In the course of its 60 years, NATO has institutionalized three monumental transformations in world affairs: first, the end of the centuries-long “civil war” within the West for trans-oceanic and European supremacy; second, the United States’s post–World War II commitment to the defense of Europe against Soviet domination; and third, the peaceful termination of the Cold War, which created the preconditions for a larger democratic European Union.
These successes, however, give rise to a legitimate question: What next?
NATO now confronts historically unprecedented risks to global security. The paradox of our time is that the world, increasingly connected and economically interdependent, is experiencing intensifying popular unrest. Yet there is no effective global security mechanism for coping with the growing threat of chaos stemming from humanity’s recent political awakening.
Additionally complicating is the fact that the dramatic rise of China and India and the quick recovery of Japan within the last 50 years have signaled that the global center of political and economic gravity is shifting away from the North Atlantic toward Asia and the Pacific.
This dispersal of global power and the expanding mass unrest make for a combustible mixture. In this dangerous setting, the first order of business for NATO members is to define and pursue together a politically acceptable outcome to its out-of region military engagement in Afghanistan. This must be pursued on a genuinely shared military and economic basis, without caveats regarding military participation or evasions regarding financial assistance for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a resolution of NATO’s first campaign based on Article 5 is necessary to sustain alliance credibility.
However, the fact is that the qualified wording of Article 5 allows each country to do as much or as little as it thinks appropriate in response to an attack on a fellow NATO member, and NATO’s reliance upon consensus for decision-making enables even just one or two members in effect to veto any response at all — a problem made more acute by the expansion of the alliance to 28 members and the vulnerability of some members to foreign inducements. Hence, some thought should be given to formulating a more operational definition of “consensus” when it is shared by an overwhelming majority but not by everyone.
The alliance also needs to define for itself a geopolitically relevant long-term strategic goal for its relationship with the Russian Federation. Russia is not an enemy, but it still views NATO with hostility. Hence, two strategic objectives should define NATO’s goal: to consolidate security in Europe by drawing Russia into a closer association with the Euro-Atlantic community, and to engage Russia in a wider web of global security that indirectly facilitates the fading of Russia’s lingering imperial ambitions.
A good first step might be an agreement on security cooperation between NATO and the Kremlin-created Collective Security Treaty Organization, which consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In return for this concession — which Moscow has long sought — such an arrangement should be made conditional on provisions that confirm the right of current nonmembers to seek membership of their own choice in either NATO or the CSTO.
Better relations between NATO and Russia could also facilitate a cooperative outreach toward the rising Asian powers, which should be drawn into joint security undertakings. Such gradually expanding cooperation could lead, in turn, to a joint NATO-Shanghai Cooperation Organization council, thereby indirectly engaging China in cooperation with NATO, clearly a desirable goal. Indeed, given the changing distribution of global power, NATO should soon consider more direct formal links with several leading East Asian powers — especially China and Japan — as well as with India.
But to remain relevant, NATO cannot — as some have urged — simply expand itself into a global alliance or transform itself into a global alliance of democracies. A global NATO would dilute the centrality of the U.S.-European connection, and none of the rising powers would be likely to accept membership in a globally expanded NATO. Furthermore, an ideologically defined global alliance of democracies would face serious difficulties in determining whom to exclude and in striking a reasonable balance between its doctrinal and strategic purposes.
NATO, however, has the experience, the institutions and the means to become the hub of a globe-spanning web of various regional cooperative-security undertakings among states with the growing power to act. In pursuing that strategic mission, NATO would not only be preserving trans-Atlantic political unity; it would also be responding to the 21st century’s increasingly urgent security agenda.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was U.S. national security adviser from 1977 to 1981. A longer version of this essay will appear in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs.
The New York Times