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NATO Still Has Purpose – The Problem Is Determining Exactly What That Purpose Is

NATO ‘bashing’ is nothing new. Faced with a security environment alien to its inception, the alliance has struggled to define its role and purpose in the post-Cold War era. This does not presuppose its irrelevance. On the contrary, it reflects the complexity of our current international order—one that is currently transforming into a multipolar order of rising states with competing interests.

So NATO needs purpose, but just how that purpose is determined remains to be seen. Once deemed the bastion of Western security, NATO’s recent impact on world affairs has been disproportionate to its capabilities. Perhaps most concerning has been its lacklustre response to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe since 2014. There is scope for change, however, should member-states be willing to openly redefine NATO’s position in the world.

This opportunity could be transpiring much sooner than anticipated. On 8 and 9 July, leaders from NATO’s 28 member states will convene in Warsaw to discuss the future direction of the security alliance. Summit meetings of this nature only occur when member states believe NATO is undergoing a significant period of transformation. Officially, Central Europe has been announced as the central topic of discussion. This should not come as a surprise, particularly given that NATO has been staging its largest military training exercise in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. But what does the military exercise really mean for a security alliance that has so far failed to curb Russian aggression? Does it give some indication of NATO’s future direction as security alliance?

Not necessarily. Putin’s Russia is a state whose overt implementation of realist policy openly contradicts European pacifism. Originally, opportunists believed that Russian intervention in Ukraine would serve as an ideal moment for NATO to reconcentrate its efforts against a common adversary. Its ensuing action against Russia since 2014, however, has been underwhelming.

How then to do deal with Russia—indeed, whose overt implementation of realist policy openly contradicts European pacifism? NATO could continue to deter further aggression through military training exercises to which we are currently bearing witness. Intimidation through military might be able to discourage Russia from taking any further steps into Eastern Europe. But this is something of a limited action, lacking the underlying rationale to give these military exercises precise strategic value. A strategy is clearly needed, one that reflects the alliance’s capabilities and collective will. The comments from NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, following the NATO-Russian Council talks in April suggests the development of such a strategy will be no easy feat.

Why then should we care about the future of NATO? While it has indeed suffered from intra-alliance divisions and obstacles to its command and control structure, one thing NATO has shown is its ability to endure. Recently celebrating its 67th birthday, there is no denying that NATO has performed relatively well as a security alliance, particularly in the deployment of crisis management and humanitarian operations. Without overstretching its competencies to global theatres of conflict, there is the option for NATO to narrow its jurisdiction and efforts to the protection of Europe—respecting Article 5 and ensuring capabilities are effectively deployed. Alternatively, NATO could embrace the notion of a global security force, though this is a mammoth task appealing in theory but improbable in reality.

Regardless of what NATO could become, its future lies in the vision, commitment and capacity of its member states. Should they feel national interests are not being protected through the alliance, or that the collective interests of the alliance have become so diverse that action is limited, NATO will fail. That is why, at the very least, the Warsaw Summit must be used as an opportunity to dialogue on what role NATO should, and most importantly can, play in the post-Cold War order. The world is full of threats, and the West needs to be prepared.

Rhys Merrett is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow of Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Lukas Plewnia (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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