Relevancy of NATO in the 21st century

Written by Rakibul Islam
(General Member, DUMUNA)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance of 30 North American and European countries established in the aftermath of the Second World War as a bulwark against the Soviet Union’s aggression. The North Atlantic Treaty, signed on 4th April 1949 in Washington D.C, forms the legal basis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

However, the heart of NATO is expressed in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, in which the signatory members agree that an armed attack against any member of NATO will be considered an attack against all.

The headquarter of NATO is located at Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels, Belgium which is the political and administrative center.

Head Quarter of NATO in at Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels, Belgium.
Source: nato.int


NATO focused on collective defense and the protection of its members from potential threats emanating from the Soviet Union till the Cold war. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, together with the rise of non-state actors influencing international security, several new security threats emerged. Therefore, the purpose of NATO has shifted in an exceedingly totally different direction. NATO is now performing on protecting its member from any terrorist attack as well as cyber-attack. Apart from these, it’s working to secure long-lasting peace in Europe that supports individual values, liberty, democracy, and human rights.


After the destruction of the Second World War, the European nations were struggling to rebuild their economy and ensure their security. These countries initially needed an inundation of aid to re-establish industries and produce food, and the latter required assurances against incursions from the Soviet Union. The United States, being economically strong, politically stable, and the first country to have nuclear power, was concerned about the communist expansion across Western and Central Europe by the Soviet Union. Therefore, to prevent the Soviet influence, Secretary of State George Marshall proposed the Marshall Plan that not only facilitated European economic integration but promoted the idea of shared interests and cooperation between the United States and Europe.

During 1948-49, several events such as the emergence of the Soviet threat, the descent of the Iron Curtain, the Communist seizure of Czechoslovakia, and the Berlin blockade to make Americans realize that their future was inextricably linked with that of Europe. Moreover, the United States viewed the Soviet Union’s communist influence in Europe as a thread of their way to become the world’s sole superpower Nation. Therefore, Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg proposed a resolution recommending that the President look for a security treaty with Western Europe that may clutch to the United Nations charter nevertheless exist outside of the Security Council where the Soviet Union held veto power. The Vandenburg Resolution passed, and negotiations began for the North Atlantic Treaty. After then several events of negotiation have taken place.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson signing North Atlantic Treaty
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson signing the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, as U.S. President Harry S. Truman (second from left) and Vice President Alben W. Barkley (left) look on. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

As a consequence of various negotiations, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, with 12 European and North American countries. The original membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) consisted of Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States.


North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is indisputably the most successful military alliance in history. NATO has succeeded its main mission, the one it was founded for. NATO has won the cold war. The main purpose of NATO was to secure Europe from Soviet aggression and its communist influence that ultimately succeeded through the collapse of the USSR. Because of the collapse Soviet Union, it lost the Eastern European alliance system.

The second wave expansion of NATO membership could be considered as a success where three former Soviet republics the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three members of the former Warsaw Pact: Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia and the seventh, Slovenia, was part of the former Yugoslavia, became the member of NATO. This enlargement program shows that the promises NATO made were true and the liberal world is the only way forward.

NATO has been the major player to compel an end to the violent conflict after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Immediately after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, heinous atrocities such as ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war crimes were committed during the armed conflicts in Croatia (1991-1992), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) and, Kosovo (1998-1999). In response, NATO immediately deployed an UN-mandated Implementation Force (IFOR) comprising 60, 000 troops to put end the Bosnia war through the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord. When the security situation was ameliorated, NATO draws the conclusion of peace-support operation in 2004.

NATO’s ARMY in Afghanistan
Source: nato.int

Moreover, NATO has conducted Operation Active Endeavour (OAE) in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to deter, defend, and protect against terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. It helped to secure one of the busiest trade routes in the world. It was an Article 5 operation, i.e., a collective defence operation that, initially only involved NATO member countries until it started accepting non-NATO countries’ participation in 2004. It also initiated various operations in the Middle East to counter terrorist groups. NATO intervention in Libya also helps the country to reduce the violence of civil war.

Furthermore, not all members of NATO were a democratic country. Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey were military dictatorship countries. And other countries that emerged from the disused Soviet Union were the one-party Communist States. Hence NATO is responsible for democratization in Europe.

Is NATO still relevant in the 21st century?

While NATO celebrated its 70th-anniversary last year, critics still question the relevance of such an organization in the 21st century. After the end of the Cold war, NATO’s future became unclear as it has achieved for what it was founded. Some even call for its cancelation. However, NATO found its new mission in the Balkans region and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack against the United States.

Critics also questioned the credibility and plausibility of Article 5 of NATO which was warning to the Soviet Union not to meddle in Western Europe. But would you think the United States are really prepared for nuclear war against Russia to fulfill NATO’s commitment? Moreover, it was even ‘perfectly obvious’, even for the Russians, that Washington would not risk the lives of millions of Americans for Berlin.

Moreover, Donald Trump stated that NATO is “obsolete,” he even considers and treats key NATO allies as opponents, while seeking continued rapprochement with Russia. Donald Trump even has doubts about article 5 too as he shows unwillingness to stand up for certain NATO countries. Under Barak Obama’s administration, as his much-discussed ‘pivot to Asia’ at the time signaled that the United States had already started to turn away from Europe.

Turkey made an Arms deal with Russia despite the opposition of NATO and the United States in 2019. This shows the state’s interest is the first priority of any country before the NATO alliance. Critics also argue that NATO is failing to protect member states from cyber-attack. In 2016, Russia meddled in America’s presidential election which was keenly contested.

Furthermore, in 2014, at NATO’s Summit in Whales, the Member States of the Alliance committed themselves to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense by 2024. But the 2018 annual report says only 8 countries fulfilled 2% of their GDP on the defense sector. It is very conspicuous that the commitment of NATO members doesn’t commensurate to the contribution which indicates the fragility of an organization.

Critics argue that NATO has won the cold war, but Russia still holds superpower being a nuclear state and very eagerly endeavoring its influence in Europe and the Middle East. Moreover, NATO has found its new mission of cybersecurity of member states and preventing terrorist activity in any corner of the world. Therefore, even though NATO has been criticized by many, but no one can deny that it is the world’s long-lasting and most successful military alliance ever happened in history.


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