NATO’s Next Century

During the 1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization showed that there was “life after the Cold War.” Under American leadership and deriving inspiration from President George H.W. Bush’s vision of creating a “Europe whole and free,” the alliance recreated firm bonds across the Atlantic, in major part to complete the 20th century agenda of European security. The NATO allies invented the Partnership for Peace (PfP), the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the NATO-Ukraine Commission, and the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. They also transformed both the Alliance’s military commands and forged a productive relationship with the Western European Union (now integrated into the European Union).

All these steps, together, underpinned the merging into NATO, as full members, of a number of countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain, while avoiding setting off a chain of events that might have led to yet another division of the Continent, a confrontation among states, or something worse. NATO successfully balanced the requirements of three geographic “zones of security”—Western Europe, Central Europe, and the Russian Federation. In the process—indeed, as a requirement of all else the Alliance sought to do—NATO took the lead in stopping two conflicts in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in creating peacekeeping forces that have helped chart a path away from age-old grievances and toward productive futures.

The 20th century agenda of tasks required to create a Europe whole and free did not come to an end with the accession to NATO membership, on April 2, 2004, of seven more countries, including three that had been part of the old Soviet Union. But the architecture and the effort are clearly in place. And the end of one agenda begins another, a 21st century agenda, focusing on security problems of the Western allies that emanate from beyond Europe and marked, in particular, by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

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