Is Nato Obsolete?


This paper conducts an investigation into the validity of the claims that NATO is an obsolescent relic of the Cold War era. Drawing on sources from both sides of the debate, as well as the dominant theoretical school relating to alliances, the paper concludes that NATO is not in fact obsolete. This conclusion rests in the non-military attributes of NATO, arguing that the dispute settlement mechanisms and institutional appeal to non-members inherent in the structure of NATO continue to validate its existence.


Whether The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has a role in the post Cold War world, a world now devoid of its primary adversary following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union (USSR), and if so what this role should be, has been the subject of intensive debate in recent years. This paper will attempt to present an overview of this debate, first providing a historical background to NATO and its institutional evolution, including its proliferation, the evolution of it’s mandate, and the current competences of the institution. Due to the limit on the papers length the presented observations shall by necessity be brief, and will encompass the broadest observable evolutions. The conclusion shall endeavour to answer the overbearing question surrounding NATO’s obsolescence based on the paper’s findings.

The theoretical basis of the paper will be that of neo-realism, neo-realism assumes that it is international constraints that influence state behaviour, in general overriding domestic interests and internal political struggles (Elman, 1995 p. 172).

NATO has as its basis the North Atlantic Treaty (hereafter Atlantic Treaty), signed in Washington DC on 4 April 1949. The authority of the treaty is centred in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, whereby “Nothing … shall impair the right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” (United Nations, 1945) NATO represented a collective security structure for its initial 12 member states,[1] created in response to the perceived worsening of the European security situation due to the increasingly aggressive action of the USSR.

The most important instrument of the Atlantic Treaty is Article 5, wherein the parties agree that an attack on one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. Thereafter the parties shall take all means necessary, including military force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. (NATO, 1949) However, as Wallander (2000 p.713) observes, the story of NATO’s development and persistence is only partly told with reference to the Soviet threat: “because the important details… also involve the relationship among the allies, their disagreements, and compromises.”

Interestingly the Atlantic Treaty also includes, in the preamble, a declaration pertaining to the democratic principles maintained by its members. Institutionally this places NATO in direct opposition to authoritarian regimes through the latters inherent ineligibility to join the alliance. (NATO, 1949) This is something that goes beyond the remit of a traditional alliance aimed at the military security of its members.

Theoretical Framework and Evolution of Mandate

Neo-realist theory is directly applicable in assessing the functional vitality of an institution such as NATO through the works of Steven Walt.

Walt identified two options for those states confronted with an external threat (this threat may be existential or otherwise, e.g. economic): balancing or bandwagoning. Balancing is defined as allying with others against the prevailing threat (balancing can also be achieved by mobilisation of domestic resources rather than relying on allied support) (Walt, 1987 p. 114), whilst bandwagoning refers to alignment with the source of danger (Ibid p.110). He goes on to elaborate:

Because balancing and bandwagoning are more accurately viewed as a response to threats it is important to consider other factors that will affect the level of threat that states may pose… The greater the threat, the greater the probability that the vulnerable state will seek an alliance. (Ibid p.112)

However conventional realist theory maintains that the disappearance of the precipitating threat should result in the dissolution of an alliance. (Mearsheimer, 1990 p.5) Indeed, the multi-polar nature of the early 21st century, theoretically, makes a structure such as NATO obsolete.

Nevertheless the evolution of NATO’s mandate since 1990 has kept it operative, but as will be discussed later reveals inherent doubt regarding its function as a military alliance. NATO began a review of its military strategy following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, culminating in the November 1991 “New Strategic Concept”. This document confirmed that NATO’s primary role remained collective defence but that security problems outside a massive conventional or nuclear attack were now a priority. In this regard it identified allied security interests in the Southern Mediterranean and Middle East, as well as the global problems of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and proliferation of ballistic missile technology. (Wallander, 2000 pp.717- 718) But the most crucial development of NATO, and a factor arguing against its perceived obsolescence, is its eastward expansion. NATO’s expansion to include key members of the Warsaw Pact and then former republics of the USSR itself introduced an intra-alliance lobby convinced of the necessity of NATO as a security guarantee against Russia. This viewpoint was epitomised by Bronislav Geremek, former Polish Foreign Minister, during his speech at Poland’s NATO accession ceremony. In which he declared that whilst Poland would prefer to live in a Europe devoid of alliances, the ultimate guarantor of security remains military force. And thus:

[Poland has] chosen to join [NATO] because it is an alliance that has managed to put its immense military might in service of fundamental values and principles that we share. NATO can make Europe safe for democracy. (Hanhimaki & Westad, 2003 p.646)

NATO rules and practices would be leverage for shaping new and aspiring members’ political systems, and would ensure that their new defence policies would not be targeted at one another. In this respect NATO is similar to the European Union (EU), both act as normative hegemons in their respective spheres, encouraging adherence to a particular set of values in return for the benefits of membership. The efforts by both Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO in recent years suggest that this appeal is still strong. However it should be noted that this increased membership does have a downside, Russia feels increasingly threatened by NATO expansion, and its 2008 intervention in the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict suggests that expansion into Ukraine or the South Caucasus could present series difficulties. (Mathew, 2008)

It must be noted when discussing NATO’s mandate that the only time that Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty was invoked was after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the world trade centre in New York. Yet, out of disillusionment with NATO’s effectiveness following its performance in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990’s (in addition to the administrations clear unilateralist tendencies) the Bush Jr administration chose to initially exclude NATO from its plans for military action in Afghanistan. (Hallams & Schreer, 2012 pp.316-317) As will be discussed in the next section this reticence to involve NATO was not unfounded.


