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Dhaka Tribune

75 years of Nato: How is the military alliance faring?

  • When Nato was founded in 1949, the enemy was on its eastern border
  • The alliance's 75th anniversary is overshadowed by Russia's war against Ukraine
Update : 04 Apr 2024, 08:04 PM

With 75 candles on its birthday cake, Nato is the oldest military alliance of democratic countries — and currently the only one in the world. Membership is still an attractive prospect. Established in 1949 with 12 members, today the alliance has 20 more. Finland and Sweden joined in the past year, seeking protection from Russia. Ukraine and Georgia have been promised membership at some future date, for the same reason.

Nato's expansion eastward began 25 years ago with former members of the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance of Eastern Bloc countries that was dissolved after the fall of Communism. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined Nato in 1999.

Back then, there was an atmosphere of optimism around Nato's 50th anniversary. The Cold War seemed to have been won. Russia was regarded as a partner. In 1997, Moscow had contractually agreed that it would not object to Nato expanding eastward. The Baltic states, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009. In 2017 and 2020, Nato welcomed more regions of the former Yugoslavia when it took in first Montenegro, then North Macedonia.

Russia criticizes Nato's eastward expansion

Then, in the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to criticize Nato for moving eastward. Putin claimed that at the time of German reunification in 1990, the Soviet Union was promised that Nato would not expand into the former Soviet sphere of influence. However, this was never set down in writing. The Nato–Russia Founding Act, which Moscow signed in 1997, contains no such assurances.

In 2008, Nato promised Georgia and Ukraine that they would, in principle, be able to join Nato. This was when Putin switched strategy. He attacked Georgia, bringing parts of the country under Russian control; then, in 2014, he annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and gave support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. This was followed by the attack on the whole of Ukraine in 2022. Yet Nato is still keeping the door open for more countries to join — despite this, or perhaps because of it?

Uncertainty about US leadership in the future

Nato now finds itself in a situation similar to that in which it was founded 75 years ago, on April 4, 1949, in Washington DC, with the free West aiming to counter the growing threat from the East with mutual military assistance — beneath the protective shield of American nuclear weapons. Cold War 2.0.

"As far as the threat situation and Nato's response are concerned, everything seems to be as it was back then. Collective defense is once again the core task. There's no doubt about that," says Matthias Dembinski from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).

However, he adds that, compared with 1949, the crucial difference is that there is strong mistrust toward the leading Nato country, the United States. If Donald Trump is reelected US president, the formula for mutual assistance that has been employed until now could become obsolete.

"In the worst hypothetical case, the task that would then fall to the Europeans would be twofold," says Dembinski. "Namely, to make up for both the political leadership role of the United States, and for the military contributions the US has made to N to date. That is a Herculean task. It's far from clear whether they would succeed."

Is Nato still energetic at 75?

The current US president, Joe Biden, has described Article 5 of the Nato Charter, the solidarity clause, as "a sacred commitment."

The clause states that an armed attack on any single member "shall be considered an attack against them all."

At the last Nato summit, in July 2023, which was held in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Biden declared: "Today our alliance remains a bulwark of global security and stability, as it has been for more than seven decades. Nato is stronger, more energized, and, yes, more united than ever in its history."

According to Matthias Dembinski, confrontation with Russia and the task of supporting Ukraine is currently bringing the alliance closer together. With 32 members and their sometimes-conflicting interests, the alliance is not always in celebratory mood.

"Nato suffers from considerable inertia. And that can also pose repeated existential challenges for an alliance like this," Dembinski says. "The interesting thing about Nato is actually the fact that, so far, it has managed to survive all of its crises — some of them serious. So far, Nato has proved surprisingly adaptable."

Military alliance is changing course

In an interview with DW, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the challenge facing Nato today is to shift its focus from international operations back to defense of its own territory, which has been neglected — to return to its roots, and fast.

"We're basically changing course at full speed," Pistorius said. "We're stopping going in the direction of international crisis missions, foreign missions. We have to reverse thrust and head back toward national defense, and defending the alliance. That takes a time. We're in the process of doing it, and from what I see, it will be dynamic."

Even though Ukraine is not yet a member, Nato's future will depend on the outcome of Russia's war against it, says Jamie Shea, a former Nato spokesperson and director of communications. He believes it's a question of credibility for the alliance.

"Even if Ukraine manages to defeat Russia, in terms of liberating its territory, Russia is going to be spiteful, vengeful," Shea said. "It's not going to love Nato. So, I think that, unfortunately for Nato, Russia is going to be the primary threat of concern for some years to come."

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