The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), undoubtedly, owes its origin to the beginning of the Cold War between the countries of the West and the USSR. However, the completion of the inter-bloc confrontation not only did not lead to the cessation of the activities of this organization, but even strengthened its international position, as evidenced by the desire of a number of countries to join it. True in the early 1990s. even in the NATO member states themselves there was a discussion about the expediency of preserving the Alliance in the new conditions.
But, as one would expect, Russia’s political elite was most harshly opposed to this, for which, as for the successor of the USSR, the very preservation of NATO, not to mention its expansion plans, has become a constant reminder that the West won the Cold War. And, nevertheless, the Alliance was not only preserved, but also proved its relevance – in addition to expanding the number of participants, it also successfully adapted to new conditions and expanded its functions, reorienting to fulfill new, previously uncommon tasks. This raises a logical question: what made NATO so popular after the immediate disappearance of the threat, to counteract which it was created?
Here we should distinguish three main factors. Chronologically, the first was the desire of the transitional states of Central and Eastern Europe to use NATO as a tool of their own integration into the Western community. As noted by the Russian researcher A. Miller with reference to the Hungarian thinker István Bibo, the mentality of small and medium-sized nations of this region is characterized by the “existential fear” formed over the centuries before the threat of destruction by stronger neighbors. Until the twentieth century, the place of the main threat in their minds was occupied by the expansion of Germans and Turks, and in the post-war period they were replaced by fear of a threat from the East – by the USSR / Russia 1. This, largely irrational in nature, fear, however, had a very real impact on the policies of the states of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s – 2000s. Guided by the logic of the Cold War, when the belonging of one or another European country to one of the opposing camps was clearly institutionalized in the form of membership in the relevant organizations, the political elites of these countries sought to fix as clearly and unequivocally the transition from Moscow’s sphere of influence to the zone of responsibility of the West through membership in key Western institutions.
For a number of reasons, their bet was made on NATO. First, the European Union at that time (early 1990s) was still being formed on the basis of three European communities, and was perceived on the international scene as a predominantly economic association, not a political union. In addition, for the admission to it, the transitional states had to conduct a full restructuring of their economy, which seemed to be a very distant prospect. Criteria for acceptance in NATO were more liberal and, mainly, amounted to the establishment of a democratic political regime. Secondly, the elites of the CEE countries sought to obtain security guarantees, primarily from the US, as the leader of the Western community, the main geopolitical rival of Moscow at the time and the only remaining world superpower. Therefore, these countries sought membership, above all, in international institutions headed by the United States. And, of course, NATO, as a time-tested military-political union led by the United States, seemed to them the best option. Therefore, already in 1991, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia officially declared their desire to join NATO, in 1994 – the Baltic countries, etc.
However, for the North Atlantic Alliance itself, this choice of CEE states has become largely unexpected. This is evidenced by the slowness with which his leadership reacted to the relevant proposals on their part. However, to some extent, this can be explained by the desire not to complicate relations with Russia until the withdrawal of the forces of the former USSR taken under its jurisdiction from the territory of Central European and Baltic states is completed. Thus, the principal decision on the possibility of admission to the Alliance of the countries of this region was made only in 1994. Priority candidates for membership were determined only at the Madrid summit in the summer of 1997. At the same time, NATO leadership sought to mitigate the negative consequences of the expansion process by developing partnership with those countries of Europe that remained outside the framework of this process, incl. with Russia. Thus, the first of these decisions was accompanied by the adoption of the Partnership for Peace program, and in 1997 the North Atlantic Cooperation Council was transformed into the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the formation of the Russia-NATO Council.
It is interesting to note that the first response to the statements of the CEE and Baltic countries about the desire to join NATO was not the US, as many believe, but the German politicians (for example, the Minister of Defense F. Rue) 2 who did not want the united Germany to remain eastern frontier of the Alliance and began lobbying for the idea of expansion. Apparently, that is why the first three countries of the Visegrad Group – the immediate neighbors of Germany – were first admitted to NATO in 1999. The next round of enlargement to the east took place only five years later – in the spring of 2004 and passed virtually synchronously with the eastern enlargement of the EU, which indicates a certain coherence of the policies of both organizations. At the same time, absolutely for all the CEE and Baltic countries that pursued a course of “return to Europe”, admission to NATO preceded the adoption in the EU, which allowed us to regard membership in the Alliance as a pass to the rest of the Western institutions. In fact, NATO has gradually been transformed from a military alliance into a predominantly political “club” of states that share Western values. The fact that the military-strategic motives occupied a clearly secondary place during the expansion process was also evidenced by the Alliance’s continued lack of plans to defend its new members. So, the Latvian researcher N.Muizhneks notes that extraordinary plans to protect the territory of the Baltic States from possible external aggression began to be developed by NATO at the request of the governments of these states only after the 2008 Russian-Georgian military conflict 3, i.e. more than four years after their official reception.
Thus, for the CEE and Baltic countries, joining the Alliance meant, first of all, admission to the political “club” of Western states, and not into a military union, which is opposed to some common threat. Nevertheless, arguing their desire to join NATO, they also referred to its effectiveness in resolving military crises. And here we come to the second factor of actualizing the role of the Alliance after the end of the Cold War. As you know, during the inter-bloc confrontation, NATO forces have never participated in hostilities. However, interethnic contradictions that have become more acute after the collapse of the socialist camp and the USSR itself have led to the emergence of a number of hot spots in Eastern Europe, primarily in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. As the further development of events showed, neither the UN, nor the OSCE, nor any other international structure did not have the necessary resources and tools to resolve the situation and stop the violence. And only NATO intervention stopped the bloodshed in the Balkans. It is, of course, possible to argue for a long time about the extent to which this intervention itself and the results achieved with it were legitimate and just from the point of view of the principles of international law and impartiality towards the conflicting parties. But there is no doubt that it led to the cessation of bloodshed in the region. And it was NATO that demonstrated its effectiveness in resolving such conflicts, to which the rest of the European and world security organizations were not ready. Thus, the Alliance departed from its original purpose – to be a regional collective defense system and began to develop new tasks for it in the field of peacekeeping and military operations outside the immediate territory of member countries, which was reflected and substantiated in the strategic concept of 1999.
