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NATO: A Legitimate Force or a Relic of the Cold War?

By Jamie Spratt



2024 marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of the NATO alliance, formed on the 4th of April 1949. With two years having passed since Putin’s invasion of his neighbor Ukraine, the NATO anniversary could not have fallen at a more important time. It is worth briefly revisiting NATOs history.


In the aftermath of WW2, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, signed by 12 countries in Washington, emerged as a symbol of collective defense and security against the threat of the communist Soviet Union. At the time, this was a relatively new idea in geopolitics. Whilst coalitions and alliances had existed before, contributing to the past two world wars, the intensity with which the NATO states committed to defend each other and the presence of the US as a signatory was unorthodox. ‘An attack against one is an attack against all’ was a common piece of rhetoric used in NATO circles at the time, showing this new intensity.


NATO did not have any official military campaigns during the Cold War, but it acted as a means of military economies of scale and synergies, as well as its symbolism as a counterforce to Soviet Russia. Numerous annual exercises were enough to show the strength of the alliance, a hot conflict was not needed.


Mission creep?

As we have seen, NATO was founded in a world order of Bipolarity – two spheres of influence, one being the Western nations (UK, USA, western Europe etc.) and the other the USSR. NATO was the military representation of the western sphere. During the Cold War, NATO had an almost singular purpose: defense against possible invasions from the Soviet Union. The 1948 coup d'état in Czechoslovakia, facilitated by the backing of the USSR, was the wake-up call and test for the Truman Doctrine of international solidarity. After the creation of NATO, it was the Korean War that was the first real test of this new alliance. Although no military operations were conducted through NATO before the end of the Cold War, the war between North and South Korea was the first proxy war between these two new great powers of the West and Soviet Russia. 


The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 represented a crisis of purpose for NATO. The whole raison d’etre of the alliance had disappeared overnight. It led to commentators at the time, rather hubristically in my view, to declare the ‘End of History’. Francis Fukuyama's now notorious statement has obviously not come to pass, but it was the prevailing view in western military circles at the time. I believe this is the point where NATO lost its way. 


Mission Creep is defined as ‘a gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment’. The term is used in many contexts, often outside of its military definition. To give a recent example, the constant shifting of goalposts of the UK government's response to the COVID virus was a mission creep we saw unfold in real time. From “3 weeks to flatten the curve” to two years of an effective police state couldn't have been more of a dramatic shift in initial objectives. The use of the once novel monetary policy of Quantitative Easing is another example in recent history of mission creep, this time located in the realm of Central Banking policy. The initial tranche of QE, the buying back of bonds by the central bank to facilitate higher interest rates, was seen as an unprecedented departure from monetary policy norms. There have now been four more tranches, with the most recent one during COVID dwarfing the others in scale. 


NATO has undergone mission creep. Its initial objectives, however legitimate and necessary, ceased to exist after the fall of the Soviet Union. The NATO alliance, effectively headed by the USA, evolved and began to see itself as global policemen. However, without a coherent ideology to contrast and model itself against, as was the case during the Cold War, the objectives and purpose of the alliance shifted with each passing year. 


Russia’s invasion and ongoing war with Ukraine marks a turning point in the history of NATO. Has the emergence of Putin’s oligarchic Russia breathed new fire into an arguably rudderless alliance? Well, yes and no. Putin argues that the assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 by several western leaders constituted a promise by NATO to cease any eastward expansion, but the official text (Treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany) made no mention of this. NATO has indeed been slowly creeping eastward since then. Finland, which shares the longest border with Russia, has recently become a member because of Putin’s invasion. The leadership in Ukraine has expressed its wish to join, which some may argue was a threatening development from the perspective of Russia. It must be noted however that in the current rules-based international order it is the prerogative of independent nation states to join or leave supranational alliances as they please. Here is a rather crude comparison: there is talk of Mexico joining the BRICS alliance (an economic and diplomatic alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). If Mexico was pressured to join by China and Russia, and these two antagonistic states decided to send arms and train the Mexican army up to the standard of modern warfare, how would America react? Likely not well. 


Regardless of how they would react, any hypothetical Putinesque pre-emptive invasion of Mexico by America would not trigger NATO articles on mutual defense. NATO remains a defensive alliance, however decades of mission creep have meant NATO is now a defensive alliance not just for the USSR – but against the rest of the world.


Image: Flickr / NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization


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