Why NATO needs reform

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NATO Summit, 2016 (NATO website)

Without an adjustment to NATO’s future ambitions, conflict between the US and Russia remains more likely. Recent years have shown tension between the two countries to greatly influence European and the Middle Eastern regional stability. NATO, a Cold War relic that has survived for 25 years past its original intention, remains a thorn in the side of Russia, which in turn remains a thorn in the side of the US. 

As countries with the two strongest militaries in international relations, coupled with their historic rivalry, American and Russian interests are bound to clash occasionally. Limiting the frequency of those clashes is integral to upholding the peace that has prevailed in Europe for over seventy years. It may also raise possibilities in helping to end the violence that currently plagues much of the Middle East. 

Scope Creep

Regardless of the complexities that will come out of inheriting the nation at one of its least enviable moments in history, Donald Trump will have a multitude of international commitments to contend with as well. It is still unclear as to which road the US will take internationally, from a President who has not hidden his disdain for global American allies who are judged not to carry their own weight. The US’ military forces are becoming increasingly unable to deal with the vast amount of global instabilities emerging, particularly in the Middle East. The Americans were able to establish a global military hegemony, more powerful than any other country’s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. From its ashes emerged Russia, which was incapable of confronting the US as it once could. On the world stage, the US was and still is near-unrivaled in terms of military power; save for the use nuclear weapons which would conclude in a mutual national suicide. However, it has found its global military apparatus threatened by non-state actors.

The major powers in the Middle East as well as a resurgent Russia have funded and participated in proxy wars with one another, no more so than in Syria. Tensions with Russia regarding NATO expansion are central to multiple conflicts that have emerged in recent years. NATO, which has continued to operate past its original intention, perhaps may suffer from elements of “scope creep”, where;

Scope creep (also called requirement creep, function creep and feature creep) in project management refers to uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project’s scope. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered harmful (wikipedia). 

Growth and its consequences

 NATO is essential to Europe’s security, but the increasing number of its members is impeding on areas that used to be under Moscow’s sphere of influence instead of Washington’s. Its growing scope and the fact that many nations do not add much to the alliance has meant the US has had to increase its military commitments and face backlash from Russia and others. Meanwhile, the geopolitical ambitions of some of NATO’s members have clashed violently in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, though only indirectly in regional proxy wars.

 Reforming NATO in order to correct these discrepancies should be a serious priority for the incoming Trump Administration in whatever form it will take. The US is so entrenched in military affairs that a rapid global withdrawal would destabilise things even more so. A reform of its growing membership and decreasing strain on Russian-American relations could help stabilise things in the Middle East. One thing that will be integral to that is understanding the elements of Russia’s energy security, which will be discussed later in the paper.

The first Secretary General of NATO was Hastings Ismay: a British officer, diplomat and chief military assistant to Winston Churchill during World War Two. During his tenure as Secretary General from 1952-1957, he is credited with popularizing the notion that the purpose of the institution was to “Keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 signified that all three had come to fruition. Since then, NATO has attempted to remain useful, but some of its policies have diverged so much that they now contradict themselves. Reforming NATO is essential to maintaining the once-unthinkable general European peace that has lasted for over 70 years and that the institution was central in maintaining.

NATO’s post-Cold War growth

Geopolitical competition between Moscow and Washington did not simply end upon the conclusion of the Cold War. Russia was forced to come to the realization that many of the countries it used to have considerable control over no longer accepted its authority, and were eager to get out of its former sphere of influence. The US, without a geopolitical rival, could use its military seemingly anywhere, and no other country was able or willing to present a good enough reason not to. The Russians used to enjoy doing the same thing, yet they were now unable to confront the US as an equalizer in international conflicts.

A map of Europe with eight colors that refer to the year different countries joined the alliance.
NATO enlargement (wikipedia)

During this time, NATO continued to add members to its roster. The first round of post-Cold War enlargement was in 1999, followed by another in 2004. Many of the countries that joined were formerly part of the Soviet-led military alliance that had stood as a former bulwark to NATO.Some of these new countries helped contribute to American-led efforts overseas, keen to prove themselves as eager members in order to gain the security guarantees of a collective military alliance with the US. The Americans were naturally, happy to receive them. In 2008, NATO membership action plans were given to both Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia would mean a new member of a perceived-hostile alliance on Russia’s southern flank and gateway towards the Middle East. Meanwhile, Ukraine was closely tied to Russia through its economy, history and culture.

