May 29, 2024

75 Years of NATO: Relevance and Future

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By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN

NATO at 75 years: source Internet

“There’s also hatred here… They’d be the first to be dreadfully unhappy if Russia should somehow rebuild itself, even the way they want it, and should somehow become boundlessly rich and happy. Then there would be no one for them to hate, no one to spit on, nothing to make fun of! What we have here is nothing but a boundless animal hatred for Russia which has eaten into their organism,” were the words of not Vladimir Putin in 2022 but that of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel Demons published in 1871–72. Though a work of fiction, Dostoevsky’s lines signal the persisting antagonism towards Russia in the European psyche, which has been enduring for many centuries.

Initially for cultural, later for religious, and now for ideological and geopolitical reasons, there exists this acrimony between Europe (including the West in general) and Russia. The existing conflict in eastern Europe can be attributed to this acrimony and antagonism. When Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2024 one of the reasons it gave for invading Ukraine was the integration of Ukraine, which historically and politically was under Russian sphere of influence, into European and western security apparatus, most notably (potentially) in NATO.

April 4, 2024 marked 75 years since the Washington Treaty was signed in 1949 that conceptualised the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This article aims to dissect the popular myths and opinions about the role of NATO and its relevance post-dissolution of the USSR. It further makes the case for NATO to pivot into the Indo-Pacific in order to counter the growing Chinese threat.

Genesis of NATO

The end of World War II resulted in the crumbling of the then-established international order, with new potential hegemons and ideological rivals reshaping the balance of power considerations in the world. The world was subsequently divided into two economic and ideological blocks, with the West led by America promoting capitalism and the Soviet Union and allied countries spreading communism. Apprehensive about the rise of the USSR and its implications, Winston Churchill famously remarked, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” further highlighting the need to protect western values. Amid such developments, on April 4, 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) came into being with the aim of providing “collective security against the Soviet Union.”

During the Cold War, NATO and its rival Warsaw Pact, which was established in 1955, indulged in multiple covert and overt operations in order to damage each other’s security framework. At the same time, with the advancements in precision technologies, the role of deterrence was redefined. The threat from the Soviet Union was at its zenith in the 1960s, when it actively made breakthroughs in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Eventually, NATO countries, along with their unabated nuclear posture, decided to strategically upgrade their conventional defence posture as well. One of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed was because of the leverage that NATO had in military and technological terms. The USSR’s pursuit of the same leverage led to its exhaustion of resources and its ultimate dissolution.

End of the Cold War and NATO Expansion

December 26, 1991 marked the official disintegration of the mighty USSR and the birth of fifteen sovereign republics. From the era of bipolarity during the Cold War, the world was suddenly ushered into an age of unipolarity, and the US dominance of the international system with all the major competing ideologies losing legitimacy and support. American political scientist and International Relations scholar Francis Fukuyama called this a moment of “the end of history,” where human civilization had reached its ideological pinnacle.

Amid all the changes in the international system, the question of the continuation of NATO was of utmost importance. Few of the leaders and scholars believed that NATO had achieved its raison d’être with the culmination of the Cold War and should be dissolved, contrary to those who necessitated its existence in order to counter any future threats. Eventually expansionists prevailed over the realists, and not only would NATO continue to exist, but it would also be expanded despite its rival Warsaw Pact having been dissolved. George Kennan, one of the key architects of the USA’s containment policy during the Cold War, warned in 1998 against NATO expansion. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war… I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely, and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else,” he said.

Political Scientist Ted Galen Carpenter writes in his book titled Beyond NATO: Staying Out of Europe’s Wars which was published in 1994, “It would be extraordinarily difficult to expand NATO eastward without that action’s being viewed by Russia as unfriendly. Even the most modest schemes would bring the alliance to the borders of the old Soviet Union. Some of the more ambitious versions would have the alliance virtually surround the Russian Federation itself.” Even President Putin rattled during the 2007 Munich Security Conference, “It [the NATO expansion] represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?”

John Mearsheimer, a prominent political scientist who forwarded the theory of offensive realism, argued in March 2022 (one month after Russia’s attack on Ukraine) that the West, and especially America, was principally responsible for the crisis in Ukraine. He further warned that the conflict has “now turned into a war that not only threatens to destroy Ukraine but also has the potential to escalate into a nuclear war between Russia and NATO.”

On the other hand, leaders including Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and George H.W. Bush, inter alia, actively advocated NATO expansion in order to promote democratic freedom around the world and strengthen liberal international order. Further, leaders in the west today believe that it was the expansionist goals of Russia and President Putin that led to the catastrophe in Ukraine and not the security dilemmas associated with the apprehensions of Ukraine joining NATO.

Can NATO Pivot to Asia?

Whatever the arguments, the existence and expansion of NATO are realities, and one must accept that beyond strategic considerations. With eastern Europe and the Middle East being entangled in conflict, it gives Xi Jinping an opportunity to leverage the situation and achieve what it calls reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. Recently, Admiral John Aquilino, outgoing US Indo-Pacific commander, warned of the of the assertiveness of China in the region, citing examples of Chinese overreaction to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 and, most recently, Chinese aggressiveness against the Philippines, where China violated international and maritime law. “It’s getting more aggressive, they’re getting more bold, and it’s getting more dangerous,” he said further.

It is high time for NATO leaders to pivot to Asia with the aim of curbing the rising hegemon—China—that aims to destroy the very foundations of liberty, freedom, and human rights on which the West-led rule-based order is grounded. In 2022, after the NATO summit in Madrid, the final communiqué, officially known as the ‘NATO 2022 STRATEGIC CONCEPT,’ for the first time mentioned China as one of NATO’s strategic priorities, citing how China’s coercive policies challenge NATO’s interests, security, and values. It says, “The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security.”

Though NATO officially does not consider China an adversary, it has increased its engagement with allies and like-minded countries in the region, such as South Korea and Japan. Additionally, NATO Strategic Foresight Analysis (SFA) 2023 also talks about strengthening the organisation’s capabilities in space, information, and cyber domains, in which China vigorously pursues building military capabilities. This is evident with recent PLA reorganisation reforms, under which the PLA has established three independent branches: the Information Support Force (ISF), the Cyberspace Force, and the Aerospace Force, carved out of the erstwhile Strategic Support Force (SSF).

Rise of China, economically and militarily, requires all the security mechanisms and organisations to recalibrate their operational approaches to counter novel threats. The evolution of warfare and its transcendence to public life by means of grey zone warfare tactics, which are being employed by countries like China, predominantly require like-minded countries to collaborate on security matters, especially in the Indo-Pacific.


In the nineteenth century, Dostoevsky warned us about the inherent nature of antagonism between Russia and Europe. Under the current circumstances, in Ukraine, finding mutual conditions under which both countries—Russia and Ukraine—can agree for a permanent ceasefire and the secession of hostilities is paramount. If increasing collaboration between Russia and China is a cause of concern for NATO and the West, the overdependence of Russia on China is becoming worrisome for Russia as well due to fear of it becoming a vassal state of China. Changing conditions of the balance of power amid major geopolitical developments demand allies consolidate their power to deter rising adversaries in the Indo-Pacific.


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