NATO and the 21st Century

The expansion and enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include former Warsaw Pact member states has been the subject of analysis of how NATO remains relevant in the asymmetric battlefield of the 21st century. Originally created as a collective defense organization to burgeon Western Europe against the threat of an expanding, imperialist Soviet Union (and its sphere of influence) in 1949, NATO’s purpose throughout the latter part of the 20th century was as a bulwark against that encroaching Soviet threat and to off-set the efforts of the Warsaw Pact to spread communist influence and governance further into Western Europe. In an analysis outlined by Dr. Christopher Jones in his published 2006 article entitled “NATO’s Transformation” (published in the book Old Europe, New Security: Evolution For a Complex World), the issue of whether the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include states in areas of unstable security, those that were previously members of the Warsaw Pact, and how the integration of these states could increase the already unbalanced burden-sharing of member states such as the United States in both financial and military terms would adversely affect the Atlantic Alliance’s ability to transform into a relevant organization to confront issues of security in the 21st century is addressed. Dr. Jones asserts that the expansion of NATO had a component of geo-political motivation. Today’s post will address the issue of whether these rounds of expanding the alliance to places like the Central Europe, the Balkans, and the former Russian Near-Abroad (to including the Baltics) have been counter-productive in their effort to create a more stable, secure Europe. We will focus today on the effects of the enlargement of the Alliance rather than on specific operations that NATO has conducted since the enlargement.

The issue of burden-sharing, specifically, has been at the forefront since the expansion of the Atlantic Alliance earlier in the decade. The military efficacy of operations still relies on a small core number of member-states (US, Britain, among a few others) while the ‘free-riding’ of those that were admitted more recently (Balkan and Baltic states) due to low government spending on their own defense capabilities is a problem the US and Britain have largely shouldered to this point. The enlargement of NATO also did not effectively take into account the dilution of military effectiveness as member states with lower-capability militaries joined, the problems associated with taking on the responsibility of defending those new states in areas where conflict is likely and the norm, and how adding states like those in the former Russian Near-Abroad would effectively agitate Russia into responding with a new-found nationalism. Resurgent imperial Russia is a by-product of NATO’s transitioning from a collective defense organization to a collective security organization… and the ramifications of inspiring a nationalist anti-West backlash by the Kremlin.

The enlargement of NATO had as much to do with political support for interventionism as it did good geostrategic planning. The administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sought to ensure a wider base of political support for interventionism in places like Iraq. So, in that effort, politicians widened the member group of NATO in order to ensure political support for operations at the expense of military efficacy in those operations, stability in regions where conflict has been the norm for generations (Balkans, former Soviet near-abroad), and placed the onus of sharing the largesse of the financial and military personnel burden for these interventionist actions on the more wealthy, healthier militaries of states like the US, Canada, and Britain. In return, this action failed to take into account that expanding the alliance that was originally created to burgeon the West against the Warsaw Pact nations antagonized Russia by absorbing former Warsaw Pact nations. The unintended consequence was that enlargement to the very border of Russia antagonized Russia while it was in a desperate state domestically with a struggling economy and high unemployment. The response from Russia was to assert itself imperially in an effort to both tamp down domestic pressure to regain Russian greatness on the global stage, in a geostrategic concern, to begin to off-set the Atlantic Alliance’s efforts to remain viable in the 21st century, post-Cold War. This is to say that Russia began flexing military might in places like Georgia. This war was seen by many geo-strategic analysts to be the Russian response to NATOs growing proximity to Russian borders, particularly in places of vital consequence where Russian access to warm water ports is historically understood to be important.

The evolution of NATO from a collective defense organization (its original purpose for creation during the Cold War) to a collective security organization (as evidenced in the effort in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s has been further burgeoned by its involvement in Afghanistan. Where collective defense is defined as collective action based on an attack against a member, collective security is an action by a group or alliance intended to restore order in the international community. This evolution by NATO was best evidenced through the use of military force in combating the myriad conflicts of the Balkans in the 1990s. So, does NATO (as a collective security organization) have a role in the 21st century world? Is NATO a necessary utility in the anarchical international system where failed states continue to pose more and more of a threat to established, stabile areas like Europe and the United States? Many analysts, including myself, believe NATO’s role as a collective security organization is vital in the 21st century; the fragile nature of states (particularly those with weapons of mass destruction as well as those in strategically vital areas like Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa) demands that there be a mechanism in the international system that addresses these issues and contains potential catastrophic conflicts from cascading over borders and threatening to de-stabilize other states. For example, the de-stabilization of the government in Islamabad, Pakistan would certainly call for some sort of international collective action. In this, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, falling into the hands of a non-state group like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Lashkar-e-Taibba (LeT) would threaten to de-stabilize the entire Indian sub-continent. A collective security organization (NATO) could be a potentially essential response in securing areas where nuclear weapons are held in Pakistan in the case that its government fails and, as such, would ensure at least a semblance of stability in the face of a potentially nuclear conflict.

While many remain dedicated to decrying the role of NATO in acting as a collective security organization addressing the problems of failed states, inter-state conflicts, warfare, and general unrest and instability in the 21st century, it remains to be seen that any apparatus (international, coalition, or other) maintains a capacity to wield the political legitimacy, military capability, and political motivation to deal with the problems of the asymmetrical and conventional battlefields of the nascent century. In this, NATO serves the role and will likely continue to do so for the near future.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here:


  1. Brady says:

    NATO’s influence in our current conflicts is evidence enough that NATO will have an even more important role as we progress through the 21st century. With the unconventional enemies ability to adopt new tactics and practices at an ever increasing rate, NATO’s ability to manage, organize, and carryout security missions and share intelligence with more support of the global community will enhance NATO’s ability to secure the safety and security of our world.
    With the days of conventional warfare coming to an end, NATO must shift its focus to bringing countries with different views and cultures together to fight the unconventional enemies that we are now facing and will continue to face throughout the 21st century.

    1. Eric Jones Eric says:

      That’s a very good point. The mere breadth of the international and trans-national threats commands (even demands) an integrated network of intelligence agencies acting in concert to attack enemies that threaten common interests. The interdependence you alluded to in finding commonality in confronting threats is vital on the asymmetric ‘battlefield’. That’s certainly a forward-thinking approach to adjusting to threats as malleable as those that international terror networks can pose.