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The future of NATO in the context of European security

The future of NATO in the context of European security


The future of NATO in the context of European security nowadays is considered to get blurred. Taking into consideration a lot of developments on the international arena, the role of NATO requires rethinking as well as security studies needs redefining.


This article deals with tracing the modification of NATO’s role in the contemporary world. For the time being, when the erosion of national boundaries becomes an usual thing and world meets a lot of challenges on the global level, security institution needs refreshing and their concepts requires rethinking. Much attention is paid to modification of the NATO’s role since the crisis in and around Ukraine. Russian aggression amid the Ukrainian aspirations to join the Alliance has revealed new sides of ongoing security guarantees. Also the nature of relations between the U.S. and Europe has been touched upon for hinting the possible way of their transformation and converting in more successful and effective collaboration.  


Rapid changes at the international arena has entailed the issue of transformation relating to multilateral security institutions. Several institutions, trying to accommodate to new circumstances, have just withered away and their functions have been taken over by other actors of international relations. This statement applies to the Western European Union. Other organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have bumped into a menacing problem relating to its ability to survive in new circumstances not losing its effectiveness. Consequently, the major question gradually frequently raised is whether these organizations have a future and how they can settle all the challenges of the contemporary world?

Although at the end of the Cold War a lot of scholars predicted that the North Atlantic Alliance will virtually die out according to the loss of its enemy, NATO is still regarded by international community as a cornerstone of security in the western hemisphere. This case spawned a puzzle for researchers, who claimed that basis for collaboration in the framework of NATO was no longer there. To answer this question plenty of scientists turned to “constructivist approaches” to international relations, which applies to the necessity to take into consideration the role of principles, norms and identity in order to put across the persistence of NATO.1 From this point of view NATO is considered to be not only the military alliance held together by a crux of a common extrinsic threat, but first of all the community of liberal democratic values and principles. Taking into account NATO’s gradually founded close institutional ties with former enemies of the Warsaw Pact, involving Russia, expanding its membership and redefining security, the statements in the spirit of constructivist approaches appear extremely convincing.

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On the other hand, one of the most relevant criteria to sort out the longevity of any international organization, in particular military alliances, is whether the organization is attractive for the states that stay beyond its structures. 2 Furthermore, the necessity to enter or withdraw the particular organization can be sponsored by the unique structure of the system of international relations. In that case, we should regard the situation from the neo-realistic point of view. It means that national interests of states are the top priorities for them whilst their behavior is subjugated to the particular rules of the system of international relations.

Consequently, bearing in mind that the future of NATO depends upon the ability to answer the questions of whether the Alliance is still the center of gravity and whether it is still so attractive, it will be relevant to expose some more points for carrying out the deep analysis of this dilemma:

1.    Which ongoing issues and security challenges of post-Cold war world are the most significant?

2.    What is the essence of the new quality in NATO-Russia relations amid the crisis around Ukraine since 2014 and to what extent the role of the Alliance has been modified?

3.    Is there an urgent necessity for rethinking NATO’s security maintenance principles?

Ongoing issues and security challenges of post-Cold War world

From the time when the bipolar world was demolished, subdued differences and old sensitivities seemed have the tendency to resurface. It means that the main causes of destabilization are considered to appear as differences in wealth and demography. Indeed, it evaporates the necessity to contribute a lot to various military alliances, for instance NATO, and provokes all endeavors to be taken only for accumulating economic power and social security, on the one hand. Nevertheless, on the other hand, even established as the Alliance with thinking in strong military-strategic terms, it can start formulating new political-economic strategies and thanks to such modification survive in the complicated contemporary world. When the necessity to wage Cold War was out of agenda, the North Atlantic Alliance had to take on the new role, which was quite different from the one that was applicable in the origins of its creation.  3

The main ongoing issue of the post-Cold war world was that the basis of power has shifted. Military power is not mush the indicator nor the guarantee of economic power as it used to be. Moreover, the major security challenge was not the problem of fulfilling the vacuum left by bipolarity and deterrence, but disappearing of the game, that was the background for the existence of relative stability. Nuclear deterrence was a game. In addition, as long as the players believe in it and played according to its rules, the balance was kept, but when one of the block vanished, the players lost enthusiasm and the taste of game. 3 It seemed that NATO had to lose its significance when the Soviet Union disappeared from the political map of the world. However, the Alliance did not continue to wage phantom wars to lose its credibility, it redefined its security needs and turned it into a political rather than a military task. For the time being, the most important task for the Alliance is to hold the balance between political and military aspects of its activities.

