NATO Is Stuck in Its Old Ways
NATO's revival of the Cold War paradigm could prove costly for the West.
Russia announced on Monday it would suspend its mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after NATO expelled eight members of Russia’s mission to the alliance. Not without Russian help, NATO has attempted to inflate the threat Russia poses, an effort to end the organization’s identity crisis by somewhat revitalizing the Cold War paradigm that initially justified its existence.
NATO expelled the Russian officials after it alleged they were working as intelligence officers, effectively halving the number of Russian officials working alongside NATO headquarters in Brussels. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “as a result of NATO’s deliberate moves, we have practically no conditions for elementary diplomatic work and in response to NATO’s actions we suspend the work of our permanent mission to NATO, including the work of the chief military envoy.” The Russian foreign minister added that the mission would be closed starting around November 1, and that future contact between the military alliance and Russia will be run through Russia’s embassy in Belgium.
It would hardly be surprising if the eight Russians NATO expelled were indeed gathering intelligence, but we cannot know for sure. The most likely scenario is that everyone at NATO, Russian or not, is working as some kind of intelligence operative for his respective country.
In a separate statement, the office of Russia’s foreign ministry said the NATO actions that precipitated Russia closing down its mission, “confirm that they are not interested in an equal dialogue and joint work to de-escalate military-political tensions. The alliance’s line towards our country is becoming more and more aggressive. The ‘Russian threat’ is inflated in order to strengthen the internal unity of the alliance, to create the appearance of its ‘relevance’ in modern geopolitical conditions.”
Russia’s foreign ministry has a point: NATO has tried to put an end to its ongoing identity crisis by recasting Russia in the old Soviet role as the military alliance’s main antagonist.
The reality is that in the two decades after the Cold War, NATO suffered the consequences of victory. By NATO, I don’t mean the member nations that comprise it per se, but the institutionalized bureaucracy that has become a power unto itself. After NATO succeeded in balancing Soviet power to discourage war breaking out on the European continent until the Soviet Union’s collapse, it suffered an identity crisis, and attempted to discover where it fit in an increasingly multipolar world.
Vice President of Foreign Policy at the Charles Koch Institute and TAC board member Will Ruger told The American Conservative, “the problem for NATO is that it was an alliance designed within our containment strategy to counter, deter, and defend against the possibility of Soviet aggression. So, the challenge in the post Cold War era was that its whole raison d’être disappeared, and then it was in search of a mission. And, it ultimately went out of area rather than out of business.”
As Ruger said, the alliance that once served as the defense umbrella of western Europe decided to try its hand at becoming the micro-manager of instability and insecurity across Europe and beyond. Not without the encouragement of the respective nations that contribute to the alliance, although schisms were starting to emerge between core members of the alliance regarding NATO’s role in the post-Cold War world, NATO became deeply entrenched in a number of conflicts. It intervened in the Bosnian War through Operation Deny Flight, then the bombing campaign known as Operation Deliberate Force. Another aerial bombing campaign was carried out against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War, in Operation Allied Force to expel Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and end the slaughter of Albanians. The military alliance has also been involved in a number of major counter-terrorism operations post-9/11, in Afghanistan, Libya, and other countries.
“NATO has flailed around after one mission after another since the end of the Cold War—and they have all turned out disastrously or (in the case of the Balkans) been bailed out by unilateral U.S. action,” Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told TAC by email.
For NATO to maintain relevance, to say nothing of its own power, it needed to adapt to the security challenges presented by the new century. It needed to remake itself from a club into a scalpel. The vision NATO had for itself in the post-Cold War, with its focus on mobility and quick response capabilities for matters of terrorism, disaster, and broader instability, found mutual interest with Russia, and the two built on a history of diplomatic relations that predate the end of the Cold War.
In late 1991, the Soviet Union joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (eventually renamed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council), which was a forum for NATO and non-NATO countries to discuss security issues. That seat was quickly changed to represent Russia. Soviet Ambassador Alexander Afanassievky was at a council meeting on Dec. 20, 1991, when he was pulled out of the room and informed that the Soviet Union had legally ceased to exist. In June 1994, Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, the bilateral brother of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council.
Three years later, NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, which “states the reasons why NATO and Russia believe that it is in their shared interest to cooperate more broadly and intensively,” and laid out rhetorical commitments to state sovereignty and diplomatic resolutions to conflict. The document continues to function as the basis for NATO-Russia cooperation. The pact also established the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, yet another institutionalized forum for increased cooperation that included a provision that stated NATO and Russia no longer perceived each other as threats, and resolved that the pair, “based on an enduring political commitment undertaken at the highest political level, will build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.”
