NATO’s Shifting Doctrine


On the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the world is being forced to look upon both the past successes and future difficulties that both the organisation and its member states will have to face in the next 70 years. The rise of great power competition, and the treaty’s changing role in that competition, combined with the introduction of new states that are consumers of security, not providers, results in the loss of some of the defining principles of the post-Cold War era, and leads the alliance to soften its interpretation of  Article 10. This has forced the alliance to become financially and militarily reliant on the United States, which is increasingly questioning its place in the organization. 

NATO was founded originally on the premise, eloquently phrased by its first Secretary-General to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. The NATO alliance was remarkably successful at remaining united by these principles, ultimately helping to facilitate the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until the fall of the USSR, NATO had few new signatories  (Spain joined in 1982), but with the fall of the USSR and the thorough placation of West Germany, the Alliance needed something to redefine itself. In the post-Cold War period, the democratization of eastern Europe was well underway as old communist regimes struggled to keep up with the interconnected commerce of the 1990s. To these now free nations, NATO was still the symbol of freedom and self-governance that it had been in the cold war and membership provided a buffer against the newly federated Russian states. It was this glossy image that shifted NATO’s priorities from being a defensive alliance to, as Secretary-General  Stoltenberg stated: “to helping to spread democracy, peace and prosperity”. This is a major departure from the original three principles and explains how the shift in responsibility occurred in the last two decades.

While this democratisation has by no means been a net loss for the world, it has unbalanced the Alliance. It forced NATO to shift its doctrine away from a  military alliance designed to deter Soviet expansion, towards a force projecting alliance aimed at developing nations. To facilitate this doctrine it became necessary to diminish the prerequisite that membership is limited to a “European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” As Matthew and Mark Cancian so eloquently phrased it, to join NATO you must be a security provider and not a security consumer. Yet Article 10 needed to be lessened to proceed for the new post-war principles. The spreading of democracy and prosperity nessescaited allowing struggling new states who lacked the financial and military systems to satisfy article 10; Latvia and Romania joined when they had no financial or military systems in place to meet the conditions of Article 10.

This is not to argue that these changes in the defining principles along with the growth of NATO, IMF, and the World Bank system have not been a net gain to the region’s prosperity in the post-USSR years. There has been no state on state violence towards any NATO member in Europe and many nations have direct experience that the post 1990 principles are working,  Estonia has, after the austerity of the 20th century, experienced 5.2 % real GDP growth and the birth of a stable democratic system and is far from an outlier in post-war member states. 

The question that the Alliance now faces is how to sustain this growth and regional stability as the United States pursues a policy of limited isolationism, openly questions if it would adhere to article five of NATO and continues to reign in its disproportionately large contribution to the NATO budget. The most important of these questions are: Is the continued expansion of NATO necessary to keep the current power balance between the West and Russia?; can NATO afford to reign in its spending while keeping the close military alliances that the accords dictate? Are the member states willing to pay the cost of troops permanently deployed to resist an initial invasion; or do they wish to save political and financial capital but risk losing their nations as they slowly deploy in the pivotal first moments of war?

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