Small Wars Journal

Redefining Relationships Inside and Outside the NATO Alliance

Sun, 10/09/2016 - 8:21am

Redefining Relationships Inside and Outside the NATO Alliance Editorial Team

Memo 51: In order to learn from past mistakes, NATO should seek to bring Russia into the fold of European security, refrain from humanitarian missions better conducted under UN auspices, sanction non-compliance to the 2% defense spending promise, and strengthen its democratic norms.

Like any other organization, NATO has made mistakes. What is crucial is that the Alliance recognizes what went wrong and why, thus preventing these same mistakes in the future. In order to understand how the young generation views NATO's past, our project "Shaping our NATO: Young Voices on the Warsaw Summit" asked:

What do you consider to be NATO's biggest mistake in the last 25 years? What lessons should be drawn and how to prevent similar mistakes in the future?

We have published the 29 best submissions from 13 different countries and put them up for public debate. members posted more than 130 thoughtful comments. Then nine of ten shortlisted authors have written this joint Atlantic Memo with the best policy recommendations to learn from past mistakes.

Download a PDF copy.


NATO has made mistakes that have jeopardized its future as a collective defense alliance. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed with the intention of ensuring the security of its members. That should remain the focus.

NATO-Russian relations have failed to advance beyond the Cold War mentality, wherein each was the others principle enemy. The Alliance should seek to mitigate tensions with Russia rather than pursuing policies that will further entrench the Alliance's original goal of countering the Soviet sphere of influence. NATO missions since the Cold War taken on for reasons other than the collective defense of its members have subjected the Alliance to much criticism and have not contributed to ensuring the security of its members.

NATO members' uneven commitment to defense spending has affected the stability of the Alliance and has created distrust on both sides of the Atlantic.

This memo points out NATO's biggest mistakes of the last 25 years and offers policy recommendations to remedy them.


1. External mistakes

1.1 NATO has failed to foster a cooperative relationship with Russia.

By pursuing policies of enlargement and intervention, NATO failed to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia, making it more difficult to deal with present cases of Russian aggression. Accession talks with Ukraine and Georgia have been followed by a direct conflict with Russia, placing the security of member and non-member eastern European states in jeopardy.

While NATO worked with Russia by creating the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council) in 1991 and the Partnership for Peace program in 1994, by deciding to admit eastern European states as new members, the Alliance sent the message to Russia that it was still perceived as the enemy. This prevented Russia from being able to contribute to, rather than to threaten European security. NATO's intervening in Kosovo, despite Moscow's objection, exemplified NATO's unwillingness to cooperate with Russia on matters of European security.

1.2 NATO over-stepped its responsibilities as a collective defense organization.

Over the past two decades, NATO has expanded its role. The Alliance has taken on humanitarian missions in reaction to the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, has enforced international maritime law in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, and has responded to a natural disaster in Pakistan. When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999, its stated purpose was to mitigate the impending "humanitarian catastrophe" that would result from inaction. The NATO member countries spoke the language of human rights and pursued a ceasefire with that goal in mind. When NATO intervened in Libya in 2011, regime change appeared to be a primary goal. Rather than "illegal, yet legitimate," as the Kosovo intervention was hailed, observers of the Libyan mission asked if this mission, although legal, was illegitimate for exceeding its mandate. NATO interventions in internal conflicts in Kosovo and Libya have been expensive, have earned NATO international criticism, and have not resulted in either increased stability for citizens of the intervened upon state after exit, nor in the increase of security for Alliance members.

NATO has been accused of breaking international law by targeting civilian infrastructure and of intensifying the violence in Kosovo, and of exceeding its mandate and forcing regime change in Libya. NATO has received criticism from Russia, members of the non-aligned movement, and others for acting as a "global policeman".

Interventions into Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya, resulting in regime change have contributed to the creation of failed states. Kosovo has become an artificial state in which NATO has committed to a long term mission. Upon NATO's exit, Libya has become a completely failed state. Afghanistan and Libya have both experienced an increase in violent extremism in the absence of a unified state. The Islamic State – whose militants have perpetrated attacks on members such as Turkey, France, Germany and Belgium – has established a firm foothold in Libya. NATO's desire to avoid another long term mission should be balanced by the threat that a premature exit can have on the security of its members.

2. Internal mistakes

2.1 European members failed to enforce consistency on defense spending.

NATO member countries have pledged to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but have failed to specify any consequences for non-compliance. Since 1991, European governments have slashed defense budgets, decreasing military readiness. Lower levels of financial commitment and capability of European members have impacted their ability to work alongside the US. Recent training exercises have shown that European troops are not capable of the long term deployments that their US counterparts are. The intervention in Libya showed the inability of European members to conduct such a mission on their own; US forces had to provide the backbone of a supposedly European-led mission.

This transatlantic imbalance in military spending contributes to the European perception that NATO is synonymous with the United States and the US perception that European states are free riding on US power. The gap between US and European defense spending causes distrust on each side of the Atlantic, evidenced by recent rhetoric in the US presidential election.

