Rethinking NATO After 75 Years: Reckless Expansion, Mission Creep, US Dependency, and Ineffectiveness

NATO staring defeat in the face in Ukraine, courtesy of The Communist.

 

In 1997, Senator Joe Biden advocated for NATO’s expansion, claiming Russia would welcome it. This expansion, combined with mission creep and over-dependence on the US, weakened NATO, making it ineffective in responding to European wars and out-of-area conflicts in the Middle East. Biden’s current open path to NATO policy shows he hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the 90s. Now that relations with Russia are beyond repair and China is the most pressing threat to US national security, should we fix NATO, dilute it further by expanding its mandate to China, form a new Asian NATO, or scrap it altogether?

When World War II ended and the world polarized into a Soviet-led Eastern bloc and a US-led Western bloc, NATO was established for several reasons, including providing collective defense against Soviet aggression. The alliance ensured that an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all, deterring Soviet expansion into Western Europe. Additionally, NATO promoted political stability and economic cooperation, fostering democratic values and market economies. The presence of American military power in Europe reassured smaller nations, enhancing their security and discouraging them from making separate deals with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, NATO facilitated military standardization and interoperability among member states, improving the effectiveness of their combined defense efforts.

However, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, both the Clinton and Bush administrations pushed for NATO to address “the new security challenges of the next century.” The alliance shifted its focus away from collective defense and towards a new, less clearly defined mission, addressing “the new security challenges of the next century.”

NATO’s interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina marked its first significant deployments outside member countries, signaling a shift from its founding principle of collective defense against the USSR. During the Bosnian War, NATO conducted Operation Deny Flight (1993-1995) to enforce a no-fly zone and Operation Deliberate Force (1995) to carry out airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces, contributing to the Dayton Agreement that ended the war. Similarly, NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, known as Operation Allied Force, aimed to halt ethnic cleansing and atrocities against ethnic Albanians by Yugoslav and Serbian forces. These missions set a precedent for “out of area” interventions and demonstrated NATO’s mission creep, transforming from a focus on collective defense against the Soviet threat to a broader mandate that includes humanitarian intervention and crisis management.

At the same time that NATO was taking on “out-of-area” missions, then-Senator Joe Biden advocated for NATO’s expansion. The alliance began admitting new members, including former Soviet republics, which worsened relations with Russia. This does not justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine; however, it is a fact that Putin cites NATO’s expansion as a justification for the invasion.

The new NATO members were economically and militarily weak, turning NATO membership into a US defense umbrella. This US commitment led these nations to reduce their military forces; for example, the German army is now about one-third its Cold War size. Simultaneously, out-of-area missions in Afghanistan and Libya strained Europe’s dwindling armies, further burdening the US. The belief that a European war was unlikely and that Russia would not replace the USSR as the primary adversary diminished defense priorities among European governments. Feeling safe under the US defense umbrella, only a few members met their 2% GDP defense spending target, forcing the US to shoulder about 70% of NATO’s funding. This complacency led to criticism of NATO for its slow or inadequate responses to several European conflicts, highlighting a lack of preparedness.

During the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, NATO was criticized for its limited reaction. Its response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was insufficient, focusing on political and economic measures rather than military intervention. In 2020, NATO failed to meaningfully intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. NATO’s ineffectiveness has allowed these conflicts to reignite, leading to ongoing instability in Georgia, the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war, and Azerbaijan annexing Nagorno-Karabakh and expelling Armenian Christians in 2023.

Since World War II, the United States has been the cornerstone of European defense, but it is questionable whether this should continue. Europe should take ownership of its own defense. Strengthening NATO could involve better burden-sharing, enhancing rapid response capabilities, and refining its strategic focus to contemporary threats. However, NATO has had 75 years to address these issues and has failed to solve them. Another option is to scrap NATO altogether, though this could lead to regional instability and a power vacuum that adversaries might exploit, making it an impractical choice given NATO’s historical significance and existing commitments.

Washington needs to address the China threat, but expanding NATO’s mandate to include this seems ill-advised. NATO has already struggled to defend Europe effectively, making it unlikely to perform well in the Indo-Pacific. For most of Europe, the security threat in the Indo-Pacific is too distant and not relevant. Instead, forming partnerships with regional allies in Asia could be a more targeted approach. Creating an Indo-Pacific NATO, possibly including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, could address the security dynamics specific to the region without overextending NATO.

The most likely outcome is that NATO will continue to exist and heavily depend on the US. Biden will keep expanding NATO, Russia will remain an adversary, and regarding China, two solutions are likely. NATO’s mandate might shift further to incorporate the Indo-Pacific, spreading the alliance even thinner. Additionally, an Asian NATO could be developed, or existing frameworks like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or AUKUS might expand to include members from Asia, such as South Korea and the Philippines, as well as European nations like France with interests in the Indo-Pacific. No matter which option is exercised, the US will continue to be the military and economic linchpin that holds it all together.

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Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is an economist and national security analyst with a focus on China and Russia. He is a graduate of American Military University.

You can email Antonio Graceffo here, and read more of Antonio Graceffo's articles here.

 

Thanks for sharing!