Rivals Wanted, Apply Within: Is NATO Still Relevant?


On April 4th, 1949, twelve nations—including France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States—bound themselves together that they might “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples” and, of course, counter the growing threat of Soviet aggression. 65 years later and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bold rival is gone; leaving the world’s most influential military alliance to redefine their role within the international community and project a new image and mission into the 21st Century.

In some spheres of public discussion, the question has been raised as to whether or not there is any purpose in maintaining NATO as a political entity. Proponents of NATO’s dissolution have cited the cost to member nations, the effectiveness of the alliance’s response, and the United States’ use of the treaty organization as a means to remain involved in European affairs. Conversely, in the face of opposition and dissent, NATO has been thriving. Nine members have been added since 2000, three countries currently have membership action plans in place, Ukraine and Georgia have begun intensified dialogue about joining, 22 countries have joined the Partnership for Peace program, and the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperative Initiative—both begun in the post-Soviet era—have been engaging with Middle-East and North African partners.

In spite of these expansions, there are questions that NATO must answer. After 9/11, Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty was invoked for the first and only time. Many NATO member-states then followed the United States into Afghanistan. This marked a significant shift for NATO who had, previously, only taken military action within Europe—most notably the Balkans. In 2011, a NATO coalition staged a controversial intervention into the Libyan Civil War on behalf of rebel forces. Involvement in Libya raised significant questions about their future. Did NATO wish to extend its mandate to dealing with international humanitarian crises? If it’s no longer about defending Europe from an enemy, is there a true reason for limiting the scope of the alliance to the Northern hemisphere? If it becomes about intervening in humanitarian crises, is NATO just a militarized United Nations? Humanitarian considerations have once again come front and center at the 2014 Wales Summit where, according to CNN, NATO members discussed their level of involvement in combatting the Islamic State.

Then, of course, there is the bear in the room—Putin. The Russian President’s bold annexation of Crimea and subsequent support for separatist militias in Eastern Ukraine shocked the world. The move carried an air of audacity and confidence not seen in Russia since the Cold War. With conflict once again directly on Europe’s doorstep, the relevance of NATO became undeniable overnight. US troops deployed to Poland to ease Eastern European allies’ fears and affirm their continuing commitment to NATO allies in spite of growing isolationism at home. Member-nations have lead the charge in higher sanctions and increased pressure on Moscow. In short, the treaty organization has seemingly regained the respect and recognition in the international community and public discussion that it lost. Maybe all it took was the return of an old rival.

While NATO wasn’t on the decline, it was being marginalized; the public lacked a clear image of its purpose in a world where the enemy is less easily identifiable. Putin has, at least for the time being, provided the world with a symbol to fix opposite the white star. Nevertheless it is important to recognize NATO’s peacetime mission. While it may be less glamorous, it has heavily bolstered its support of research and technology, joint service training, closer diplomatic ties, and cultural understanding — if it can sustain these honorable initiatives, then perhaps a military alliance truly can remain relevant in peace.


Conor Hammond is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at c.a.hammond@wustl.edu

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