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Issue # 1418      8 July 2009

NATO: a bloc in doubt

In the 60-year history of the military alliance, NATO’s transformation over the past 19 years since the end of the Cold War has drawn the greatest attention. NATO is a product of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, its existence came under serious doubt. However, the United States strongly called for preserving the alliance in a bid to prevent Russia from re-emerging, enhance its influence in Europe and secure its global leadership. Under these new circumstances, NATO has introduced reforms to downplay its role in military confrontation and shift its focus to the new security threats confronting the international community.

Under pressure to perish following its rival – the Warsaw Pact – NATO is motivated to pursue reforms. But transforming such a huge alliance is never easy. Given its unchanged nature, reforms are confined within certain limits. A review of the key issues in NATO’s post-Cold War transformation shows that the alliance has not abandoned its old ways despite some verifiable progress. Many of the pledged changes in its internal structure and external relations have yet to materialise. NATO’s prospects are quite uncertain.

Futile reconciliation

After the end of the Cold War, how to redefine the position of Russia, the successor of the Soviet Union, became the central issue in the establishment of a new security order in Europe and the biggest challenge in NATO’s reforms. In an attempt to foster an image of being committed to the peace and stability of the whole of Europe, NATO frequently sent messages of reconciliation and cooperation to Russia and other countries in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

It not only issued statements with these countries vowing to build friendly ties but also initiated cooperative mechanisms at increasingly higher levels. For example, NATO and Russia set up diplomatic and military liaison and consultation institutions with each other. NATO promised to conduct equal consultations with Russia on issues concerning Europe’s security. The United States and NATO have also co-operated with Russia on nuclear disarmament, disarmament of conventional weapons in Europe, anti-terrorism and some regional hotspot issues.

Despite these positive developments, NATO has not replaced Cold War enmity toward Russia with political trust, respect and equality. NATO has a deep-seated conviction that they must guard against the possible re-emergence of the “Soviet empire.” While touting the rhetoric of friendship and cooperation, they have launched a series of diplomatic and strategic offensives against Russia. First, NATO persists in expanding eastward despite Russia’s protests. Disregarding the country’s security concerns, NATO unilaterally stresses that all “European democracies” can apply for membership. Its relations with Russia have suffered a setback each time it admitted new members.

At this year’s summit, NATO reaffirmed its determination to continue expanding eastward. It also formally accepted two new members, Albania and Croatia. Conflicts may arise between NATO and Russia over this issue again in the future. Russia regards its neighbours Georgia and Ukraine as the last firewall against NATO’s aggressive expansion.

The two countries, which bear a deep grudge against Russia, are highly favoured by Western countries. Their admission into NATO would lay bare the alliance’s anti-Russian motives. Russia is categorically opposed to this and has vowed to protest more forcefully than ever. But the United States keeps encouraging NATO to admit the two countries. Their entry into NATO would have major repercussions for the security situation in Europe.

Second, the United States plans to deploy anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic with NATO’s support, arousing Russia’s concerns that its strategic forces may be contained. The move has become another major point of contention between NATO and Russia, posing a threat to Europe’s security.

In addition, NATO’s military presence and political influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus constitute challenges to Russia’s traditional interests. Its intervention in Russia’s internal affairs often leads to tensions in their relations. Given their diverse conflicting interests, NATO and Russia have a long way to go to eliminate the Cold War remnants in their relations.

Going global

With its huge military deployment across the Atlantic Ocean, NATO is reluctant and unable to give up its mission of “safeguarding collective security”. However, this Cold War era mission is far from enough to sustain its development today. In a bid to enhance its relevance, NATO has set a series of new goals. It now operates beyond its Europe-Atlantic defence area and is involved in non-traditional security issues, a trend that is known as “globalisation” in the international media.

