What is Nato's role in an interconnected world?


Arun Kohli examines the future of Nato as the world continues to change away from the one it was created in

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By Arun Kohli

Established in 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) formed the basis for collective security and military unity during the Cold War. What started out as an organisation constituting twelve nations has since enlarged and now encompasses thirty nations. With rising tensions in Europe, it could be argued that Nato is one of the most important institutions of our time to ensure peace and stability, and yet, many political figures and commentators have long called for the defunding or disbanding of the organisation.

One of the biggest critics of Nato has been the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, who repeatedly criticised the organisation, suggesting that unless other countries paid an equal share into the alliance, it should be defunded. Trump reportedly even went as far to say, in private, that he wanted the US to pull out of Nato due to the US spending more towards it compared to other member states who were not meeting the threshold set.

The current threshold, which was agreed to by Nato members, is 2 percent of each nation’s GDP, yet in 2020 it was reported that only ten out of the thirty members would hit the financial targets required as part of membership. Trump lobbied for a rise in the threshold to 4 percent of each nation’s GDP but it raises serious questions over how in practice that could have been achieved with the majority of states not hitting the 2 percent target.

This begs the question, if countries aren’t contributing their fair share, is Nato fit for purpose in this modern age? Nato has long had an important role, as discussed, throughout the Cold War it represented and protected the Western bloc from both Soviet influence as well as invasion. Article V, included in the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, provided essential protection under the idea that an attack on one is an attack on all. The concept has carefully managed the actions of any state that would do harm to a Nato country as the response would be coordinated and exerted in its entirety.

And yet, Article V has only been triggered once in the history of Nato, something many critics of the organisation have pointed out: in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nato was heavily involved in the Bosnia and Kosovo wars as well as helping to stop a humanitarian disaster in Libya by placing a no-fly zone over the country in 2011. However, since the annexation of Crimea, it could be argued that Nato’s renewed focus on containing Russia is an echo of the Cold War period which says a lot about the goals of the alliance.

Tensions have recently hit a boiling point between Nato member states and the Russian Federation, guided by the Putin regime. The former has been on a mission to stop the latter from disrespecting the sovereignty of other European nations, most notably Ukraine.

Russia has long been opposed to Ukraine joining Nato as it sees this as a direct threat to its national security. Manifesting itself into talks early this year, Putin further stressed that a condition for Russia in diffusing what was then an escalating situation between Russia and Ukraine, was a promise from President Joe Biden and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, that Ukraine would never be granted membership status to the organisation. This is something Nato and the United States have refused to accept.

Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine in what is an ongoing conflict that was framed as a move by Russia to protect its sovereignty and national security against what Putin perceives to be growing western influence.

In the wake of this conflict, non-Nato countries such as Finland have begun debating joining the alliance to ensure that it is as safe as possible from any potential Russian attack. Despite being a part of Nato, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also fear for their safety as they all border Russia and the recently empowered Belarus, who has reportedly facilitated the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With countries continuing to want to join the organisation, it seems that the influence and appeal of Nato remains strong. Nato has long stressed that it will not directly engage in any conflict that doesn’t involve a Nato country that could risk further war. This is something we have seen in both the 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine with Nato keen to stay out over fear its involvement could further antagonise Russia.

However, moving into the future, Nato has an important role to play in constructing the security dynamic across the European continent. The organisation which has long countered Russian aggression against its own member states has important decisions to make about further enlargement that could not only affect its own actions but the actions of other states such as Russia.

In a world where there is increasing uncertainty over Russian aggression and the rise of China, many look to Nato as a guiding organisation there to protect millions of people worldwide.