Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, likes to say that NATO is the “most successful alliance in history.” Few would dispute his claim. During the Cold War, NATO served as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. By uniting the West, it deterred Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Following the collapse of communism, NATO extended membership to former communist countries. Today, no other military pact can rival NATO’s political and military clout.

While these facts are beyond dispute, many critics have questioned the purpose of NATO in the post-Cold War era. The “future of NATO” is a topic that looms over all of its summits. Critics argue that NATO has a past to be proud of, but no future to look forward to. If the military alliance has no purpose, then there would seem to be no point in discussing issues like its organizational capacity.

Critics will rightly point out that NATO has not strictly been needed to resolve the conflicts in which it has recently intervened (such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya) and that NATO continues to suffer from a deficit of vision. In these cases, the United States could have taken unilateral action, or several key European states could have led the mission. When the heart of Western Europe was under direct threat, a transatlantic military alliance was exactly what was needed. In contrast, today NATO is often just one of many possible ways to tackle international security challenges.

No longer uniquely indispensable, the worth of NATO in the twenty-first century depends on whether the benefits it confers are great enough to justify its use over other comparable solutions. In a world where threats are many and options to neutralize those threats are diverse, NATO’s relevance is a function of its organizational strength. NATO’s recent mission in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, provides a starting point to considering this question.

Operation Unified Protector

As Libya became embroiled in a civil war, the United Nations Security Council established a no-fly zone on March 17, 2011 to protect civilians caught in the conflict. The United States, United Kingdom, and France were among the first to take the initiative, and once consensus formed regarding NATO’s intervention, the Alliance took control of the operation. By the time Operation Unified Protector ended, Gaddafi was dead, and a transitional government claimed sovereignty over the devastated country. 

As Operation Unified Protector unfolded, commentators began to tout NATO’s mission in Libya as a model for the future: Europe would shoulder a larger burden, unlike in times past, when the United States assumed the lion’s share of the work. The United States, which was already embroiled in two wars, played a supporting role. Praising the apparent collaboration between members of the alliance, President Obama remarked, “That’s how our alliance must work in the twenty-first century.”

In terms of the objectives set at the beginning of the mission, NATO’s operation was a success. The way in which the Alliance attained those objectives, however, belies the self-congratulatory tone struck by its supporters. Firstly, NATO was slow to respond in the early stages of the intervention, as member states disagreed over its role in Libya. Internal division became apparent early on: France initially opposed authorizing NATO to take command of the Libyan campaign, while Germany withdrew its support from the mission on pacifist grounds and Turkey also objected to the intervention.

Political obstacles aside, shortcomings in NATO’s capabilities posed serious risks to the success of the mission. Where the mission ran smoothly, the indispensability of the United States became evident, and where the mission did not, the unpreparedness of other member states became conspicuous. In addition to providing precision-guided missiles and specialized aircraft, which were crucial for intercepting the Libyan army’s communications, the Pentagon furnished three-quarters of all the aerial refueling and reconnaissance flights during the intervention. NATO high command, on the other hand, found itself lacking in equipment and personnel, leading to reliance on US military intelligence and support. Contrary to President Obama’s words of praise, this was exactly how an ideal military alliance would not work.

Empty Pockets

Operation Unified Protector ended in victory, but it exposed NATO’s internal divisions and over-reliance on the United States. These problems have been a fixture of the Alliance since NATO’s creation. Although the common threat of the Soviet Union united the Alliance behind the United States, the collapse of communism has removed much of the impetus for the United States to continue funding the organization at the level it did in the past.

US discontent with its relationship with NATO was expressed forthrightly by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who took the occasion of his valedictory speech in Europe to provide constructive, if blunt, criticism on the present state of the Alliance: “Future US political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” he contended.

In the post-Cold War world, the United States is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to Europe’s free-riding on the back of US taxpayers. To make the partnership sustainable, NATO’s European members must improve their own military capabilities. Currently, only five of NATO’s twenty-eight members maintain the collectively agreed upon defense-to-GDP ratio of 2 percent or more. As for contributions to NATO, the US share of NATO defense spending has risen to 75 percent.