2.2 NATO has not reacted sufficiently to trends of authoritarianism.

NATO defines itself as a political and military organization of sovereign states, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. The unwillingness of some member countries to respect these fundamental principles has affected the internal cohesion of the Alliance and the willingness of member countries to cooperate in other areas and within other organizations. Such conflicts jeopardize the ability to reach consensus and thus inhibit NATO's ability to act quickly.


1. Learning from external mistakes

1.1 Redefine relations with Russia and clarify policies on enlargement.

NATO cannot ignore Ukraine's and Georgia's pleas for security and should make clear its position regarding their membership aspirations. As sovereign states, Ukraine and Georgia have a right to apply for NATO membership, but so long as Ukraine's and Georgia's reason for pursuing NATO membership is to seek protection from Russia, their membership would only serve to depict NATO as Russia's ultimate enemy. It would limit the level of potential cooperation and negotiations on matters of security in Europe and in the Middle East. If NATO were to offer membership to Ukraine and Georgia, they could be instigating an aggressive response from Russia. Additionally, admittance to the Alliance would contribute to the Russian narrative of NATO encirclement and isolation.

NATO has two options: NATO could seek to establish a non-aggression agreement with Russia under which NATO agrees not to admit Ukraine and Georgia as members. In return, Moscow must respect these countries' national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Alternatively, NATO could admit Georgia and Ukraine as members as soon as possible, sending a message to Moscow that if a country wants to join the Alliance, its application will be considered without reference to Russia's interests. Both Georgia and Ukraine have taken significant legal and political steps towards NATO membership; abandoning those membership negotiations puts NATO's credibility at risk. NATO should also make clear that applications by like-minded states will always be welcomed, including Russia.

Offering Russia a membership perspective serves to counter Moscow's narrative of isolation and defuse the NATO-Russian enmity. While there are strong tensions between Russia and NATO at the moment, these could be overcome and resolved. France and Germany used to be "eternal enemies", but membership in institutions like NATO eased tensions. Past Russian-NATO conflict should not disqualify Russia from membership.

Whichever path is chosen, NATO should send a clear message that Russia could become a valuable and fundamental contributor and NATO's partner to European and global security in the future.

At this time, Russia does not meet basic eligibility requirements and has not been receptive to any suggestion of joining the Alliance. Despite the seeming implausibility of Russia meeting the criteria for NATO membership or accepting an offer of it, the act of offering Russia the possibility of a place in NATO sets out a long-term goal NATO would like to achieve: a positive and cooperative relationship with Russia and an end to any existing Cold War tensions.

1.2 Return to the mandate.

The North Atlantic Treaty establishes, first and foremost, a collective defense organization. Humanitarian endeavors in non-member countries are not within the scope of the treaty. Members should work under the auspices of the United Nations if pursuing "humanitarian" interventions. While NATO resources can be made available to a UN mission, full control of the mission should not be adopted by NATO.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle defines sovereignty as conditional on the ability of a sovereign to protect the human rights of his population. It also defines the international community's right to intervene in cases of abuse. This gives license only to the UN Security Council; it is a right and not a responsibility to do so. The members of NATO should remain conscious of the similarities of R2P to older standards of civilization theses. They should be hesitant to attach their endorsement to a principle that has the potential to be used for the self-interest of the intervening state. Members should advocate for the protection of minority rights abroad and should address any human rights concerns at home. NATO should not unilaterally take on human rights interventions and should disavow the R2P doctrine.

2. Learning from internal mistakes

2.1 Enforce increased defense spending and incentivize force integration.

NATO should enforce compliance with the two percent promise from its members. Sanctions for noncompliance should follow a three step procedure within a clearly defined period.

1. Open letter to state authorities detailing non-compliance.
2. Development of a spending improvement plan for the individual member.
3. If the state does not comply with the 2% rule within five years, it loses its vote in the North Atlantic Council.

NATO currently creates a detailed ranking of each member state's military spending, broken down by category: salaries, pensions, weapons, transport vehicles, housing, bases, infrastructure, and Research and Development. NATO should encourage programs that foster interoperability and a stronger European side of the Alliance. The proposal to combine the Dutch, German, and Czech air forces in an effort to eliminate redundancies shows ingenuity. Further collaboration between two or three members in these "islands of collaboration" can maximize benefits while lowering costs.

NATO should encourage this integration by allowing members that cooperate to receive a discount on the 2% guideline. NATO should encourage joint exercises among neighboring states to increase effectiveness in response to attacks. Strategies to increase the impact of defense spending through collaboration could increase military preparedness among NATO members in Europe and make them better able to match US capabilities.

2.2 Reaffirm commitment to fundamental principles.

In case a member does not comply adequately, NATO should be prepared to utilize punitive measures. A suspension of voting rights for government actions that violate the basic principles of the Alliance, or a suspension of membership in exceptional circumstances, should be incorporated into the North Atlantic Treaty.


A quarter of a century has passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of NATO's original adversary. Since then, simultaneously with many rewarding activities, NATO has also made mistakes and wasted resources, manpower, and political capital muddling through mired conflicts in searching for a new mission.