The Kremlin was of the belief that it was unacceptable for either of them to fall into the western alliance system. In August of 2008, Russia suddenly went to war with Georgia, declaring their support for a local insurgency there and occupying the territory after the war’s conclusion. Though most of the international community refuses to accept the new status quo, a Russian military presence remains. It was the first true affront to American dominance in international affairs by a country since 1991, and is perhaps the first real policy “retreat” the US was forced to endure in that time, too. Georgia, in the end, was forced to take forces out of Iraq where they were serving with American troops, a minor complication for the US considering the major headaches they were having across the wider Middle East.

Middle Eastern power politics

The local Middle Eastern powers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran had all had complex relationships with the US. However, all acquiesced to the overt military dominance of the Americans. The Saudis and Turks are generally considered allies of the US, the latter even being a member of NATO. But divides have grown in recent years as foreign policies have occasionally clashed. Iran, which has had what could be described as a less-than-friendly relationship with the US for decades, has further contributed to the ever-shifting  regional balance of power.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, inextricably linked, have changed the traditional power dynamic considerably. Iranians and Saudis trained, supplied and financed a number of rival militias during the American occupation of Iraq, while all major powers (and Russia) began investing heavily into the Syrian conflict when it became clear the US could not prevent them from doing so. The US, with its immense military power, made war between the  major powers almost impossible. They could never fight one another directly, though began doing so fiercely and indirectly as soon as they figured out how to during the chaotic aftermath of post-invasion Iraq.

The Arab Spring

The US eventually managed to gain an element of control over Iraq briefly, until the Arab Spring broke the pre-existing military and political order that had lasted for a two decades. As the Americans withdrew from Iraq, opportunistic rhetoric from NATO allies Britain and France led them and the US to launch air operations in Libya. In conjunction with a NATO no-fly zone and operations by the Arab League, the US was able to aid in the overthrow of Qaddafi, former leader of Libya who had been at odds with western leaders for decades. However, like in Iraq, a divided country plunged into chaos once its structure was compromised by the removal of a ruthless leader who seemed to be the only one able to keep it together. Since then, France and the US have both supplied and aided rebels in Libya directly opposed to rebels supplied by Turkey, their mutual NATO ally. Rival factions competing for rule over Libya have facilitated the removal of the country’s ability to regulate migrant flows across the Mediterranean, at a time when their numbers were increasing due to Arab Spring-related violence. What has been hailed Europe’s Migrant Crisis had begun, and would only worsen with an increase in regional instability.

As Libya succumbed to chaotic internal elements, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was exhibiting similar symptoms seen before Qaddafi fell. Protests against Assad soon turned into an armed rebellion, and the country’s central proximity to the Middle East’s major powers soon made the conflict an all-or-nothing affair. Iran has given considerable support and even its own soldiers to fight alongside Syrian government forces. Russia has also given a great deal of support to Assad for various reasons. It hosts the only naval base that Russia has on the Mediterranean, and is an important source of Russian power projection into the Sea. The US, Saudis and Turks have all given support to various competing rebel elements opposed to Assad, though the Obama Administration is less invested in the country than any other of the major participants. With its vast number of actors and exhaustion from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US was unable and unwilling to end a conflict that was hurting Russia anyway. It was a useful way to release the pressure on the American position in Europe after Georgia had slipped from NATO’s grasp years earlier. The option of a potential Ukrainian membership nonetheless remained on the table.

Ukraine’s tug-of-war

Ukraine, as previously mentioned, was offered a membership action plan in 2008. The Ukrainian government, led by Yulia Tymoshenko since 2005, had maintained talks with NATO over the proposed membership. However, she would lose re-election in 2010 to Viktor Yanukovych, a more pro-Russian president who cancelled an impending agreement with the European Union in late 2013. The EU, despite not having the US as a member, is sometimes seen as the political-economic sister organisation to the political military institution of NATO. Though obviously dominated by Europeans, many of them rely on the Americans for military defense. This gives Washington considerable sway over collective EU policy, too. Soon after the plan’s rejection by the Ukrainian President, protests broke out against the Ukrainian leadership. If US policy-makers were not involved in the protests, then at the very least they found them highly convenient. Distracting Russia at a time when the US was wary of its actions in Georgia and connection to the Syrian conflict was a positive for the US. The Russians, which had caused regional concern due to their war against Georgia, were again placed on the defensive.

