After the fall of the Soviet Union, many questioned the continued existence of NATO. After all, NATO’s sole purpose was to be a deterrent to Soviet aggression in Europe, and with the Soviet Union gone, why should the organization continue? Mission accomplished, right? The organization was at a deep inflection point in its history and heavy debate on what purpose, if any, could it still have. It is extremely rare for an alliance to endure once its strategic context fundamentally changes. Could it survive? The purpose of NATO had to be reimagined.
NATO got its beginning as an amalgamation from several other treaties in the aftermath of World War II. In March of 1947 the Treaty of Dunkirk was signed between Great Britain and France as a Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance against the possibility of a future Germany capable of attack. Behind the scenes the treaty was focused on Soviet rather than German aggression, but there were fears at the time that targeting the Soviet Union outright would be too antagonizing.
Then, in February 1948, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia happened. It gave impetus to growing the alliance further. Henry Kissinger paints the flavor of that era in his book “Diplomacy.” He writes:
After the Marshall Plan was announced, Stalin accelerated communist control over Eastern Europe. He became rigid, if not paranoid, about the East European countries’ fealty to Moscow. Lifelong communist leaders suspected of harboring the slightest national feelings were purged. In Czechoslovakia, the communist had emerged as the strongest party in free elections and controlled the government. Even that was not enough for Stalin. The elected government was overthrown and the noncommunist Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, the son of the founder of the Czechoslovak Republic, fell to his death from his window after being almost certainly pushed by communist thugs. A communist dictatorship was established in Prague.
With the spread of Communism in Europe and Stalin tightening his grip on Eastern Europe, the treaty of Dunkirk expanded to include the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in what was termed The Western Union. It was signed into being by the Treaty of Brussels. Soon there were more talks of expanding the alliance to include North America. The resulting North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 9th, 1949. The new organization, NATO, included not only the Western Union members, but also Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, and the United States. For the United States, it was the first time in its history it had joined a military alliance in peacetime.
After its birth, NATO continued to expand its membership in its quest of insuring the peace of Europe in a common defense. In 1952 membership was offered to Greece and Turkey. By 1955 a critical Rubicon had been crossed with the addition of West Germany. With joining the alliance, West Germany became more integrated with Western Europe giving the state security guarantees that prevented it from the need of ever producing weapons of mass destruction. Integration into the organization of West Germany did come with a price—it caused the Soviet Union to create the Warsaw Pact. It did not take long for the Soviets to use the Warsaw Pact to crush dissent within the countries of its own members. When citizens rose in protest to demand more economic freedom in Hungry, the Soviets sent in tanks—brutally killing 2,500 Hungarians.
During the Cold War, NATO allowed the placement of hundreds of nuclear missiles close to the borders of Warsaw Pact members and the Soviet Union as a form of deterrence. At the same time the presence of those missiles was used as leverage in negotiations. During the Cuban Missile Crises, Kennedy gave assurances that if Khrushchev removed his missiles from Cuba, he would remove missiles from Turkey in exchange. By the 1980’s, with the United States taking the lead, massive missile buildups along NATO’s border were used to negotiate the dismantlement of all short- and intermediate-range missiles with the Soviet Union. The missile buildups were risky and caused much concern and protest among the European public, but ultimately bore fruit in the form of arms control agreements.
Then the world stood in disbelief with the sudden and precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991. Overnight, the global geopolitical order changed, and the future of NATO was in doubt. However, with convulsions in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, it was clear that NATO could still be a stabilizing force for Europe. The question then was if to maintain NATO’s current size or continue to allow new members to join. Strobe Talbott, a senior State Department official and President Bill Clinton’s right-hand man on Russia, described the dilemma of keeping NATO membership frozen or going forward with membership expansion. “…We said that [freezing NATO in its Cold War membership] would mean perpetuating the Iron Curtain as a permanent fixture on the geopolitical landscape and locking newly liberated and democratic states out of the security that the Alliance affords. So instead, we chose to bring in new members while trying to make a real post-Cold War mission for NATO in partnership with Russia.”
