In the aftermath of Russia’s decision to annex Crimea, the media has turned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), suggesting that it gives NATO new purpose or that it brings NATO back into the spotlight. This, of course, reflects how limited our attention span apparently must be. After all, when the United States was attacked on 9/11, article V of the NATO treaty was invoked—an attack on one is equal to an attack on all—for the first time, ultimately leading to NATO taking ownership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. This effort came at great cost to NATO’s members and partners with much blood spilled and billions of dollars spent on a country that hitherto few had appeared to really cared about.
Since 2003, ISAF has been a NATO mission, one that took place in the shadow of Iraq. While the United States was focused elsewhere, Canadian and European troops provided more than half of the troops engaged in the effort until the American surge in 2009. Certainly, the allies sparred with each other over burden sharing, especially over the restrictions that kept some countries confined to the less dangerous parts of the country. Still, even these countries, such as Germany and Italy, paid a significant price.
Why? Because of their commitment to the Atlantic alliance. The history of the post-Cold War period provided a series of existential crises—wither NATO—followed by situations where the only institutionalized multilateral military organization has been seen as indispensable. Indeed, the European Union and the United Nations proved to be incapable of dealing with war in Bosnia. So President Bill Clinton faced a choice of using 25,000 American soldiers to rescue the failing UN mission (especially its French and British allies) or doing something to end the war. He chose to involve NATO to compel the sides to agree to a peace agreement and then to enforce that agreement—the Dayton Accords. A few years later, NATO leaders issued a series of threats to Serbia, led by Slobodan Milosevic, to deal with the ethnic conflict in Kosovo. This led to a NATO air campaign that was largely sustained by the shared concern that failure here would doom the alliance.
As its mission in Afghanistan was coming to an end—not for Afghans—once again there was concern about its future. But, even before the exit from the last war is complete, NATO is immediately seen as relevant—this time for dealing with the traditional focus of the alliance, the big threat to the east. Again, other organizations have not been viewed as particularly impactful, whether that is the European Union, the UN, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
What sets NATO apart? First, unlike the other organizations, NATO is an alliance: membership is limited but provides security guarantees to its members via Article V. NATO does not have to appear to be even-handed, and Russia does not have a vote. Second, it is a practiced security institution. Its members have been working together in simulations, exercises, peacekeeping missions, and various conflicts. So, the level of cooperation is far higher and far more capable than any alternative. As I have documented elsewhere with David Auerswald, there are some real challenges that arise in multilateral warfare even when NATO is the alliance involved. With that said, it remains more capable than ad hoc efforts such as the international side of the Iraq war or before NATO took over the Libya mission. Finally, because the members value the alliance, they are willing to do much to protect it. When NATO’s credibility is threatened, the allies tend to stick together—as we have seen in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
This is especially important now as Russia’s behaviour challenges NATO’s commitment to the Baltics and to other states in Eastern Europe. So, NATO is not back or finding a new purpose, but is simply there doing what it has been doing for more than 60 years, being the most powerful, most institutionalized, most practiced form of military cooperation on the planet. Sure, there will be wrangling and politics within the alliance, but its commitments to existing members are quite significant and credible. Which means, ultimately, that Russia’s assertiveness will be limited. Just as we are deterred from interfering too much in Crimea, Russia will be deterred from going too far.
The funny thing is we even see a sudden switch in the Harper government’s attitude towards NATO. After pulling out of various NATO programs during the course of his leadership, in the last couple of weeks Harper and Foreign Minister Baird have become among the foremost advocates of NATO playing a role during the current crisis. This may be due to the desire to appeal to the Ukrainian-Canadians at home, but is still telling. Even those burned by uneven burden sharing in the past find NATO to be the best international organization in times like these.