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During the Cold War, NATO’s role was rather clear. Despite tensions (for example, France withdrew from NATO’s military structure in the period 1966-96), NATO had a well-defined agenda, that of containing and at times opposing the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact (formed in 1955). Since 1992, however, NATO’s purposes have become increasingly unclear. Its forces have been involved in highly questionable wars (from Kosovo to Afghanistan) and its enlargement has been constant, pushing its boundaries east. But what is NATO’s purpose as of 2016? Does this alliance still make sense? Let us attempt to figure out some of its current objectives, which are usually not illustrated in official documents.

 

Certainly, NATO is a way to hold Western countries together. After all, NATO members are liberal democracies (but what about Turkey?) and share some common values. A major problem, however, is that US power within NATO is disproportionately high. As of 2014, according to SIPRI, USA military expenditure was $ 610 billion, that is, about 2/3 of NATO members’ overall military budget! France comes a distant second with slightly more than $ 62 billion. This means that, after all, one of NATO’s main purposes is to keep EU countries tied to Washington and in a condition of subordination and ‘childhood’ in international relations, so to speak. This state of affairs has been often denounced, but no real action has been taken. After all, most Europeans, including their leaders, prefer having little or no responsibility on global matters of war and peace. In addition, NATO bureaucracies provide opportunities of visibility and prestige to many former ministers, ageing military officers or senior diplomats, who often come from small or medium-size countries. Interestingly, the last NATO Secretary-Generals have come from The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, but all Supreme Allied Commanders Europe (SACE, a highly strategic role) since 1951 have been US generals; and all of them have had British deputies, with a handful of Germans being the exception. Where the ‘game’ becomes serious, the US dominates.

 

Since 1989 NATO has then become important for countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which have joined en masse: from Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999 to Albania and Croatia in 2009. Some of these countries have influential lobbies in the USA (Poland, above all) and wanted to quickly be tied to America’s military and economic prosperity; others saw NATO accession as a first step towards joining the European Union. Some governments in Eastern Europe (Poland and the Baltics, mainly) saw NATO as an instrument to keep at bay Russia and enjoy the safety of the US nuclear umbrella. The USA realised that enlarging NATO eastwards could thus provide the possibility of both diluting unity among European countries (especially the ‘ambitious’ and potentially federalist ones such as France and Germany) and weakening Russia’s historical influence in Central and Eastern Europe. This combination of factors and interests has thus kept NATO alive and active well into the 21st century.

 

As is clear, however, all the above-mentioned reasons are not enough to keep in place such a powerful military alliance. Some scholars and commentators (mainly neoconservatives and authors like Daalder and Goldgeier; see https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2006-09-01/global-nato) reckon NATO should become a League of Democracies, and promoting democracy worldwide. Yet the last decade’s wars have sufficiently proved how culturally insensitive and politically dangerous such ideas can be. Perhaps we would need an UN-backed world armed force, but its realisation looks at the moment remote.

 

Other states – Montenegro and Macedonia, for example – aspire to obtain NATO membership. Of course there is then the issue of Georgia. By attracting and inviting Eastern European countries, NATO is perpetuating a policy of ‘blocs’ and hostility to Russia which should have by now been completely overcome. This policy risks triggering tensions with other groups such as Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. In addition, China is promoting the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), whose current members are China, Russia, and four of the five –stans (all except Turkmenistan). The SCO will soon be joined by India and Pakistan, which will transform it into a major Eurasian organisation representing more than three billion people. Can NATO afford to forgo all these developments, and keep picking up countries in Eastern Europe, while almost a billion and a half Indians join a Eurasian organisation aimed at defeating terrorism and fundamentalism?

 

NATO’s expansion has somehow managed to unite China, Russia, and even India. Other countries (take Pakistan or Egypt) have become distrustful of US international politics. An aggressive NATO posture perpetuates the impression that Washington wants to dominate the world, rather than leading it together with other centres of power and within the framework of supranational organisations. The forthcoming US election campaign will offer the chance to grasp American thoughts on the issue – even if, we are afraid, most of it will focus on domestic concerns.  

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