A basic template had been used after a unified Germany was allowed into NATO. Whether Germany could be reaccepted in NATO with East Germany attached was intensely debated. But principals established in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 (also called the Helsinki Accords), offered a key guideline that laid the groundwork for accepting not only a Unified Germany into NATO but also for growing membership further. The Accords, signed by 33 European countries including the Soviet Union (Albania and Andorra were the only two European nations not to sign), declare signatory states “have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be or not to be a party to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance; they also have the right to neutrality.”
Enter the Partnership for Peace initiative. The initiative was characterized by President Bill Clinton as a “track that will lead to NATO membership” and that “does not draw another line dividing Europe a few hundred miles to the east.” While the NATO initiative was a first step to become a member it did not mean membership was guaranteed. Membership status was coordinated with Russia to alleviate their concerns which many in its ranks saw some former Warsaw Pact countries as part of Russia’s natural sphere of influence. Any further NATO enlargement had to account for Russian concerns. In 1997 the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC) was created to give Russia a direct voice within NATO itself. However, the PJC was not a decision-making body because Russia was not a member of NATO. Because of this, the council eventually fell into irrelevance as Russia began to ignore the council. The post-Cold War period of NATO enlargement is still a point of contention today. Vladimir Putin repeatedly cites it as one of his paramount security concerns and a reason behind his recent invasion of Ukraine.
The first true test of the NATO alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union came with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The former Soviet satellite republic had fallen to fighting between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs with fighting breaking down into what amounted to genocide. NATO conducted airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs in 1995 to force compliance of UN resolutions over the objections of Russia. Russia ostensibly saw the Serbs in terms of being traditional allies and did not want to act against them. Peace was temporarily obtained with the Dayton Peace Accords, which included Russia in the negotiations. NATO in 1999, once again, performed military campaigns in the former Yugoslav republic when violence broke out, this time in Kosovo. The goal was to buttress peacekeepers so Albanian refugees could return to the homes they were forced to flee from by the Serbs.
On September the 11th, 2001 terrorists headed by Osama bin Laden flew passenger jets into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 civilians lost their lives. This was immediately met by NATO members invoking article five of its founding treaty for the first and only time in its history. The article states that an attack on one or more of its members is an attack on all its members. NATO quickly joined fighting in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had been sheltered by the ruling Taliban, to ensure the country did not continue to harbor terrorists that may further attack members. This ushered in a remarkable period of cooperation with Russia as it too found common cause in fighting Islamic extremist terrorism. Russia had fought a brutal war in Chechnya up until 2000.
During this period a revised version of the PJC was resurrected called the NATO-Russia Council to try to continue to build upon the resurgence of cooperation with Russia. Unfortunately, it too went the way the PJC had because, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, “the Kremlin never fully embraced it.” Since then, the relationship between NATO and Russia has continued to deteriorate while bottoming out with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and then even further with the invasion of all of Ukraine that is currently unfolding at the time of this writing. With the invasion, NATO activated for the first time its Response Force to rapidly deploy to the alliance’s most eastern edges to protect nervous members from any possible Russian aggression.
With the latest invasion of Ukraine by Russia, NATO is seeing a resurgence in its post Cold War popularity. Today, there are 30 member states of the organization sharing in Europe’s collective security with more countries asking for membership. Often throughout its history, the most common remonstrance from within its ranks is other members are not paying “their fair share” to support the alliance. This often comes from governments experiencing nationalist resurgences combined with isolationism. Most notably in recent years it came from U.S. President Donald Trump. He stated during his campaign that as president he may not come to the defense of a NATO member if Russia attacked them if the country had not fully fulfilled their obligations to the alliance. This totally ignored the obligation mandated of all members in article five of the NATO treaty. It was a stunning statement given that just two years before, Russia had illegally annexed Crimea under false pretenses. Trump would go on to browbeat allies over the issue throughout his presidency. The views expressed by Trump were, however, a minority, and any questions about continued support of NATO immediately evaporated with Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine. Putin, singlehandedly, ensured NATO’s existence and cohesion for generations to come as he shattered the peace of Europe.