Meanwhile, NATO continued to accept new members and to build new partnerships. The NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002 so that individual NATO member states and Russia could work as equal partners on security issues of common interest. In 2004, the Alliance launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative as a way of offering practical bilateral security cooperation to countries of the broader Middle East region. Finally, subsequent rounds of enlargement brought more Allies into the fold – Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 2004, Croatia and Albania in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020.
Discover more: Partnerships
In Afghanistan, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, Allies have seen that military power is not enough to ensure peace and stability. Peacekeeping has become at least as difficult as peacemaking. During the Cold War years, Allied security had entailed the defence of the North Atlantic Allies; now the definition of “security” has radically expanded to include the individual’s freedom from the violent extremism bred by instability and nation-state failure. For instance, much of the world’s attention in 2011 was focused on the crisis in Libya where NATO played a crucial role in helping to protect civilians under attack from their own government, as mandated by the United Nations. The level of violence used by the Libyan security forces against pro-democracy protestors was such that the international community agreed to take collective action. Indifference was simply not an option.
Successful peacekeeping has come to entail not merely providing a baseline of security, but assisting in the construction of modernity itself. This task is beyond NATO, and the Allies know it. The Alliance is not and cannot be a civilian reconstruction agency, but NATO can make a significant contribution provided that it is part of a coherent international response. In the new Strategic Concept agreed in 2010, the Alliance committed itself to dealing with “all stages of a crisis – before, during and after” - an all-embracing principle that implies a greater role for cooperative security. This idea is at the heart of the “comprehensive approach”.
Geopolitical instability demands complex remedies that combine military might, diplomacy, and post-conflict stabilisation. Only the widest possible coalition of international actors can provide elements of all three. Accordingly, the Alliance is not only developing security partnerships with countries across the Mediterranean, the Gulf region, and even the Pacific area, but it is also reaching out to other fellow international organisations and non-governmental organisations that have mandates in such areas as institution-building, governance, development, and judiciary reform. Whether helping to build lasting peace in Pristina, securing the Mediterranean Sea or providing assistance to the African Union, NATO has been increasing cooperation with other international organisations that can bring their superior reconstruction and civil-society building capabilities to bear.
The 21st century will not be all about peacebuilding, however. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine are a sobering reminder of the importance of NATO’s core task: collective defence. This, coupled with the Syrian conflict, the rise of ISIL and terrorism (and often homebred terrorism), has become a brutal reality across many continents. Meanwhile, tensions rise as migrants seek refuge from conflict in countries that are struggling with the weight of ethnic and religious strife, demographic pressures and economic underperformance. Cyberattacks are becoming ever more frequent and ever more destructive. And through social media and other means, the opponents of liberal open societies are spreading disinformation and propaganda that seek to undermine the values that NATO has always sought to protect and promote. Altogether, the complexity of the current security environment is such that NATO’s flexibility is yet again put to the test.
Since its founding in 1949, the transatlantic Alliance’s flexibility, embedded in its original Treaty, has allowed it to suit the different requirements of different times. In the 1950s, the Alliance was a purely defensive organisation. In the 1960s, NATO became a political instrument for détente. In the 1990s, the Alliance was a tool for the stabilisation of Eastern Europe and Central Asia through the incorporation of new partners and Allies. In the first half of the 21st century, NATO faces an ever-growing number of new threats. As the foundation stone of transatlantic peace and freedom, NATO must be ready to meet these challenges.
Discover more: 9/11 and beyond
A picture tells a thousand stories. Discover “NATO: A history in snapshots”, a unique collection of photos from every year of NATO’s existence.