NATO faces a host of challenges as it pursues globalisation. Some members in “New Europe” are so suspicious of Russia that they tend to overestimate their security risks. As they count on NATO for its security guarantee, they are worried that globalisation may distract NATO from its focus on “collective security”. Some “Old European” members with independent diplomatic views, however, are concerned that as it interferes in more international affairs, European members of NATO may run into serious policy disputes with the United States.

NATO will confront challenges as it tries to play a role in issues such as peacekeeping, nuclear non-proliferation, anti-terrorism and natural disaster relief. To participate in these issues, it needs to respect the UN’s authority, collaborate with other international organisations and develop a new capacity to address non traditional security threats. NATO has extended its activities to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia. In Asia, it has forged special relations with Japan and South Korea. Since the move is outside NATO’s mandate of safeguarding Europe, Asian countries are closely following its purpose and potential implications.

NATO took over the reins of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2003. It had intended to make its operations in Afghanistan a prelude to its global activities and offer stronger support to America’s anti-terrorism program. NATO struggled to make progress in Afghanistan and soon found itself mired in a dilemma. The United States has called on its European allies to send more troops there, without getting many positive responses. This shows that the alliance’s first concrete step toward globalisation has ended in failure.

Internal inequities

Following the end of the Cold War, European integration made big strides, giving a boost to the international standing of the European Union (EU). As a result, the EU demanded a bigger say in NATO’s decision making. As the EU reached out to the world, it found its multilateralism severely at odds with America’s unilateral policy. The EU openly opposed America’s war in Iraq, leading to a major divide within NATO rarely seen in its history.

In this context, adjusting the relationship between the United States and European NATO members and enhancing NATO’s internal coherence became major goals of NATO’s reforms. Given Europe’s growing power, NATO decided to recognise the “European identity”, allowing its European members to carry out operations independently without US participation and to use NATO’s facilities. It also issued a joint declaration with the EU in which it promised to support the latter’s defence programs and work together with it on security affairs.

Recent years have seen notable improvement in political relations between the United States and Europe. The election of US President Barack Obama, a popular figure among Europeans, has given new impetus to their relations. At the recent summit, France formally rejoined NATO’s integrated military structure, which it left several decades ago, evidence of strengthened unity in the alliance.

The United States and Europe have not bridged and will not be able to bridge the gap in their thinking and interests. Their disagreement on the admission of Georgia and Ukraine, the deployment of the anti-missile systems in Europe and the policy toward Russia has made it difficult for NATO to make decisions on these issues. Also, there is no clear division of responsibilities between NATO and the EU in European security affairs.

Europe’s efforts to increase its voice in NATO have not achieved the desired results. The United States still has a bigger influence in the alliance than the EU does. European members value the EU more than NATO. Although the United States seeks to make the most of NATO, it can easily discard it as well. Neither the United States nor Europe regards NATO as the first choice for them to expand their international influence.

Beijing Review


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded on 4 April, 1949, with the signing of the. North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C. Its founding members were the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Portugal and Italy. Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the military alliance adopts a system of collective defense whereby its member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.

In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that France would withdraw from NATO’s military structure and remove its forces from NATO’s integrated military command, while remaining a political member of the alliance.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the organization became drawn into the Balkans, while building better links with former potential enemies to the east. A number of former Warsaw Pact states joined the alliance in 1999 and 2004. On 1 April this year, its membership was enlarged to 28 with the entry of Albania and Croatia. Since the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001 , NATO has attempted to refocus itself on new challenges and deployed troops to Afghanistan as well as trainers to Iraq.

Current French President Nicolas Sarkozy carried out a major reform of France’s military position, leading to its return to full membership on 4 April, 2009.

Warsaw Pact

The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania and Albania signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Warsaw, Poland, on 14 May, 1955, in response to West Germany’s entry into NATO. The treaty gave birth to the military alliance Warsaw Treaty Organization, also known as the Warsaw Pact. The Moscow-based alliance was the European Communist bloc’s counterpart to NATO during the Cold War. It was officially dissolved at a meeting in Prague on 1 July, 1991.

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