Opinions - 10.07.2016 - 00:00 

Three Challenges for NATO

An opinion piece by James W. Davis on the ever-changing role of NATO.

11 July 2016. For a decade after the end of the Cold War, NATO was an alliance in search of a mission. 9/11 delivered it and ever since, NATO has been engaged in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and radical Islamist movements from Pakistan to North Africa. But as NATO heads of state and government gather in Warsaw for their semi-annual summit meeting, there is no shortage of items on their agenda. The Afghanistan and counter-terrorism missions continue, as do NATO deployments in Kosovo, anti-piracy activities off the Horn of Africa and efforts in the Aegean Sea to stop the smuggling of refugees and migrants from Turkey to Greece. For most of these missions there appears to be no end in sight, an unwelcome fact of life for an alliance that now faces three major challenges.

Putin’s Russia

Russian aggression in Europe and military intervention in the Syrian civil war were wakeup calls for NATO. While pursuing security partnership with Russia and a vision of Europe “whole and free” NATO let down its guard. Troop levels in NATO Europe were dramatically reduced. Budget constraints and the ongoing mission in Afghanistan led to reduced investments in the capabilities needed to deter a conventional attack in Europe and respond if deterrence fails. Hard to believe, but as NATO expanded its membership, adding 12 new members since 1990, total military spending by the European allies actually went down by $30 billion. Meanwhile Russia has expanded its military budget every year since 1998 and in 2010, President Vladimir Putin launched an enormous military modernization project.


With Great Britain’s vote to leave the EU, NATO is de facto the only institution capable of formulating of a common European foreign and defense policy. Navigating the turbulence created by Brexit with a care-taker government in London will be a challenge, especially given the fact that NATO is expecting the UK to assume command of one of the new combat battalions. It is in everyone’s interest to insulate NATO from the uncertain future of the EU. Putin should be given no reason to question the political cohesion and resolve of NATO or its commitment to defend each and every member.

Democratic Principles

NATO is an alliance committed to the common defense of its members, with Article 5 asserting that an attack on any one of them will be regarded as an attack on them all. But the North Atlantic Treaty also commits its members to safeguard democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law at home. Sadly, fundamental democratic principles are under attack in a number of important NATO member states, including Turkey, Hungary and Poland. Although a common threat can create strange bedfellows in international relations, it is unlikely that Americans will maintain their strong commitment to the defense of Europe if they come to believe that Europeans no longer share a commitment to democracy. And at the end of the day, the success of NATO, indeed the success of Europe, comes down to American leadership.

Dr. James W. Davis is Professor of International Politics and Dean of the School of Economics.

photo: / NickdaVinci

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