A Changing NATO for a Changing World

NATO can expect success if its goals and efforts reflect NATO nations' common purpose, as they did during the Cold War, and failure if they do not

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Left, in a 1969 speech on the 20th anniversary of NATO, President Richard Nixon speaks to European leaders about the "fist" of the military alliance. Right, NATO fighters in Italy prepare for air strikes against Libya / AP, Reuters

This post is part of a 12-part series exploring how the U.S.-Russia relationship has shaped the world since the December 1991 end of the Soviet Union. Read the full series here.

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO can point with pride to its history. But can it point with confidence to its future? NATO's viability in the 21st century depends on applying the lessons of the past, but it also depends on seeing the present clearly.

NATO's finest achievement is its contribution to the peaceful resolution of the Cold War. Allies bonded together in unity of purpose with a common strategy, projecting credible force to preserve trans-Atlantic security. The fall of the Soviet Union cemented NATO's record of ensuring peace and prosperity for its members without becoming their political master. Because NATO allies trusted NATO as an institution, NATO harnessed allies' common purpose and displayed credibility to potential foes.

Today, the most important issue for NATO is whether allies will continue to trust it to address trans-Atlantic security issues.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO's record has raised many doubts about its relevance. On the positive side, NATO's efforts restored peace to the Balkans and Southeast Europe and brought a strong measure of political stability to the former Soviet space. Enjoying the widespread support of allies, these efforts follow logically from NATO's original purpose as articulated in the opening paragraphs of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, "to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area."

However, the adventure in Afghanistan is casting a long shadow on NATO's attempt to harness its members' resources to common purpose. American observers commonly criticize their European NATO Allies for failing their commitments in Afghanistan; however, many Allied commitments were caveated in the first place, limiting their involvement.

Having served in NATO assignments over the course of three decades, it is my experience that NATO's common purpose suffers most when Alliance decisions are unwisely leveraged despite obvious lack of Allied enthusiasm, even in the face of genuine opposition.

If NATO is to survive as an Alliance, its efforts must reflect Allied political and strategic consensus. The United States, as a leader within the Alliance, should encourage rather than hinder this process.  Lack of political will, lack of participation in Allied operations, lack of defense spending - these incur American criticism of Allies' political will, but they reflect a fundamental lack of common purpose in the goals' conception. American efforts to influence NATO decision-making has fostered "ready, shoot, aim" decision-making applied at the highest levels, and has sparked questions about the alliance.

Recently, at Wilton Park in the UK, defense and foreign policy experts from NATO nations convened to discuss the upcoming Chicago Summit in 2012. A number of productive ideas emerged from the Wilton Park meeting to address the problem of restoring NATO's viability in the 21st Century, chief among these scrapping the alliance's archaic metric of 2% defense spending as a measure of Allies' commitment. Thoughtful observers realize that a narrow focus on defense spending is as poor a measure of 21st Century national security, as was measuring national security by the number of battleships in the 1920s. Rather, the metric of commitment to common purpose must be focused on allies' and NATO programs that produce useful capabilities against commonly perceived threats, rather than merely increasing the size of Allied defense establishments.

Certainly, U.S. leadership remains critical to NATO success, because of both America's capabilities as well as America's global view.  For example, the United States plays the pivotal role in building the trans-Atlantic missile defense architecture and defending the trans-Atlantic space against developing ballistic missile threats. Geographically and technologically, NATO and Russia are essential participants in an effective architecture.  Only strong U.S. leadership can help NATO forge this important capability.

America's long-term strategic interest requires effective participation in institutions that safeguard trans-Atlantic peace and prosperity. NATO continues to be the best vehicle for that effort, but whether it will remain viable depends on tough American and NATO choices.  Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, a successful strategy to preserve trans-Atlantic peace and prosperity relies upon encouraging the fullest participation of NATO allies in setting the alliance's strategic course and restoring the legitimacy of the institution itself.  NATO can expect success if its goals and efforts reflect NATO nations' common purpose, as they did during the Cold War, and failure when they do not.

Presented by

Brigadier General (ret.) John Adams retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 and is an independent defense consultant.

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