For over two decades, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has defied the pundits who predict its imminent demise.
Recent intra-NATO debates reveal the alliance adapting to 21st century needs and economic limitations. But the bottom line is NATO still matters, to Europe and the U.S., because an alliance coordinating the defense of democratic nations still serves several critical purposes.
As the Cold War faded in the early 1990s, "end of NATO" prognosticators argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to the collapse of the military alliance forged to defeat it. They maintained that intra-alliance political frictions, no longer checked by the threat of Soviet tanks and nuclear weapons, would inevitably fracture the complex organization.
Moreover, Western Europe, re-cast as the European Economic Community and preparing for life as the European Union, could do it alone, militarily and economically. According to these seers, the outbreak of peace in Europe meant Europeans no longer needed to fret with those overbearing Americans.
However, European peace didn't break out, not quite. Instead, Yugoslavia broke up, a USSR in Balkan miniature, its dissolution sparking a series of dirty wars on European soil.
U.N. peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans failed to prevent massacres like Bosnia's Srebrenica genocide. When Kosovo exploded, the Clinton Administration, Britain and France sidestepped the U.N. To fight the Kosovo War, they used a democratic political alliance capable of waging war on behalf of a better peace: NATO. By doing so, they reinvented NATO as a global actor for the North Atlantic democracies.
Balkan troubles still plague Europe, but NATO's Kosovo intervention staunched the bloodshed. European diplomats also quickly learned that (excepting Serbia) the ex-Yugoslav Balkan states regarded NATO and the European Union as classy clubs. Diplomatic clout is one of NATO's continuing utilities. Membership has prestige. Dangling NATO and European Union membership still encourages better, if not quite good, Balkan behavior.
In the last decade of the 20th century, former Soviet satellites, especially Poland and Romania, looked east and saw an old nemesis, Russia. Both actively petitioned NATO for admission, arguing they and the Baltic nations were NATO's new front line. Poland became a member in 1999 and Romania in 2004.
In the 21st century's second decade, Russia is neither friend nor foe. Western European NATO members hope to diplomatically coax Russia into a quasi-alliance and see Russia as a partner in the shadow war against militant Islamist terrorism. For several years, Georgia and Ukraine have lobbied for full NATO membership. This week NATO rejected their requests for full membership.
Vociferous Russian objections certainly played a role in the NATO decision. NATO also relies on Russian political cooperation to support its operations in Afghanistan. That factored in as well. However, Ukraine and Georgia are not quite beyond the pale. Both nations have defense cooperation arrangements with NATO.
I suspect that an ongoing intra-alliance debate over priorities also affected the Ukraine-Georgia decision. Spurred by economic challenges and evolving threats, the alliance is reinventing itself as a 21st century defense organization built on ever-closer defense cooperation and trust. NATO is now encouraging what it calls defense specialization "by design" and not economic default. NATO strategists want members to develop their individual national strengths. This means coordinating defense budgets within the alliance and implementing long-term multi-national solutions to common problems. For example, the Czechs will concentrate on providing the alliance with chemical and nuclear detection and decontamination units. Creating a seamless NATO common logistics capability is a long-term multi-national goal.
The "deep goal" of this new round of reinvention is to insure that the alliance can fulfill its NATO treaty Article 5 obligation to current members. Article 5 commits every NATO nation to the defense of a member suffering attack by a non-NATO member. NATO invoked Article 5 after the 9-11 terror attacks on the U.S. The 9-11 Article 5 invocation and the Kosovo War were predicates to NATO's "beyond Europe" involvement in Afghanistan and in Libya 2011.
NATO's demise is anything but imminent. Evolving threats have seeded closer cooperation.