NATO ought to strengthen its commitment to the goal of collective defense, rather than engaging in activities outside of the original mandate. The Alliance should strive to create a cooperative relationship with Russia, using the conditional offer of future membership to open a fruitful dialogue needed to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia. These conflicts can be tackled either through a non-aggression pact or immediate admittance of these vulnerable East European countries to the Alliance. Out of the current muddled approach, the Alliance must pursue a clear path forward in either direction.

To remain a credible, stable organization, NATO has to improve its inner coherency, including the issues of spending and military collaboration, and of inconsistent adherence to fundamental principles. Balancing these issues can improve the military readiness of European members, and also improve relations between Europe and the US.

Christopher Chappell is a student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He studies Political Science with emphasis in International Relations and Transnational Issues.

Oli Cotton is a student of international relations at the University of Leeds, UK. His focus is on American foreign policy, the global balance of power and the realism-liberalism debate.

Jack Heidecker studied German and Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh and will be studying European Governance at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. He is interested in national security collaboration between the EU and the US.

Sandra Houzvickova is a student of the Master Program in World Politics at the University of Pavia. She is working as an intern in the Permanent Representation of the Czech Republic to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

Anna Jordanova studies media, journalism and history at the Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic. She focuses on the issues of historical memory and its influence in the contemporary societies of the post-Soviet area.

Chenoa Sly is a Master of Arts student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her work focuses on humanitarian interventions, and the tension between human rights and territorial sovereignty.

Connor Smart studied international relations at the University of Plymouth. He has his own current affairs blog and is planning to work in London with an International education charity.

Andrew Snell is a senior at Virginia Tech studying political science. He focuses on US national security, specifically terrorism and Russia.

Jolana Veneny is currently an MPhil candidate in Russian and East European Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. She focuses on Central Europe, its politics, and its relations with the Russian Federation.

The authors wish to thank all online commenters for their valuable input.

The authors have written this Memo after qualifying with individual submissions, which provide more detailed information on the aforementioned policy recommendations for those interested:

Christopher Chappell: NATO's Biggest Mistake? Public Relations

Oli Cotton: Why NATO Must Revert to Basics and Adapt to Russian Aggression

Jack Heidecker: Moving Beyond the 2 Percent Promise

Sandra Houzvickova: NATO is Synonymous with the US. Europe Must Be Included

Anna Jordanova: Turkey: An Inconvenient Tie Between NATO and the EU

Chenoa Sly: The Post-Cold War NATO: Decoupling Regime Change and Human Rights Promotion

Connor Smart: NATO's Greatest Mistake was Libya: the Alliance Should Have Nothing to do with R2P

Andrew Snell: The Moscow Integration That Never Happened

Jolana Veneny: Russia: The Threat NATO Created Itself

The articles have been written for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the "Shaping our NATO: Young Voices on the Warsaw Summit" competition and respond to the questions: What do you consider to be NATO's biggest mistake in the last 25 years? What lessons should be drawn and how to prevent similar mistakes in the future?

Categories: NATO

About the Author(s) is the first online foreign policy think tank, and is primarily focused on issues affecting transatlantic relations. Launched in 2007 as a project of Atlantische Initiative e.V., based in Berlin and led by Dr. Johannes Bohnen and Jan-Friedrich Kallmorgen, our mission is to encourage open and democratic dialogue on the challenges facing Europe and North America. We believe that these challenges – from economic crises to counteracting terrorism – can only be solved through close cooperation. is member-driven; our community of over 9,000 members encourages everyone, regardless of geographic location, to have a say on issues impacting the transatlantic community. We especially want to provide a voice for a new generation of thinkers and young leaders, giving them the opportunity to publish and debate side by side with established experts, and to have their policy ideas seen by senior officials. This gives our members real political influence, while decision-makers benefit from the next generation's fresh ideas.



a. The ideas and recommendations of the above --re: NATO-- but

b. In the context of the following 1993 grand strategy document:


"The military problem involves NATO. For half a century NATO has proved itself the most effective military alliance in human history. If NATO is to remain an anchor for European and Atlantic stability, as the President believes it must, its members must commit themselves to updating NATO's role in this new era. Unless NATO is willing over time to assume a broader role, then it will lose public support, and all our nations will lose a vital bond of transatlantic and European security. That is why, at the NATO summit that the President has called for this January, we will seek to update NATO so that there continues behind the enlargement of market democracies an essential collective security."

Should we wish to "throw stones," thus, at Clinton and the Democrats over the "enlargement of NATO" issue, then we might wish to first consider the following:


"Finally, Senate Republicans believed that they — not Bill Clinton — had been the engine driving enlargement. Republicans had written enlargement into the Contract with America in 1994. They had driven the legislative process from 1994 to 1996. That Senate Republicans could claim this issue as their own made their consent far more likely than if the initiative had been seen as Democratic-inspired."

Bottom Line:

Thus, to suggest that EVERYTHING -- to include NATO's enlargement -- and NATO's new role after the defeat of communism -- must be viewed, and understood, via the lens of our post-Cold War grand strategy (provided above).

A grand strategy whose primary purpose and focus is on increasing the number of market-democracies in the world.

(And, thus, on [a] transforming the outlying states, societies and civilizations of the world [b] more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.)