Focus International organizations

75 Years of NATO: What Does Its Future Hold?

, by Davide Ripamonti
The North Atlantic Alliance, through its ups and downs, has guaranteed longstanding peace for Europe. However, with a possible Trump election victory, its future is uncertain. Andrea Colli tells us about the history and perspectives of the institution that was founded on 4 April, 1949 in Washington, D.C.

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is celebrating its 75th anniversary on 4 April, and most people working in international relations – and even ordinary citizens such as ourselves – do not know a world without it. NATO has been the great protector of Europe; more specifically, each of the Organization's member states (31, in the process of becoming 32 with the accession of Sweden) has protected the continent from the threat of external aggression in the past, when the Soviet Union and countries of the Warsaw Pact represented a great adversary. This has also been the case when the Soviet bloc dissolved in the following years, and even now, when long-time opposition seems to be recurring. Yet, despite the continuous expansion of the coalition – with requests for new admissions – the future of the Alliance is unclear, especially in the event of the re-election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Trump has never concealed his opinions on NATO, considering the commitment too burdensome and not so strategic for his country. In this interview with Andrea Colli – Full Professor of Global History in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Bocconi University – we discuss the past, present and future of the coalition.

NATO includes the US, Canada and European countries, yet the role of the United States has always been predominant. How come?
From the outset, it was a US initiative, so much so that the Pact's ratification took place in 1949 in Washington, D.C. as if to underline its ownership. Less well known, however, is that in conjunction with the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, a number of Western European countries (notably England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) had signed the Treaty of Brussels and formed a mutual European defense body – original predecessor to what would become NATO. This was at a time when, on the other side, Stalin was very active in forming a bloc of countries with the Soviet Union at the center.

By statute, NATO is a purely defensive organization with a large offensive capability. The system of opposing blocs, in place for 40 years, has worked to prevent further wars in Europe. In 1949, however, another symbolically important event also took place...
The Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan, effectively kicking off the two-bloc system – blocs, I would add, each equipped with nuclear weapons.

Yes in addition to some similarities, the two blocs also had profound differences. What were the main ones?
The United States and Soviet Union have been the hegemonic countries of their respective sides from the beginning, but with important qualitative differences. The Soviet Union ruled over the other member states with an iron fist, not hesitating to intervene militarily (in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, for example), while also supporting their economies when necessary. The NATO countries, regardless of their opinions, were all advanced liberal democracies at the time, and the United States never had the same oppressive will as the USSR.

You highlighted "liberal democracies at the time". Why? Is this no longer the case?
To be admitted to NATO, the condition of being a liberal democracy is not in question; it is an indispensable requirement. However, a member state can be one at the time of admission and transform later. See Hungary, for example.

As mentioned before, the system of opposing blocs has served to keep the peace. However, there have been some critical issues.
Certainly. In fact, the countries of NATO and those of the Warsaw Pact have never met face-to-face in these four decades, and this has avoided dangerous regressions. One cannot forget the Cuban Missile Crisis, though, and the fact that a possible Soviet invasion of West Berlin would have led to a reaction by NATO countries and breakdown in world order capable of causing a new, large-scale conflict. Ironically, the most complicated circumstance was the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the opposition dissolved, the United States found itself playing the role of the world's police force and intervening in any situation it saw fit to do so – such as the Iraq War – sometimes in the name of NATO.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of the former Warsaw Pact were drawn into the European sphere of influence with the annexation of many of them to the European Union – an EU that, in fact, almost entirely identifies with NATO.
In the following years after the 1949 annexations, there were other symbolically important ones, such as those of Greece and Turkey – the latter very dear to Stalin for control of the Black Sea. It was a true diplomatic success for NATO, and then it was Spain's turn once the Franco dictatorship came to an end. What occurred in 2004, though, was a particularly momentous occasion, albeit riddled with tension. The Baltic Republics, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia all joined NATO – countries previously within the Soviet sphere.

Before that, however, an important event took place, somewhat unnoticed.
Yes, in 1994 there was a NATO summit in Budapest among old adversaries, including Russia. The purpose was to create a great international cooperative order with a precise mission – coming together to help the United Nations tackle the newest shared threat of international terrorism.

Let's take a step back and return to the 2004 annexations that were, as we said, riddled with tension. Why?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was no power capable of countering NATO's expansion, but something was brewing. These were the first years that Vladimir Putin was in power, which saw him especially committed to regaining control over the country through not only the renationalization of some important productive sectors, but also the fight against oligarchs who had been calling the shots. Putin's power grew nationally, and at a 2007 summit on international security in Berlin, he declared that the order based on Western hegemony – specifically US hegemony – was no longer appreciated by other countries that felt somehow out of place or unrepresented within this order. It was also a clear attack on NATO and its annexation policy.

These words were then followed by actions.
Yes, Putin began his policy of aggression against Georgia, Crimea and more recently Ukraine, as well as those countries that could have potentially joined NATO. This decisively pushed countries near the border – such as Finland and Sweden – to quickly ask for annexation to the North Atlantic Treaty in order to reap the benefits of protection guaranteed to its members. Now the borders of Europe and NATO actually coincide almost completely, with the exception of Turkey. Within them, the only non-NATO member is Austria. In the beginning, the reason why was because it was afraid of retaliation given its proximity to the East; now, on the contrary, it is surrounded by NATO countries so much so that it feels at ease.

Now, whichever way you look at it, NATO's problem is called Putin. Any new annexations will have to take this into account. 
As we mentioned, the first condition for admission is to be a liberal democracy and capitalist system in which state intervention is reduced to a minimum. However, unanimity of consensus is required for admission, and are we sure that governments friendly to Putin – going back to Hungary – would endorse annexations to NATO of which the Russian leader disapproves?

There is an additional critical issue on the horizon. The possible – according to many, probable – re-election of Trump, who has never shied away from speaking unfavorably about NATO.
Granted that while from a formal point of view, it would be easy for the US to leave NATO; but from a substantive point of view, along with the controversy it would bring with it, it would instead be much more complicated. Trump's intention, and that of much of the political factions he represents, has been known for some time. A large part of the US electorate is opposed to the internationalist policy that the United States has always pursued. They question whether they should stay in NATO to protect countries that are taking advantage of their protection to develop economically, and furthermore, they believe these countries don't pay them enough. This is sort of the gist.

Without the US, would the concept of NATO still make sense?
The European Union has never provided for a shared military force because it is de facto delegated to NATO. No European country, not even Canada, has a nuclear military force comparable to that of Russia. Even a possible conflict with conventional weapons would be tough, because Europe – also thanks to NATO, as well as its institutions – has enjoyed decades of peace, during which it has enormously reduced its military spending. For now, let's stick to the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: "There is no need for a European army; we are already here." What about in the future?