Questioning NATO relevance is misguided and dangerous
This week, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the longest enduring alliance in history, will gather in Madrid for their annual summit. Yet, despite its longevity and success — or perhaps because of it — many people question NATO’s relevance today, even as Russia occupies 20 percent of Ukraine and threatens other European states. Others have called for the U.S. to withdraw from NATO, preferring an isolationist approach to global conflicts. These attitudes are misguided and dangerous. NATO is not only still relevant to the United States and the other members, it’s necessary, and here is why.
NATO came to the aid of the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Many Americans fail to realize that NATO invoked Article 5 (an attack on one is akin to an attack on all) and provided airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) to help assist in monitoring aerial activity over the United States. This support helped protect the U.S. against a possible second wave of attacks. This was the first and only time Article 5 was enacted and built upon alliance activity in which the United States and other NATO members were involved during the 1990s and included the likes of peace-keeping operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and North Macedonia.
NATO has also been and remains a key pillar in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with its support of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. As we have seen transnational terror organizations become even more violent and extreme, ISIS has presented a significant challenge to Europe and the United States with attacks in Belgium, Germany, France and the United States to name a few. As of just two months ago, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored the alliance’s provision of AWACS to monitor ISIS activity.
Fast forward to today: NATO countries, with their contribution of weapons and training to Ukrainian forces, and their solidarity in standing up to Russia have been a testament to the resolve of NATO and further underpins its importance. Moscow failed to anticipate the strong and coordinated NATO response. Educating Ukrainian military personnel on NATO standards has made a difference on the battlefield in Ukraine. Russia through its aggressive behavior has made NATO reinvent its purpose, to deter Russia from expanding. NATO has provided command and control of enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle groups in Eastern Europe as of late to hedge against Russian aggression. NATO has learned from its time in Afghanistan regarding effective communications, interoperability and building on its combat experience there.
Accordingly, there are four multinational battle groups stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland; France has also contributed troops to Romania. Russia has been employing hybrid warfare in Ukraine and has through the Feb. 24 invasion forced its return to the world stage as a significant power. Moscow punches above its weight class with its small economic size comparable to Spain, relying more on its nuclear forces while seeing its military conventional strength weakening in Ukraine. NATO’s presence in the Baltics and Poland sends a clear signal that it will not tolerate aggression against alliance members. These forces are also provided by European states, thus spreading the burden of security beyond the United States.
Given the shifting geopolitical landscape, NATO allies would be better served by using the summit as a means to strengthen their purpose, rather than pulling back. Allowing Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, unanimously confirming support of Ukraine, and perhaps most important for the United States, embracing NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which will include security issues stemming from China, would send a strong message to other would-be aggressors, that NATO is alive and well.
Tom Røseth is an associate professor and head of the Ukraine Program, Oslo, Norway at the Norwegian Defense College. He is also is the editor of “Intelligence Relations in the 21st Century.”
John Weaver is an associate professor of intelligence analysis at York College of Pennsylvania and the author of “NATO in Contemporary Times: Purpose, Relevance, Future.”