Modification of NATO’s role after the crisis around Ukraine since 2014

The crisis within and around Ukraine since 2014 meant a major change for NATO. At the September Wales Summit the allies put collective defense back as the primus inter pares among NATO’s three core tasks. The other two are considered to be crisis management and cooperative security. 4

It cannot be hidden away that Ukraine was regarded by the West as “buffer zone” being adjacent to the totalitarian Soviet Union. It had to become the shield against the spread of communism. After the breakdown of the SU Ukraine became one more link of the state chain, which wards the Russian Federation off the rest of European countries. Turning back to the ideas of neorealists, who pay much attention to the structural aspect of international relations, aspirations of Ukraine to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be estimated by Russia as the attempt to destroy status quo. From this point of view, destabilization of Ukraine by Russia leads to “frozen conflict” that in theory blocks the consolidation of a democratic, Western-oriented polity. However, in practice the West settles into a stable configuration of ongoing sanctions, punishing Russia for bad behavior, and such actions vice versa foster the consolidation of European countries in the fight against Russian aggression.

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According to the Study of Russian-Western Strategic Interaction written by R. E. Ericsson and L. A. Zeager the strategy based upon destabilization by Russia and sanctions by the West in response to the aggression is the most relevant scenario, because preserving a democratic, Western-oriented Ukraine is not worth the cost and allowing Russia to achieve its geopolitical objectives through successful destabilization seems be not such a bad variant. 5 Furthermore, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has revealed new sides of NATO structural power. It is clear that Ukraine cannot become the member of the Alliance until the conflict with Russia is settled, because it can cause a dangerous effect on the Alliance. Supposing Ukraine becomes the member of NATO without full conflict resolution in the eastern part of its territory. Then Russia may provoke escalation of conflict and allies will be obliged to help Ukraine according to the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949). 6

However, such scenario is hardly applicable for allies. The main advantage of NATO existence is its preemptive character. It means that those guarantees given by Member States are the highest cost of security, which is certainly to be regarded as the resource, not as a condition or other stable realm.

Rethinking of NATO security maintenance principles

Collective defense is an old-fashioned task and NATO must perform it in an environment that differs a lot from the Cold War in security, political, economic and military terms. The intrinsic circumstances within the Alliance and the extrinsic conditions have changed dramatically. All this inquiries deep rethinking of NATO’s needs to turn back collective defense in updated version. Furthermore, concentrating only on collective defense entails neglecting attitude to the security challenges faced by the Southern Allies. Attacks at Paris in 2015 are a satisfied justification to consider this. The Alliance needs to maintain the balance between collective defense and crisis management whilst not forgetting about its third task - cooperative security. 4

Altering the pattern will require a sustained endeavor. Over the past decade a vast array of particular issues have been sorted out – enhancing environmental quality, bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, limiting population growth, protecting human rights etc. The vulnerability of societies should be estimated to a variety of harms non-military in nature and coping with many types of political problems is surely to be dependent upon the limitation of military instruments. Furthermore, problems that are manageable for the time being may prove to be far less tractable in the future. Political will and energy of NATO Member States should not be predominately focused on military solutions to the problems of national security of each State Member in particular, but the nonmilitary tasks are likely to grow ever more difficult to accomplish and dangerous to neglect.

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Moreover, relations between Europe and the United States are of great importance for the Alliance’s future. The real problem is not the artificial concept of the division of duties, but common actions of both transatlantic structures. If NATO in the framework of Europe wants to promote democratic transformation worldwide, there must be a way to pursue this mission together and in a relevant manner. If the dividing line between security and the threat gets blurred, neither the Alliance nor Europe in particular may ignore the needs that in the past belonged to discretionary powers of each sovereign state.  2


In general, the problem with NATO is not about the lack of power or potential, but about the lack of effective concept that would regulate the structure of the Alliance, providing it with relevant solutions under new circumstances. In case the tremendous confrontation or permanent crisis occurs to become the main threat for the international community. It is extremely important to realize that for the time being and on the future NATO’s capacity encompasses not only Europe, but the whole world. Consequently, taking into consideration that the U.S. remain the superpower in the framework of NATO, it becomes evident that Europe must keep the interest of the America.

Besides, the Alliance needs transformation. This transformation must not be perceived as a single event, but it must become a permanent and long-term process of adjustment and addressing new threats, circumstances, needs and tasks.

Author: Anastasia Vozovych, Senior Fellow on Strategic Studies in Think Tank ADASTRA


1  Helene Sjurse. “On the Identity of NATO”. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944)

 2 Adam Daniel Rotfeld. “The future of NATO. Sicherheit und Frieden (S+F)”/ Security and Peace

Vol. 25, No. 1, Themenschwerpunkt: Perspektiven Europäischer Sicherheits- und Verteidigungspolitik (2007)

 3 Gün Kut. “The future of NATO and Southern European Security”. Il Politico Vol. 56, No. 1 (157) (Gennaio-Marzo 1991)

4 Claudia Major. “NATO and European Security: Back to the Roots?” 2015

Published by: Istituto Affari    Internazionali (IAI) (Dec. 1, 2015)

5 Richard E. Ericson and Lester A. Zeager. Ukraine Crisis 2014: A Study of RussianWestern Strategic Interaction


6 The North Atlantic Treaty. Washington D.C. - 4 April 1949. https://www.nato.int/cps/ua/natohq/official_texts_17120.htm