Although not all NATO military operations were as successful in achieving their goals as actions in the territory of the former Yugoslavia or in Libya (for example, the operation in Afghanistan has been going on for more than 10 years), but to date no other international organization can match it on its capabilities in this area. So out of 64 peacekeeping operations conducted from 1940 to 2010 under the auspices of the United Nations, less than half were recognized as successful. The OSCE has no mechanisms of military coercion at all, and European Union missions perform mainly humanitarian and police functions already at the stage of post-conflict stabilization. In addition, most of the members of the European Union, while members of NATO, are in favor of a certain delineation of the functions of both organizations. If joint military operations are necessary, they prefer to use the existing capabilities of the North Atlantic Alliance, rather than duplicate them under the auspices of the European Union in the framework of the European security and defense policy 4. The advantages of NATO are determined by the fact that, firstly, it unites the majority of the most advanced in terms of military resources and technologies of states that exert a tremendous influence on world politics (including 3 out of 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council), and secondly – the existence of many years of experience and well-designed schemes of strategic and operational interaction of their armed forces under a common command. All this made it virtually inevitable to legalize the role of the Alliance as a “global policeman” on the part of the UN, which was expressed in its consent to use NATO forces in various regions of the world in cases where the situation in the conflict zone required prompt military intervention.
Finally, as the third factor of the actualization of the importance of NATO in the modern world, which is still little talked about, we should note the desire of the Western world to consolidate in the face of strengthening the positions of non-Western states and civilizations. Of course, it is premature to say that the “war of civilizations” predicted by the American political scientist S. Huntington is becoming a real dominant of world politics. Yes, and the very concept that he proposed, which in the public and expert circles of the West was often blamed for the contradiction of the official paradigm of multiculturalism and tolerance, is far from universal. However, it is also impossible to completely ignore the cultural and civilizational factors in contemporary international relations in the light of certain events. In support of this, I would like to draw attention to the following trends. Despite the disappearance of such a consolidating factor as the external threat from the rival politico-idiologic system with the end of the Cold War, Western states continue to hold a common or very close position on most of the key international problems. And this unity is most vividly manifested in the course of the “war on international terrorism” initiated by the United States, which actually implies Islamic extremism. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – practically all large-scale joint operations of NATO member states over the past decade (conducted, both under the auspices of the Alliance and without its formal participation) were carried out on the territory of Muslim countries. In addition, one can note the almost complete unanimity of the positions of Western states on the Iranian nuclear program, which ended with the separation of the southern part of the country of the inter-confessional conflict in the Sudan, the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the armed struggle of the opposition forces with the ruling regime in Syria and some other Arab countries.
Thus, at least in the West’s policy towards the countries of the Islamic world, one can find significant features of intra-civilizational consolidation and inter-civilization conflict. And, as practice shows, NATO has become one of the main instruments of this policy. Some signs of the civilizational approach can also be found in the actions of the Alliance in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, where the governments of its constituent countries were inclined to justify and support the actions of the Croats that Huntington regarded as Western civilization and lay the blame for the escalation of violence against the Serbs attributed to them separately dedicated Slavic-Orthodox civilization. In addition, Turkey, a member of NATO since 1950, has recently been increasingly distancing itself from the policies of the remaining members of the Alliance, primarily in the Middle East. Finally, in political documents and speeches of NATO officials, the thesis that the Alliance protects the liberal values of democracy and human rights in the world, which, although now universally proclaimed, is undoubtedly of Western origin, constantly appear in the political documents and speeches of NATO officials.
Of course, some may argue that the European Union is much more suitable for the role of the unifier of European civilization than NATO. However, there are two weighty objections to this. First, the United States remains the undisputed leader of the Western world in all respects. And given the negative trends that have taken shape in European integration in recent years, Europe is unlikely to regain the leading positions that it lost as a result of the two world wars in the foreseeable future and act as an independent center of power. And, secondly, it is highly unlikely that, given the global economic expansion of China, the ideological expansion of radical Islamism and the increasing demographic pressures of Western countries as a whole, Europe will go on weakening transatlantic ties and political disengagement from the United States. Therefore, of all existing organizations, it is NATO that has the greatest chance of becoming the main platform for the consolidation of the Western world.
To summarize, I would like to note that since the Cold War the role and functions of NATO in international politics have undergone a very significant transformation. From the regional system of collective defense, which acted as the institutional basis of the Western bloc, it evolved into a predominantly political alliance with a pronounced civilizational implication that now unites almost all states of Europe and North America that show commitment to Western liberal-democratic values. At the same time, under the auspices of NATO, the majority of Western military operations began to be conducted to end armed conflicts and promote these values beyond their own territory. The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Alliance’s military operations is, to date, virtually recognized by the UN. Hence the conclusion suggests that the North Atlantic Alliance is one of the most influential forces in modern international politics, with which all states of the world have to be considered without exception. As for the forecast of relations with NATO for specific countries (for example, the Republic of Belarus), the key importance in the long term will be a fundamental answer to the question whether this nation considers itself to be a European civilization and whether it shares the fundamental values of the Western community, or considers itself to be different, the civilization opposing them?