The year 1945 ushered in the dawn of the atomic age, war ravaged Western Europe was in ruin, and the Soviet Union had begun to spread its tentacles across the continent—fast forward 60 years later and Europe is again at a crossroads as the Russian Bear begins to growl once more. The charter to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was signed on April 4, 1949 by 12 initial member states—Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States as a response to buffer Soviet influence, protect the free trade of the Atlantic seaways, and to provide for a common unified military defense network of western democracies. Today NATO has 28 member states spanning North America and most of Western Europe.
Article 5 of the Treaty provided that the member states agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all,” and that following each attack, the allies would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” The Cold War ended without a shot being fired. NATO stood guard at the gates, keeping the peace. Under that framework NATO allies have participated and provided armed air and land support in numerous conflicts during the 20th and 21st centuries including Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks changed the game. NATO pivoted to begin to focus on preventing international terrorism. However with last year’s conflict in Crimea continuing to rage well into 2015 and pro-Russian separatists still controlling large tracks of territory in eastern Ukraine, it begs the question: has NATO’s core mission and influence effectively been rendered ineffective, or better yet—paralyzed, by an ever more aggressive Russia, the likes of which continent has not seen since the the Cold War.
The public and actual perception of NATO appears to be at a crossroads. Optically appearing as a snub, it was reported, and denied by the White House that President Obama declined to meet with new NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg when he was in Washington this past week. To make matters worse, on March 25th 2015 NATO jets were scrambled to intercept four Russian military aircraft in international airspace near Baltic member states. In a series of stern warnings former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski cautioned that the new Moscow-friendly Greek government which recently attained power in Athens could paralyze NATO’s ability to react to Russian aggression in the region by utilizing its veto power to slow a possible NATO response to potential Russian aggression in the Baltic region. Consequently Brzezinski said Poland too “could be a target” along with former Soviet states such as Moldova, Georgia and oil-rich Azerbaijan.
However the dynamic of stasis in which NATO has operated in recent years, especially concerning conflicts close to its member state’s borders (2008’s Georgia & South Ossetia conflict), has created a precedent of seeming inaction with an apparent unwillingness by NATO allies to actually involve themselves when it comes to continental matters concerning Russian involvement. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes “As a conventional military alliance, it [NATO] is ill-prepared for the “hybrid warfare” Russia has waged in Ukraine, which has been closer to a paramilitary covert action to support proxy forces than to a traditional military attack.” NATO’s customary model of member states providing to the organization traditional military units may be antiquated and outmoded.
The Obama Administration’s “ ‘unified morass,’ sharing the reluctance of European leaders to escalate the crisis by providing defensive weapons to Ukraine or tightening sanctions against Russia” illustrates why NATO action could in fact be an effective tool to quell the crisis in Ukraine and buffer potential Russian aggression if only there was unity and commitment among the leadership of member states to realize the treaty’s relevancy and re-commitment to being the vanguard of western Europe.
Anthony Christina is a 2L and a Resident Student Blogger with the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University-Dickinson School of Law.
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