In the early years of the Cold War, the United States was hard at work building a new coalition of allied nations to act as a check against the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Over the decades, this coalition has grown to an alliance of almost thirty nations, with many others throughout Europe and the Americas participating in varying degrees of cooperation. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance has come under fire in recent months (mostly from the current administration) for being an outdated alliance system in a post-Cold war world. But just last week, the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro joined the system as part of the first NATO expansion since 2009. This week, we'll explain the importance of the NATO alliance, and what its expansion could mean for the future of the international order.
In short, the NATO alliance is a military and security alliance of mostly North American and Western European countries. The foundation of the alliance is Article 5 of its charter, which states that an attack against one of the members is an attack against all. When Article 5 is invoked, all nations of the alliance must come to the aid of the attacked nation. For the most part, this hard-line stance is basically designed to be a massive deterrent against another country attacking any of its members (i.e. Russia). Article 5 has only been invoked once in the alliance's history following the 9/11 attacks.
So why is Montenegro important? Well on the grand scale of things, Montenegro is not a huge geopolitical player. But its ascension signals yet another former Soviet-bloc nation entering the alliance (and thus being essentially closed out from direct Russian influence). This is especially surprising since NATO forces bombed parts of Montenegro as part of the intervention in Kosovo. In fact, the vast majority of nations that have been added to NATO since the end of the Cold War have been former Soviet satellites.
But despite its pivotal role in the modern international order, the NATO alliance certainly has its detractors. Russia, for obvious reasons, isn't too fond of an alliance that was basically formed in direct opposition to itself. The Kremlin has often attempted to intimidate or sabotage prospective NATO aspirants, even going so far as attempting to initiate coups in potential NATO members. Then there is the criticism of NATO allies not spending the required 2% of their GDP on military measures in support of joint defense cooperation. Sure, the United States helped set up the alliance in part so that it could subsidize its allies' security in order to use this as leverage. But most NATO allies recognize the continued importance of the organization and are likely to support this effort in the long run.
Then there is the Turkish question. In the last few years, Turkey (one of the original members of the alliance) has been increasingly antagonistic toward the United States and its other NATO allies. Much of this stems from deep divisions over the Syrian Civil War, but another critical factor is Turkey's continued authoritarian trend and warming relations with Russia. This raises the very real possibility of the NATO alliance becoming as much a liability as it is a bulwark of protection. The foundations of the alliance assume that all members will generally work together for the collective good of the whole. But what happens, for instance, if Turkey invokes Article 5 after a Kurdish terror attack (recall that the United States is working with some Kurdish factions in Syria and Iraq). Or what would happen if one NATO member attacked another? These questions/scenarios must be considered if the organization is to survive the changes of this new century.
What's next for NATO? There are three nations currently working towards the long process of joining, these are Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, and Macedonia. Like Montenegro, these former Soviet-bloc nations are sure to provoke the ire of Russia as they move toward the ascension process. Georgia could be especially problematic as Russia went so far as to invade the country in 2008. But despite initial claims to the contrary, it seems that the current administration and most major officials in Washington are still committed to the continuation or even expansion of the alliance. After all, president Trump had to sign a presidential memorandum as part of the approval for Montenegro's ascension into NATO, so even he might be starting to recognize NATO's importance. So long as the nations of Europe and the Americas remain committed to its continued existence, you can be sure that some form of major international alliance will remain steady long into the future.