the Washington summit will reconfirm NATO’s fundamental commitment to collective defense. But the evolving security environment in Europe will change the nature of this commitment in two ways. First, because the possible sources of direct attack are ambiguous, NATO allies may no longer agree either about what constitutes a direct attack or how to respond. Second, as NATO’s aim shifts to security and stability in Europe, its crisis-response and peace-support operations will become increasingly important.

NATO still faces the possibility of direct attack. Regional conflicts can spill over into Alliance territory. Missiles enable a hostile country to attack from a great distance. Terrorists worldwide can strike suddenly against any target. But such attacks, unlike the old Soviet threat, may leave NATO unable to agree whether and how to use force in response. If a conflict in the Middle East, for example, were to spill over into Turkey, some allies may be reluctant to consider it a direct attack. German leaders, after all, resisted defending Turkey at the outset of the 1990-91 Gulf War in case Ankara was attacked as an outgrowth of the war. Similarly, not all allies may support preemptive military action to counter an imminent attack against a NATO country by long-range missiles or even by weapons of mass destruction. Finally, just as terrorist attacks such as the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco or the 1988 bombing of PanAm flight 103 have never been viewed as direct attacks against NATO, future efforts to define them as such are unlikely to succeed.

Although the new strategic concept must underscore allied readiness to confront such ambiguous threats, NATO must be ready to contend with crises in which consensus may be impossible. NATO’s main role will be to provide a springboard for joint military action, if possible by the Alliance as a whole, but if not, by those allies that wish to respond when others cannot or will not. Such exigencies illustrate the importance of combined joint task forces, which enable a subset of allies to use Alliance military capabilities, planning resources, and command arrangements to conduct military operations.

The second challenge to incorporate into the new strategic concept is delineating the Alliance’s role in crisis response and peace support. Since the early 1990s, NATO’s efforts to end violence and build peace in the Balkans have demonstrated that the Alliance can best extend security and stability in Europe by using its military muscle to back up diplomatic efforts to resolve internal conflicts and by implementing the resulting settlements. More generally, NATO must stand ready to enforce the agreed principles and norms that govern behavior within and between states in Europe, by responding forcefully in case of gross human rights violations or when fundamental freedoms are violently suppressed.

NATO’s recent experience in Bosnia and Kosovo exemplifies the military involvement that will become the norm. Alliance efforts in the Balkans have ranged from enforcing weapons embargoes and protecting UN forces delivering humanitarian aid to launching air strikes and deploying ground troops to implement a peace settlement. These operations, still viewed by some as unwelcome distractions from the Alliance’s real function of collective defense, must come to be seen as core NATO missions. The presence of NATO and U.S. forces in these conflicts blunts violence and prevents a return to hostilities—goals at least as important as hedging against an uncertain future by retaining tens of thousands of U.S. troops in a Germany now surrounded by NATO allies.

Finally, the new strategic concept must also make clear that the threat or use of force by NATO in these situations should, whenever possible, be authorized by the UN Security Council. But because arbitrary action by one of its permanent members, including Russia and China, can prevent UN authorization, such approval cannot be a prerequisite for NATO action. If a clear threat to regional peace and security exists or if vital human rights principles are violated, the Alliance must be able to act when its members judge it necessary. Kosovo is a case in point. The legitimacy of NATO’s airstrikes to prevent an imminent humanitarian catastrophe was based on many sources, including prior UN Security Council resolutions that had identified the crisis as constituting a threat to regional peace and security. In the future, NATO could also avail itself of the principle that protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is crucial to peace and stability in the region. That, after all, was the conclusion of all fifty-five members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in their 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe.

The Importance of Continued Enlargement

Ultimately, European security and stability cannot be imposed from outside, but will have to emerge from within. In that, NATO enlargement can play a critical role.

Supporters have pointed to multiple reasons for NATO enlargement—ranging from the need to reverse the historical wrong of Yalta to filling the security vacuum separating Germany and Russia. But even more important, the prospect of joining NATO provides countries in Central and Eastern Europe with a powerful incentive to undertake the political, economic, and military reforms that will build the democratic politics, prosperous economies, and transparent militaries on which peace and security in Europe must rest. In preparation for their accession to NATO, Poland created a new civilian-controlled military. Hungary signed a border treaty with Romania. The Czechs proceeded with economic reform. Although these steps were taken for many reasons, one crucial consideration common to all was that they were steps that Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague had to take to become NATO members.

NATO enlargement cannot stop with the accession of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. It must continue apace. To encourage aspiring members to begin the necessary and stabilizing reforms, allied leaders must make clear that any European country that wishes to join will be invited to do so once it has met the requirements of membership. Among those requirements are a demonstrated commitment to democracy, free markets, and human rights. Aspirants must also be prepared to deploy armed forces that contribute to Alliance missions, are interoperable with those of existing members, and are under civilian control. By the time of the Washington summit, Slovenia will be the only new aspirant to have met these requirements. It should be invited to begin accession talks immediately. To encourage other aspirants to continue with reform, summit leaders should also agree to set a definite schedule for future enlargement, starting with the next NATO summit in 2001.

Critics of further enlargement have two worries. One is its impact on Russia, especially if the Baltic states join NATO. The other is that including too many new countries will unalterably change the Alliance from a cohesive and effective instrument of collective defense into a diluted and less effective instrument of collective security. Both fears are misplaced.

Russia’s opposition to enlargement rests on its view of the Alliance as the old NATO—a military coalition designed to defeat Moscow’s military ambitions. But NATO has changed and will continue to change in the years ahead. The Yeltsin government knows this, which is why it decided to participate in the NATO-led operation in Bosnia in 1995 and negotiated the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which enables Russia to participate in Alliance deliberations. As NATO evolves and Russia itself changes, Moscow may well come to accept NATO’s stabilizing role throughout Europe. Russia may even, in time, decide that joining the Alliance serves its interests better than opposing NATO’s continued evolution from a cold war military alliance into an instrument of European security and stability. For its part, NATO must keep open the possibility that a reformed Russia can one day join an enlarged Alliance.

As for the fear that enlargement will dilute NATO, sheer numbers hardly determine effectiveness. The United States will likely be able to lead new members much more effectively than it has the old ones. Moreover, since new members will be democratic and economically stable countries with militaries that are both transparent and fully under civilian control, their inclusion in the Alliance will strengthen rather than weaken the fundamental political bond of membership. Once the whole of Europe has met these political, economic, and military tests, NATO will have achieved its fundamental purpose—creating a Europe that is undivided, democratic, and at peace.

Of course, as NATO adds new members, the allies must ensure that the requirement for consensus does not become a barrier to action by those that are both willing and able to act. Critical to enabling allies to take such joint military action are flexible and adaptable command arrangements like the combined joint task forces that enable the swift deployment of military forces, either by a subset of allies on an ad hoc basis or by all allies together with non-NATO partner countries. The forces of new and old members alike must also greatly improve their ability to project power over great distances by using additional strategic transport and mobile logistics. Finally, the Alliance must remain committed to joint defense and contingency planning, ensuring both greater overall transparency of each member’s defense policy and capabilities and an improved capacity to act jointly when circumstances demand.

A New NATO for a New Century

During the cold war years, NATO was a military alliance with a political foundation. Its purpose was to deter the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, against a community of countries that was, in the main, committed to upholding democracy and protecting individual liberty. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political principles undergirding this community now remain the principal element holding the Alliance together. NATO should reverse priorities and become a political alliance with a military foundation. The Alliance’s principal purpose must be to enlarge the community of democratic states throughout the Euro-Atlantic area while providing its members with the military foundation to undertake joint action in defense of their common territory, values, and interests.