60 Years of NATO: Identity and Operational Challenges

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dr. Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour

The summit meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is scheduled for April 2, 2009, will be overshadowed by two issues. Firstly, the meeting will mark the 60th anniversary of the treaty which is known as the biggest military alliance in the contemporary world. Although the treaty was meant to oppose military influence of the former Soviet Union and the Soviet Union met its end some 20 years ago, survival of this organization is a considerable phenomenon in the existing international system. The second issue is the situation in Afghanistan and its military consequences for NATO. Afghanistan constitutes the most remarkable overseas military action taken by NATO out of its traditional borders.

At present, Afghanistan is a major challenge to NATO. The longstanding activities of the organization and its involvement in Afghanistan pose two questions: where are identity and operational borders of NATO? And what challenges will it have to face?

First of all, Afghanistan constitutes a major operational challenge for the United States. In a report entitled “Afghanistan and Pakistan on the Brink: Framing U.S Options” which was published by Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on March 3, 2009, which summarized a conference attended by 200 experts in December 2008 on Afghanistan, the military and strategic situation in Afghanistan has been analyzed and it has been noted that US allies are not necessarily following its policies in Afghanistan. Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state and presidential national security advisor, has published an article on Afghanistan in Washington Post on February 29, 2009 explaining that the Obama Administration can neither provide necessary security conditions helped by NATO nor allow al Qaeda and Taliban to prevail. He then reminds the readers that European people are not interested in NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan while the organization is actually there and involved.

Conditions faced by NATO and the United States in Afghanistan are not simply operational, but a challenge of identity can be recognized beyond that. Why NATO was built and why it has continued to live? These questions are concerned with NATO’s identity and its future outlooks. NATO was created under the Cold War and in a bipolar world as a pillar of US hegemony in international system and to oppose the red threat (the Soviet Union). After the collapse of bipolar system, the United States tried to keep that hegemonic tool while continuation of NATO was also in the benefit of Europe.

Two major phenomena have emerged in the past two decades which should be taken into consideration when discussing identity of NATO and its relationship to Europe. The first phenomenon was evolution of the European Union into a world player while the second phenomenon was emergence of the United States as the world’s topmost military power unable to translate its military might into favorable political conditions. Afghanistan was a major instance of failure to reach desirable political results through military force. Subsequent to 9/11 attacks, the United States occupied Afghanistan and got NATO engaged in that country. NATO was a symbol of hard power as opposed to soft power which was represented by the European Union. Thus, the relationship between the European Union, US, and NATO has turned into a multilayer relationship with ambiguous angles, as put by Stanley Sloan, director of the Atlantic Initiative. He maintains that the European Union and NATO have to demarcate their political and military borders more precisely through an official document. In fact, it is NATO’s identity which should be defined more clearly.

The identity challenge facing NATO also includes quality of relations with Russia. Relations between the United States and Russia, NATO and Russia, as well as Russia and Europe are marked by paradoxes and confusion. Russia has risen again in what is known as “post-Soviet atmosphere.” As put by Kissinger in the same article, the United States has to decide whether it wants to treat Russia as an enemy or as a strategic partner.

NATO is still a powerful military alliance in its 60. The organization, which has come into being and thrived as a tool in the service of US hegemony, is now facing operational and identity challenges. Aren’t these challenges reflections of hegemonic challenges faced by the United States in the tumultuous and transitional international system of today?


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