Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO Faces the Future

Back in the early days of perestroika, Georgy Arbatov, then the Kremlin's chief Americanologist, told his Western counterparts: "We are going to do something really terrible to you. We are going to rid you of your enemy." Several years later, the full weight of "Arbatov's curse" is being increasingly felt by those who until now have been congratulating themselves on their famous victory over the Soviet empire.


Some are putting on a brave face. NATO, they say, is still the linchpin of any Western security strategy, and reports of its demise are premature. "Keeping the Americans in, keeping the Germans down and keeping the Russians out" -- these are the three historical missions of NATO, and -- with some modification -- they remain relevant today. "Keeping the Americans in," albeit on a much-reduced scale, would be insurance against imperial resurgence in the east and re-nationalization in the west. "Keeping the Germans down" should read, in fact, keeping them firmly embedded in international security arrangements. And "keeping the Russians out" is to be understood as a readiness to forestall any new security threat coming from the former adversary.


Others, however, are less sanguine. They note that many Americans feel that their interests would be better served by ending the costly emphasis on protecting Europe from an invasion that no longer appears likely. "Keeping the Americans in" would be reduced to merely managing their gradual withdrawal.


Moreover, even though German voters recently returned the same coalition that has ruled the country for the last 12 years, it seems that they are ready for change. In a Europe where Americans and the American military will play a far less conspicuous role, Germany is quietly preparing for leadership. This will be nothing, of course, like its previous attempts at Weltherrschaft, but its international role will inevitably increase to match its economic might.


The only thing which, hypothetically, can still save NATO as we know it would be a resurgence of the Russian threat. It was Stalin, after all, who solidified western European unity and the trans-atlantic link in the first place. Post-Soviet Russia, no longer a superpower, can hardly be expected to perform the feat again, however. So far, it has been acting with a restraint that is unusual among empire-losers. It is weak, introverted and friendly, seeking membership rather than dominance.


Great institutions like NATO do not come apart overnight -- not in the West at least. There is a discomforting feeling, however, that unless the alliance revamps its organization, it may become an empty shell. Since there is no going back to the bad old days, NATO has to move forward.


And, in reality, NATO has not been standing still. The West-West dimension, which had heretofore been subordinated to the East-West confrontation, has now come to the forefront. The European Security and Defense Identity has been given the stamp of approval, and the concept of a Combined Joint Task Force has been unveiled.


Functionally, NATO has to be adapted to meet its new challenges.


An internal perestroika of the alliance has been accompanied by a reaching out to prospective new members. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council may have ended up as just a gab-fest and PFP may actually stand for "policy for postponement" instead of Partnership for Peace, but enlargement of the alliance is, nonetheless, already becoming tangible. Despite the reluctance of some members and the opposition of some non-members, there is a good chance that Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and -- possibly -- Slovakia may be admitted into NATO sooner, rather than later. "Do it the German way," some pundits suggest, alluding to the remarkable speed with which German reunification was handled.


Ideally, this would add up to a better division of costs and responsibilities between Europe and North America; respond to the new dangers facing member countries; and expand the concept of the "West" to include virtually all countries west of the former Soviet Union or, more accurately, the current CIS. But is this enough to keep NATO alive and make Europe secure?


A collective security alliance is predicated on the immediacy of a threat, and NATO's brilliant success was due, in no small measure, to the dangers being so glaringly clear and so uncomfortably present. On the contrary, a multitude of small-scale threats -- which seems to be the prevalent pattern for the post-Cold War era -- will inevitably work to erode the cohesion of the alliance. Spain, France, the Scandanavian countries, Greece and Turkey all seem to be preoccupied with their own, individual security concerns. In this situation, it is difficult to see what kind of role NATO can play. In addition, expansion of the alliance will just complicate matters further.


If the former Yugoslavia is even moderately indicative of the challenges of the present era, it will be difficult for a new-look NATO to repeat the alliance's Cold-War successes. This does not mean that it has outlived its usefulness or should be subsumed under a more muscular version of the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe.


NATO remains a powerful factor for stability within the Western world and must be preserved as such. It can also project a measure of much-needed stability into central and eastern Europe, but such expectations must be modest. The one truly great achievement of the Atlantic alliance was the demilitarization of relations between the Western states. Now it has the chance to expand this achievement by overcoming, for all time, the security divide between West and East. So far, so good.


Dmitry Trenin is a senior researcher at the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe and an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.