The current financial climate militates against increases in defense spending, and Secretary Gates’ premonition of a “dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance,” is being realized. In the wake of the Euro crisis, European governments are slashing their defense budgets left, right, and center. In 2009, as the recession showed no signs of weakening, NATO faced a budget deficit for the first time in its sixty-year history. This economic reality means that burden sharing between the United States and its European partners will remain inequitable for the foreseeable future.

Judging Afghanistan

Despite the economic downturn, NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan continues. Following the tragedy of 9/11, the Alliance voted to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which obligates member states to consider an attack on any one of its member as an attack on the entire alliance. It was the first time that the article was invoked, and the first time that NATO projected its power outside the European theater.

NATO did not have a clear roadmap entering into Afghanistan, and its mandate was vague. The coalition members joined with different expectations about the mission, creating a “two-tiered alliance,” in the words of former Secretary Gates. The lack of unity going into Afghanistan was a recipe for conflict. Many coalition members saw NATO as a peacekeeping force responsible for development and reconstruction, while others saw that establishing security in Afghanistan required more than building schools and paving roads. Different views about the role of NATO in Afghanistan delayed decisions from taking place on security issues that needed direct and immediate attention. Moreover, NATO found it difficult to convince allies to contribute the necessary amount of troops to achieve military objectives, and when they did, strings came attached, inhibiting the execution of joint operations.

The war in Afghanistan and NATO’s mission in Libya both reveal a number of flaws in the alliance: the difficulty of reaching consensus among the members regarding the objectives of the mission, the inequitable distribution of the financial burden between the United States and Europe, and issues of interoperability between different militaries that have different capabilities, equipment, and legal constraints. These are classic problems that beset any alliance and it is these problems that are preventing NATO from reaching its potential in the post-Cold War era. NATO cannot remain a viable force unless solutions to these problems are found.

Forming an enduring consensus will, in part, require developing a clear sense of what “security of the North Atlantic area” entails in the post-Cold War era and a commitment by NATO member states to take necessary measures to enforce security in places like Afghanistan, where the Alliance has voted to intervene. In the Chicago summit, NATO leaders confirmed that all combat troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is inconceivable that NATO will sign up for another out-of-area mission in the near future. Whether NATO will have clarity of purpose when the next call to combat is made remains to be seen.

Looking Ahead

NATO has a role to play in the twenty-first century. Europe’s security is far from assured even in its own neighborhood, and, until the European Union begins to take a more active role in its own defense, NATO remains the only force that can provide that security. Europe’s relationship with Russia is unlike Europe’s relationship with the Soviet Union, but Russia’s hostility to the newly installed defense system in Europe and opposition to former Soviet states’ signing the North Atlantic Treaty means that the Alliance will be vital for defending Europe’s security interests.

Whether NATO can play a global role is less certain. In the long run, the regionalization of the international security system will continue. Just as it does not make sense for the African Union to dispatch a military force to Kosovo, NATO’s out-of-area missions will be less justifiable in the future, since the Alliance is dominated by Western countries.

At the present moment, however, there are areas where NATO can have a global impact. Other regional bodies lack its ability to enforce security in their own regions. Such is the case with the African Union, which requested assistance from NATO in conducting its anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. At the same time, if support for military intervention does not come from other quarters, few alternatives to NATO remain when a humanitarian operation under the auspices of the United Nations is called for.

Given these circumstances, whether NATO can be a serious contender in the post-Cold War order depends on how well it is financially and materially equipped. Military alliances have a comparative advantage over unilateral or ad hoc solutions: they come with ready-made command structures, encourage pooling of resources, confer greater legitimacy, and lessen the burden of each member. At the same time, a military alliance is sustainable only if an equitable distribution of burden occurs, and that cannot be said of NATO today. As long as this situation endures, the flaws exposed during the Libyan campaign will last into the future, a “dismal” future according to Secretary Gates.

NATO’s viability as an organization will determine its scope. What is missing at present, however, is any clear sign that the inequitable distribution of burden between the United States and the rest of the Alliance will improve, and this uncertainty casts a shadow over the fate of NATO.