NATO has always been a two-tiered alliance, having at its core the United States and arguably the United Kingdom and France. The other member states have maintained a secondary military contribution within a relatively interoperable framework. (Williams, 2013 p.367 p.376)

However since the end of the Cold War the dichotomous nature of the alliance has become increasingly apparent. This is highlighted most clearly in the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the 2011 air war in Libya. A decline in European defence spending after the Cold War served to dramatically reduce the operational effectiveness of NATO’s European members, resulting in an increasingly heavy reliance of the United States for both logistical and combat forces. The politically inspired restrictions on the actions of European military personnel in both Afghanistan and Libya heavily undermined the interoperable foundation of the alliance. This combined with a military ineffectiveness enforced by the lack of funding, for example European forces operating over Libya relied heavily on US intelligence and command networks, and simply could not have conducted operations without American logistical support. In addition to this the NATO mission in Libya was actively opposed by several European alliance members, most notably Germany. Following the dramatic spending cuts incurred by the 2010 United Kingdom defence review the imbalance between the European and American branches of NATO is only set to increase. Mearsheimer (1990 pp. 15-16) terms this “buck passing”, whereby weaker members of an alliance in essence outsource their defence commitments to the strongest member/s. This is a clearly observable phenomena within NATO and if left unaddressed may pose and existential threat to the alliance.

Because of this increasing disparity it is not clear whether NATO is still a highly functional military alliance. In light of the United State’s “pivot” to Asia it is possible that the US will attribute less importance to the Atlantic alliance, resulting in a further diminution of capabilities. Indeed there are voices within the United States, disillusioned with America’s disproportionate role, that call for a reduction in American commitments. (See Posen, 2013; Merry, 2004) This is not to say that NATO will be dissolved, it is likely that it will persist as an institution, but its validity as a military alliance may cease.

Nevertheless the inherent value of NATO goes beyond an immediate military deterrent. The NATO structure contains mechanisms for political-military integration, multinationality of alliance structures, supranational defence policy, and the principles and procedures of civilian democratic control of defence affairs. (Wallander, 2000 p.716) These create the conditions for a valuable intra-alliance conflict resolution mechanism that has seen success (in collusion with the European Union) in the reintegration of Germany into European affairs, as well as preventing the escalation of Turkish-Greek disputes over Cyprus. McCalla observes in this respect that while the prerequisites of security are perceived through a broad, multispectral, perspective inclusive of economic, social and domestic dimensions it is likely that alliances such as NATO will endure. In particular, in a world of increasingly interdependent states, publics are increasingly unwilling to support unilateral security measures where the costs cannot be spread. (McCalla, 1996 p.472)

But these revelations about the non-military value of NATO must be kept in perspective. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has ceased to be a crucial strategic focal point, and as such, the benefits bestowed by NATO will be at best of regional rather than global significance.


The conclusion of this paper is that whilst NATO has ceased to function as an effective military alliance it is not yet obsolete due to its institutional functions, primarily its internal dialogue mechanism and normative projection. Defying the predictions of realist scholars NATO has continued to persist despite it having no clear opponent. However following the 2011 Libya operation and the approaching 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan it is possible that new discussions will take place regarding the role of NATO in the world. It should be clarified that whilst NATO does retain some validity, this is a heavily weighted European perspective. As has been demonstrated the United States is increasingly bearing the costs of the alliance whilst European members reduce their defence spending. If this continues then it is highly possible that the United States will cease to support NATO, and a US withdrawal would equate to a dissolution of the alliance. A future dissolution of NATO is an interesting concept, not least because of its implications for the European security network. Should NATO dissolve this may force the hand of the European Union into implementing a realistic defence organisation of its own, adding to its already powerful normative projection. It will remain to be seen how such events would effect the power projection of the United States, but it is unlikely to inhibit action in the short to medium term.


Elman, Miriam Fendius (1995, April) The Foreign Policies of Small States: Challenging Neorealism in its own Backyard British Journal of Political Science Vol.25 No.2 pp.171-217

Hallams, Ellen & Chreer, Benjamin (2012) Towards a ‘Post-American’ AllianceNATO Burden-Sharing after Libya International Affairs Vol. 88 No. 2 pp.313-327

Hanhimaki, Jussi M & Westad, Odd Arne (eds.) (2003) The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Mathew, Thomas (2008, 17 September) NATO Expansion Hits Russian Roadblock in Georgia Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Available: Last accessed July 2013

McCalla, Robert B (1996) NATO’s Persistence after the Cold War International Organisation Vol. 50 No. 3 pp.445-475

Mearsheimer, John J (1990) Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War International Security Vol. 15 No. 1 pp.5-56

Merry, Wayne (2004, 4 February) NATO: We can’t be partners with an obsolete alliance New York Times Available: Last accessed July 2013

NATO (1949, 4 April) The North Atlantic Treaty Washington DC

Posen, Barry R (2013) Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy Foreign Affairs

United Nations (1945) United Nations Charter: Article 51 Available: Last accessed July 2013

Walt, Stephen M (1987) The Origins of Alliances Ithaca: Cornel University Press

Wallander, Celeste A (2000) Institutional Assets and Adaptability: NATO after the Cold War International Organisation Vol. 54 No. 4 pp.705-735

[1] The initial member states were: The United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

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