However, as the government in Kiev fell to protesters, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea. It is a largely Russian populated area, which also hosts, like Syria’s coast, a Russian naval base. Moscow, unsure if the new Ukrainian government would continue to lease it to them (and desperate to establish an element of control over the situation) took the peninsula by force, without much resistance. NATO, which had been essential in implementing a European rules-based order, was unable to prevent the most serious affront to that order since its inception.

The US and the UK lobbied for collective American and EU sanctions on Russia, which in turn terminated much of the agricultural trade with all EU members. Though this hurt Russia too, it acted to sow dissent within NATO/EU ranks, as smaller countries such as Hungary greatly relied on Russian trade. It was also at a time when the continent was and still is struggling to make its way out of a general continental economic malaise that has undermined the EU’s shared-prosperity, a central tenet in the organisation’s popularity.

The Syrian frontier

Nine months after the fall of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, the US began airstrikes in support of the rebel forces it was already supporting. Though it could not attack Syrian forces without a formal declaration of war, it could prevent the Islamic State from attacking the rebels its already supported. This in turn would force the Islamic State forces to turn their attention to the Syrian regime instead. The Obama administration chose to ebb carefully, so as to not repeat the mistakes of the Bush Administration in Iraq. The limited action was used to convey the notion that the US had some say over local affairs, as well as a military that was vastly more powerful than any local variant. Though it did not want Assad in power, it certainly did not want the Islamic State or another Islamist group to assume control over the country. Recent emails released by Wikileaks reveal American knowledge of the Saudis and Qataris funding these groups, yet the US was unable to truly prevent them from doing so, and had to work within the framework that had emerged. It had the benefit of continuing to put pressure on Russia, which was more isolated than ever stemming from its endeavors in Ukraine.

Pressure increased exponentially on the Assad regime, and it looked close to collapse. However, in September of 2015, Russia indicated that it would send significant military aid to Assad, heralding the beginning of their own large scale efforts in the war. Though a small Russian military presence has been established in Syria for years, the country sent its top aircraft, missiles, personnel and air defense systems in order to prevent a collapse in the Syrian regime, and ensure itself an important seat at potential future negotiations. In the next few months, Russia was able to shore up the regime after it was on the edge of the abyss. Its air power turned the tide of the conflict, while the American’s own air power has created a stalemate that perpetuates a continual rate of “sustainable” violence that has also placed pressure on European unity through the sheer amount of Europe-bound migrants the conflict has created.

Making peace with Russia is the most obvious answer to beginning to solve such enormous problems, but they and the US remain locked in perpetual competition due to their immense scope in international relations. Together with over 80% of the world’s nuclear weapons, how is it possible for them not to see the other as a threat? Like all big powers, the US and Russia can’t help but take measures to check themselves geopolitically. The fall of the Berlin Wall became merely a temporary stumbling block for the Kremlin. As it was put succinctly, the US can’t help but push; Russia can’t help but push back. We can perhaps minimize that pushing by removing conflicting characteristics of NATO that aid in the development of tension with Russia and between members.

Regional energy politics 

Before doing so, it is important to understand the issue of energy security to Russian leadership. When Russia invaded Georgia, it also hoped to oust the pro-NATO Georgian leadership. In the late 1990s, large energy reserves were found in the Caspian Sea. A pipeline was constructed in 2006, through Azerbaijan and Georgia (both formerly USSR) and then through Turkey. It is able to bypass the existing Russian pipelines into the energy-hungry markets of Europe. After the war, Georgia’s leadership remained intact, but weak, damaging the willingness of NATO to continue their talks with the country. Russia is still able to attack Georgia, without fear of triggering Article Five of NATO; that an attack on a member calls for the collective defense of that country.

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline

In 2009, over a pricing dispute, Russia cut off gas supplies from reaching Ukraine, where it would usually continue into other European markets. It occurred during the middle of winter, and cause panic in many European countries now subject to the whim of Russian price disputes with Ukraine. The fact that both Georgia and Ukraine had both shown themselves willing to militarily ally with a US-dominated institution that developed as a bulwark against Russian power was perhaps influential in the Russian decision to pursue military and economic measures and pressure against them.

What is perhaps the most confounding are the energy implications of the Syrian civil war. Gas reserves in the Persian Gulf are owned by both Iran and Qatar. Qatar has invested heavily into the Syrian Civil War, not least because the Syrian government rejected their proposed pipeline. This was rationalized in order to “protect the interests of [its] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas” (The Guardian, 2013). Iran too would like to sell its reserves to European markets (should a lifting of existing sanctions permit it), and does not want Qatari rivals from undermining their potential as an energy power.

