Time to Rethink NATO

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

Events in Crimea and the Ukraine should bolster the pressing need to re-evaluate and revamp the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO has been the most successful alliance system in the history of international relations. It served as a bulwark against communism and the Soviet threat during the Cold War and serves as a guarantee for peace in Europe and abroad today. In an age where the American people are less likely to endorse unilateral American action, NATO can serve as the best conduit for American national security and creating a united front for the democratic West.

Russia needs to be reminded that NATO will not tolerate any overt military invasion of allied countries, and will also not allow the old Soviet style salami tactics of seizing portions of territory over a lengthy period of time. NATO’s torch has burned brightly many times, and it is a testament to the strength of the alliance that Article 5 (an attack upon one nation is an attack upon all) has only needed to be activated once. In 2001, 24 hours after the al-Qaeda attacks against the United States, NATO took the historic step of supporting the United States in its battle with Islamo-Bolshevism. NATO proved that it could show solidarity in theory and in practice.

However, since that clear demonstration of unity, NATO has been left to stagger as events in the Middle East, issues of counterterrorism and the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” have dominated the few media centers and policymakers still devoted to foreign affairs. The alliance increasingly runs the risk of what former Secretary Robert Gates called a “two tiered alliance”: a minority of NATO partners who can engage in serious 21st century combat operations and the majority whose contributions are likely to be more symbolic or humanitarian. Only 5 percent of our European partners have the ability to deploy outside of their borders and only four of the 28 members spend the required 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

Even in the much vaunted operations in Libya against former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, American forces had to provide the foundational structure, logistics, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and refueling for the operation to be successful. The alliance has yet to come to terms with the future financial responsibility of supporting Afghanistan’s security forces once the U.S. drawdown occurs, training the Afghan National Security Forces, modernizing and synchronizing training and technology, meeting defense spending goals, and pursuing a united front on NATO enlargement.

This last point was one of the critical junctures in NATO history. The United States assisted and promoted NATO enlargement from the 1990s onward. However, there seemed to be little consideration for the grand strategy that this served. It was one thing to expand the NATO frontier into the central European heartland. It was yet another to drive into the Balkans. Further still was the incorporation of the Baltic. Now we are witnessing the next tier of nations further into the Balkans (Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro), and the Caucuses, such as Georgia. The issue of Ukrainian accession is now its own creature, an unresolved, torturous saga that began in 1991, with high points in 1994 (Ukraine joins the Partnership for Peace), 1999 (NATO’s liaison office opens), 2005 (advancement of plans for NATO cooperation), and in 2008 when allied leaders agreed that Ukraine would become a member. What followed was an on again, off again, dialogue that produced frustration and delay of which the Russians have taken full advantage.

However, regardless of ones view on NATO expansion, the issue of linking this expansion and enlargement to American grand strategy must be made. What was the purpose of enlargement? What was the ultimate goal of NATO for the newly minted members? Was this part of a revamping of the NATO mission beyond mere defense against Russia? What would NATO’s mission be in the 21st century?

It further begs the natural question of whether the West, in particular the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, are truly prepared to go to war for nations like Estonia, let alone Georgia. There has been some progress on the united front: NATO conducts air policing missions in the Baltic, which almost exclusively fell to the United States. Poland, the UK and Denmark will increase their commitments as the Russians become more aggressive in conducting surveillance and reconnaissance. However, in the end NATO needs to move from tweaking its missions on the periphery and enter a full blow re-evaluation of its mission, purpose and goals. This will take strong American leadership and an even stronger American commitment. (In a subsequent column I will examine the sort of reforms NATO might consider.)