What Does NATO Do Anyway?
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
Since 2013, Douglas Lute, a former three-star general and graduate of West Point, has been the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, whose headquarters are in Brussels. In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed Lute to be deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, a position nicknamed the “war czar” during the U.S. surge in Iraq. He was one of three senior officials retained by President Obama, who later appointed him to be the top envoy to NATO. Lute talked to me about the role and history of NATO. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What role does NATO play in global security today?
After the Second World War, the U.S. and a set of eleven other countries joined together and said essentially, “We’re not doing that again. There’s got to be a better way forward. We can work together to prevent aggression against us and to insure we don’t aggress against each other.” The Washington Treaty was signed in 1949. The foundation of it is the “mutual defense” clause, Article Five, that says an attack on one nation is considered an attack on all of them.
And it’s worked. NATO has kept the peace in Europe and bound together the U.S., Canada, and European allies in a way that has been fundamentally stabilizing for the world order. It has had an outsized influence beyond that territory. It’s really served as the anchor for world security over the last sixty-seven years.
Where has NATO been deployed, and why? How has it evolved?
I’d break down the history of NATO into three parts. For the first forty years, NATO focused on its greatest risk—the threat that the Soviet Union posed to Western European security. When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, and, two years later, the Soviet Union broke apart, NATO took a few years to find itself. Its raison d’être had been removed. It became clear not long after 1991 that Europe faced new instability along its borders that could infect Europe itself, so NATO adapted. The earliest and most prominent case was the breakup of Yugoslavia. NATO was drawn in to stop the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1995. Sixty thousand NATO troops left the central front and moved into the Balkans. Four years later, in 1999, NATO stopped the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo and then stabilized the security situation. NATO still has five thousand troops in Kosovo keeping watch on a fragile security situation.
Then, in 2001, 9/11 takes place and NATO launches into its largest ever and longest ever combat operation in Afghanistan. NATO has over twelve thousand troops still stabilizing Afghanistan, training Afghan forces, and making sure that Afghanistan does not revert to a terrorist safe haven. So there’s a period of about the last twenty-five years where NATO has tried to promote stability beyond its territories and taken its military capacity beyond its periphery.
Today we may be on the edge of the next phase of NATO. We have now a very different Russia than the Russia we were dealing with in the past two decades. It’s aggressed against a neighbor. It’s seized parts of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, and destabilized other parts of Ukraine. It’s increased its military budget. It’s promoted more aggressive conventional- and nuclear-war-fighting doctrines. It has fundamentally torn up the rule book that has stabilized Europe since the end of World War II. It’s a very dramatic geostrategic shift of the security situation in Europe.
At the same time, just as this is happening, we’ve also seen the rise of ISIS—and ISIS borders Europe. Turkey has a fifteen-hundred-kilometre border with Syria and Iraq. And along much of that border we’re fighting, contesting ISIS.
Beyond that, all across the NATO periphery—east, southeast, and across the Mediterranean due south—you have a set of weak, failing, or failed states which further the instability for Europe. This is most prominently seen by returning foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq who have bombed European cities, but also from mass migration at a level which we haven’t seen since the Second World War. So the combination of Putin’s Russia and its aggressive actions, terrorism, and mass migration is causing nato to go back to the basics—to the importance of security of the twenty-eight nations themselves and then looking at how we can promote stability among its neighbors. Today NATO is adapting again to these new challenges.