NATO: An evolving alliance

Throughout NATO's history, key moments have redefined its relevance on a changing world stage. As the alliance celebrates its 60th anniversary on April 4, it again faces tough decisions about what global role it should play in the future.


As transatlantic security concerns have evolved, so has NATO. A divided Germany posed little threat to postwar Europe and was soon eclipsed by Russia as the greatest potential menace to Western interests. But when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO was forced to find a new reason to justify its existence. With Russia’s military might seriously diminished, the alliance came under pressure to identify a new reason its diverse member nations should remain united in a common defence.

In November 1991, heads of state from the North Atlantic Council – the alliance’s highest decision-making body – issued a “Declaration on Peace and Cooperation”, which outlined NATO’s new, post-Cold War “strategic concept” and detailed a new command structure. Among other things, the Rome Declaration called for a shift from NATO’s prior focus on defending against a massive attack to a “broad approach to stability and security encompassing political, economic, social and environmental aspects”.    

An active alliance

A turning point for the alliance came in February 1994, when NATO fired its first shot. Enforcing a UN-backed no-fly zone over Bosnia, NATO forces downed four Bosnian-Serb planes that had breached the perimeter. This single act transformed the alliance from a reactive organization focused on collective defence into one that was willing to initiate military action in matters it deemed strategically important. Jamie P. Shea, director of policy planning at the office of the NATO secretary-general, says it was at this point that NATO proved it was not an idle alliance, a “paper tiger”. At that moment, Shea says, “the NATO that confronts 21st-century challenges was born”.

Another critical moment for NATO came after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. For the first time in its history, the alliance invoked Article 5 of its founding charter, the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack from abroad on one NATO member will be considered an attack on all and obliges members to respond with “such action as it (the alliance) deems necessary”.

Russian relations

NATO’s rocky relations with Russia have proved one of its most delicate balancing acts. The alliance has repeatedly raised Russian ire, notably by welcoming onetime Warsaw Pact members into its fold, thus infringing on what some in Russia see as its traditional sphere of influence and heightening Moscow’s own security concerns.  

At times the alliance has looked to address Russian anxieties. The "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation", established in May 1997, was followed in 2002 by the creation of the NATO-Russia Council, a bilateral forum that allows the two sides to address their concerns face to face. After a temporary suspension of relations following Russia’s August 2008 incursion into Georgia, the council resumed formal ties in March.

Quo vadis, NATO?

The alliance is once again seeking to reinvent itself. New NATO public outreach projects emphasise the diversity of its activities, including providing medical assistance, reconstructing areas hit by natural disasters and reintegrating former military personnel into civilian life. The alliance also continues to expand, welcoming new members into its security structure.  

But even as NATO launches new attempts to chart its destiny, strains among its 26 members have been on the rise. Participation in the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force, which has led security efforts in Afghanistan since December 2006, has been a key source of tension as many NATO members cavil at the idea of sending soldiers abroad and into harm’s way, an idea that often proves politically unpopular at home.

The United States has called on other NATO countries to send more troops while those nations that have contributed significantly are suffering from mission fatigue – and resentment is rising towards alliance members that are not seen to be pulling their weight.

Shea says the alliance will continue to evolve, including becoming more culturally and religiously aware when it operates in-theatre and focusing more on its reconstruction capabilities.

In the 21st century, he says, “NATO will continue to define itself as the organization which can best use military capability to solve international problems”. 


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