For the past decade and a half, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Trans-Atlantic Alliance’s relevancy has been debated. Should NATO have continued to exist, since during the Cold War its role, in a military sense, was one more or less of territorial defense? And if it should continue to function, how should this new NATO look and what should its mission be? Several plans were laid on the table, but the one that eventually emerged was a transformed NATO, one whose political characteristics (which were always present) took an equal footing to the always more dominant military aspects of the alliance.
In short, NATO has become a key vehicle for the West in exerting its “hegemony” throughout the world. A look at the last decade of NATO’s evolvement is evidence of this. Kurt Volker, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, summed-up NATO’s transformation best when he said recently at the Navel Post-Graduate School:
“If you think about 1994, NATO was an alliance of 16 countries that had done a lot of exercises but had never conducted a military operation. It had no partners. If you look at the NATO of 2005, you see an organization that was running eight military operations simultaneously, which had 26 members, and partnership relationships with another 20 countries in Eurasia, 7 in the Mediterranean, and a growing number in the Persian Gulf.”
And the intent is to increase these members and missions.
NATO missions have exploded in scope and varying degrees of depth in the post-Cold War world. For example, NATO is scheduled to take-over the whole of the security operation in Afghanistan by this summer. Aside from this major military expansion, though, lie other significant contributions to international security. Notably among these is NATO’s continuing mission to train security forces in Iraq and the Balkans, and its global humanitarian missions, best highlighted by actions taken to assist earthquake ridden Pakistan.
And its mission is not the only thing expanding. Perhaps more importantly (and telling of NATO’s long-term validity and association benefits) is the alliance’s expansion in membership. Already encompassing many of the former Communist States of Eastern Europe, Croatia, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have all applied for full membership. And potentially most important of all is that the Ukraine is weighing a similar bid to join. As in past cases, NATO membership usually precedes a bid to join the European Union. For the Ukraine, then, this would be one step closer to full partnership and identification with the West. Other Partner-for-Peace nations such as Georgia could (after additional house cleaning) potentially join. The inclusion of Ukraine and a viable state in the Southern Caucus region would bode well for future NATO expansion into Central Asia.
Clearly NATO is on the move. As Supreme Allied Commander General James Jones recently states, 2006 is a pivotal year for NATO. Why? The Riga convention this coming November will focus on the many issues and debates facing NATO’s long-term commitments and viability. The convention's work is intended to help define a mission that, given the many world threats, some see as unclear. For the United States and the majority of the NATO command, the alliance’s continued expanse into peacekeeping and humanitarian missions throughout the world is highly desirable. Additionally, increasing membership is also viewed favorably. They will push for such measures in Riga. Opponents to NATO’s expansion stem both from traditionalists who view NATO operations outside its historical North Atlantic “box” as overreach, and those who feel its expansion will force an increasingly isolated Russia into the hands of the Chinese. These opponents are vocal, but it is doubtful their arguments will be seriously considered given the success of NATO operations, the relative weakness of Russia, and China’s economic priorities.
As an article published by the Foreign Policy Association recently stated, “allies are back in vogue.” For the US, this means an invigorated NATO strengthening the West both politically and militarily. NATO, from the US’s perspective, is necessary to pursuing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy;” a strategy where soldiers and diplomats work hand-in-hand to solve many security issues (most notably defeating terrorism and the conditions that breed it). It is a return for the US to a more multilateral security approach and one that, I believe, fits in well with the mission of NATO as a "Western Alliance". It is also viewed by the US (and increasingly by European leaders) as the most viable option, absent a unified UN, for international action.
By the end of this year, therefore, we will continue to see NATO operational successes, and the alliance's current missions will be reaffirmed by the November conference as viable options for future international crisis. 2006 will prove to be the year that the NATO transformation became complete; a transformation from a Cold War defense alliance, to one that uses Western power projection capabilities to achieve peace and stability in the face of dire threats. It is, in my opinion, a proper and noble mission.