Note the purple line which traces the proposed Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline and note that all of the countries highlighted in red are part of a new coalition hastily put together after Turkey finally (in exchange for NATO’s acquiescence on Erdogan’s politically-motivated war with the PKK) agreed to allow the US to fly combat missions against ISIS targets from Incirlik. Now note which country along the purple line is not highlighted in red. That’s because Bashar al-Assad didn’t support the pipeline and now we’re seeing what happens when you’re a Mid-East strongman and you decide not to support something the US and Saudi Arabia want to get done.
Proposed, rival pipelines (zerohedge)

In a marriage of convenience, both the Gulf States and the US found themselves fighting for similar reasons. The Gulf States and the US wanted Assad gone, because he was allied closely with both Iran and Russia. A pro Saudi/Gulf State Syrian government would wield a significant blow to the Iranians geopolitical efforts in the Middle East, and would also help remove considerable leverage the Russians have over the Europeans, were a pipeline to be built.


Would Russia have acted so boldly, had it not been for the perceived encirclement of NATO forces? Would the US have been so willing to oversee an enlargement of the institution, had it known the lengths the Russians would go to prevent it? In hindsight, it is still hard to answer these questions. One thing is certain- the actions of NATO, an institution that is trying its best to remain relevant, has been central to many conflicts in recent years. Its continual growth has allowed its agenda to widen, meaning the commitments of the US, which fronts the bill and manpower for it, has had to widen as well.

Nations act in their interests, and NATO, though heavily US dominated, has made the US responsible for other nation’s interests. Reliance on the US has weakened them in turn, while members such as Turkey are directly and actively opposed to wider American and NATO policy in the Middle East. An incident in 2015, where the Turkish military shot down a Russian bomber that had strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria, brought the institution even closer to an armed conflict with Russia. Though tensions have simmered slightly, the likelihood of a similar thing happening in times of crisis remains.

NATO, having outlived its original intention, needs fundamental reform. Continuing to add members, so long as they meet certain criteria, makes the organisation weaker, as its collective policy diverges more with every newcomer. The institution can perhaps handle this occasionally, before it is able to integrate them into a clear and collective direction. It cannot handle major powers like Turkey and France having violently different policies while still operating under a supposed single mandate. Together with Russia’s fear of NATO, America’s overstretch in support of it and on top of their own geopolitical ambitions, the institution has begun  to show signs of collapse.

Reform of the institution may include enforcing rules such as:

  • · Countries not meeting the 2% GDP spending minimum on defense will have to pay the US to have their forces there. American taxpayers are becoming more and more wary of fronting the bill for other nations’ defense
  • · Limiting expensive foreign military involvement, without a clear and collective mandate. Conflict has changed radically in recent years; consensus on the use of force and blocking the routes for war through proxy must be recognized so they are not exploited
  • · Recognizing elements of Russia’s energy security dilemma, but facilitating a diversification in European energy needs. Russia will act aggressively if it feels threats to its power are manifesting. Slowly weening Europeans off a dependence on Russian gas can prevent this.
  • · A momentary freeze on new membership to establish these new guidelines among existing members. It they can’t accept them, then their membership could be suspended or terminated
  • Reassuring countries such as Poland of NATO’s commitments to them, while also making them more independent and capable in terms of their national defense and their ability to form partnerships with other countries to confront mutual problems and concerns
  • · Allowing European countries to regain their own independent military responsibilities, but making sure they are mutually invested in the continuation of collective peace. As a country of still unrivaled influence, the US can regulate this evolution

After the end of the Cold War, NATO has remained the bedrock of the US’ military power and still acts as a powerful check to Russia. The only problem is, the US is doing most of the heavy lifting. It has disrupted the natural balancing act of European power relations by absorbing many of their most basic military commitments, such as defense of territory. NATO has continued to add members as per its original mantra, yet the US, as the strongest actor in it, has to contend with its various commitments it owes to each of its members, even when their interests contrast. 

Since the third and final round of post-Cold War enlargement in 2009, NATO has been unable to effectively respond to many of the challenges that confront it. Can it survive a fourth? Under its current model of growth, NATO could face a violent collapse, or a slow decline in its ability to remain a relevant institution. Regional civil war in the Middle East, a divided Europe and a paranoid Russia are related to the inability of the US to uphold its complicated obligations. They would all benefit enormously from warmer Russian-American relations. Reforming NATO is paramount to at least begin mending their collective sources of contention.

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