More than a decade of negotiations culminated in the 2002 NATO Summit in Rome with the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council to replace the Permanent Joint Council. Since then, the council has served as the primary forum for cooperation between the military alliance and Russia for “consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action” and has yielded some desirable results, such as cooperation in areas such as fighting terrorism, military readiness, and Afghanistan. These new forays can be considered somewhat successful for NATO, but they seldom ended with the result NATO desired. Its intervention in the Bosnian War resulted in several peacekeeping operations that spanned nearly a decade to prevent further violence from breaking out, and recent events in Afghanistan speak for themselves when it comes to how training the Afghan army went.
While NATO and Russia were able to cooperate on these shared interests, the two still mutually regarded each other as rivals. Thus, as NATO was achieving lackluster results in its out-of-area campaigns, it maintained institutional legitimacy by inflating the threat post-Soviet Russia posed to the West. This framing was exacerbated by a domestic political focus in the United States on Russia, something that predated, but became abundantly clear, over the course of President Donald Trump’s tenure, where the establishment’s attempt to demonize the president rested on alleged ties to Russia. This threat inflation spurred NATO’s eastward expansion, much to Russia’s chagrin. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, once in the Soviet Warsaw Pact, entered the military alliance in 1999. In 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, also joined up.
The addition of the Baltic States was especially distressing for Russia. Often referenced by Russian officials at the time as the “near abroad,” they were the first countries to join the alliance that were once territory of the Soviet Union. Two of the three, Latvia and Lithuania, share physical borders with Russia.
NATO membership would eventually be extended to Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia as well. NATO expansion into central and eastern Europe was not without Russian provocation, however. Countries once firmly in the Soviet sphere of influence turned to NATO for cooperative defense as Russia waged the First Chechen War, the Transnistria War, as well as the War in Abkhazia.
Many of these countries added very little in terms of security benefits to the United States and other NATO allies aside from geographic positioning, which matters all the less in a world with over-the-horizon strike capabilities. Yet, NATO continued adding security dependents, and Ruger pointed out that NATO could continue to do so, as the alliance engages with Georgia and Ukraine in dialogue for potential membership.
NATO’s pursuit of increased cooperation with Russia on issues it hoped to use to redefine itself while simultaneously expanding to Russia’s doorstep and undertaking military action with little regard for Russian input has led Russia to believe NATO speaks out of both sides of the mouth. As the American-led alliance failed to achieve desired results in its chosen conflicts, Russia went on with skirmishes against countries surrounding its borders. When Russia moved to annex Crimea in March 2014, NATO was given the pretense to outright embrace the Cold-War paradigm on which the alliance was founded. NATO foreign ministers released a statement on April 1, 2014, that it “decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia.”
“Our political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council can continue, as necessary, at the Ambassadorial level and above, to allow us to exchange views, first and foremost on this crisis,” the statement added, and called the annexation an “illegal military intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Since, the relationship has become increasingly strained.
Admittedly, this was a tempting trap for NATO to fall into. Its mission to stave off eastern aggression granted NATO the deeply institutionalized power that enabled its survival even after the Soviet threat had dissipated. The foreign policy establishment’s inflation of the Russian threat that has gotten us to this point has “not allowed us to think about how we might cooperate with Russia in a productive fashion for U.S. national interests, particularly around arms control and counter terrorism,” Ruger said.
Beyond what it forks over to meet its NATO commitments every year, NATO’s attempted revival of this Cold War paradigm is already proving costly for the United States; namely, the growing relationship between Russia and China, which Lieven told TAC, “was the absolutely inevitable result of U.S. and European policy over the past generation.” He added:
However, it is important not to exaggerate the closeness of the relationship. It is still well short of a full alliance. China did not support Russia in Ukraine, and the Russian navy would not help China invade Taiwan. On the other hand, I believe that we will see increasing Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Middle East; and if (God forbid) the USA were to stumble into an armed clash with either China or Russia, the other state would probably exploit the opportunity to advance their interests and make trouble for America elsewhere.
The relationship between Russia and China isn’t a fully formed axis against the United States, and may never be. But the basic principles of international relations still apply. “If we consider China to be the most important strategic challenge to the United States, you would not want to do things that incentivize China to be able to gain friends or partners,” Ruger said. “Instead, you would want a situation in which, whether you had a formal alliance or not, it would be a balancing that occurred against the rise of China.”
NATO’s desired relevance, pushing for a focus on Russia, has come into conflict with the national interest of the United States. Prospects for improvement remain bleak, given that the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s desire to maintain its legitimacy and power in Washington aligns closely with the institutional interests of NATO. But everyday Americans are not Atlanticists, and they need political champions in Washington ready to tell the plain, hard truths about the modern NATO alliance and to help the country turn to face the 21st century’s challenges.