The concept of international security and the evolving role of NATO

NATO has survived the end of the Cold War by adopting new missions, changing conceptually, taking in new members and by invoking Article Five in response to the challenges posed to global security after September 11th.

By Marko Savkovic

With the end of the Cold War, those who viewed international relations through the lenses of a realist predicted how a world where multiple great powers are competing will lead to a return to the times of power alliances and instabilities that existed prior to World War Two. Now we know that this was not the case. But we believe it is important to understand how the Cold War did not end with a victory of one military alliance over the other. Instead, at the core of the fall of communism was the failure of its planned economy (and one-party monopoly) to provide effective governance and well being to its citizens.

To make individuals feel safe now means more than to just protect them from violence, be it organised or not. “Freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” constitute the core of this enlarged notion of security. The precedent was set by the great American statesman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in an address also known as the Four Freedoms speech. On January 6, 1941 FDR proposed four freedoms humans “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy. His inclusion of the two freedoms we mentioned went beyond the values protected by the First Amendment to the American Constitution. The consequence was twofold. First, a notion of economic security was created, and second, US foreign policy began following an increasingly international outlook. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” therefore lie in the heart of today’s contested concept of “human (centred) security”, present in the discourse of social science and studies of economic development.

How dramatic the change of its mission was, illustrates the fact that today, NATO improves governance through institution building in a number of “partner countries”. All standards and practices aside, this was unimaginable two decades ago. In the long term, a candidate or partner state is expected to become a better provider of security, first to its citizens, than to the region as a whole.

Back to our story, why hasn’t the history ended with the Cold War? First of all, the end of the Cold War was not followed by an “ideological homogenization” toward some “static Utopian end”. [2] The formation of ideologies and how they change is a dynamic phenomenon.

Second, every time a systemic crisis occurs, the “ruling” ideology is at risk and one can hear calls for the “rules of the game” to be changed. The global economic crisis, for instance, happened precisely because there was no homogenization of rules in the sphere of financial markets agreed between countries that are allies in defence and security issues. Systemic crisis might, and will, cause an ideologically heterogeneous system in the future.

Third, the sharing of norms of governance has not become global yet. It remains confined to those countries which participate in the processes of integration, regionally or globally. However, the fact that some of these regional arrangements – for example, the European Union – have developed a distinctive model of governance, and are trying to “export it” to other countries, means little for those countries which are effectively stuck in the periphery, as for instance, Somalia.

Still, Europe has found its stability in the sharing of norms. EU member states interact within a common framework without precedence in history. They are now busy with creating an area of “freedom, security and justice”, and are trying to make an impact in international politics acting as one.

Throughout the Cold War, NATO was seen primarily as a military alliance, aimed at deterring the Soviet threat on Western Europe. But, instead of disintegrating, NATO has survived the end of the Cold War, by adopting new missions, taking in new members, and by invoking Article Five (mutual defence) after being faced with the challenge the September 11 terrorist attacks posed to global security. It also conceptually changed, by altering its mission statement significantly first in 1991, and then in 1999.

NATO’s principal political mission in the 1990 was to construct a new security order in Europe, which will be grounded on the liberal democratic values that stand in the Washington Treaty of 1949: “democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law”. But more important was the decision to promote these values beyond the boundaries of NATO member states. This new enterprise was a political mission, rather than a military one. [3] In order to complete this political mission, NATO developed specific tools. First were the institutional and partnership arrangements of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Partnership for Peace, followed by the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (renamed later to simply the NATO-Russia Council) and finally the NATO-Ukraine Commission.

The single most important feature of the Strategic Concept of 1991 was placing the emphasis on cooperation with former adversaries, as opposed to confrontation. The security of NATO member states was kept as being the fundamental purpose of the organization, however, this was combined with the specific obligation to work towards improved and expanded security for Europe as a whole.

Eight years later, amidst the controversies of the decision to intervene in the Kosovo War, member states of NATO outlined the priorities of the decade to come. First was the preservation of the transatlantic link, that is, the indivisibility of European and North American security and therefore the importance of the continued partnership between Europe and North America.

Second was the maintenance of effective military capabilities, as a reaction to the evolving gap in defence spending, obvious in the fields of research and technology as well as procurement.

The development of the European Security and Defence Identity was spelled out as a priority before the European Security and Defence Policy came to the fore. A decade later, the relationship with ESDP remains a subject of heated debate for scholars and concern for policy makers. By expressing the ambition to continue being an actor in conflict prevention and crisis management, NATO won another domain for itself. With the Concept, the openness of the Alliance to new members under Article Ten of the Washington Treaty was reaffirmed, while NATO’s expectation that it will extend further invitations in coming years was restated.

The defining factor in the post-Cold War evolution of NATO was the strategic decision to move beyond the traditional spheres of engagement. This is what we today call “out of Article Five” and “out of area” missions.

When intervening in the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO, sparked by the Clinton administration and supported by European members, implemented the doctrine of “humanitarian interventionism”. Despite the political controversy, the decision to “go ahead” was made plausible to public opinion because of the mass violations of human rights that occurred in Bosnia and in Kosovo.

As for “out of area”, the Treaty produced a strictly transatlantic community, whose collective defence commitments were not to extend to any colonial possessions or other affiliated territory beyond the immediate North Atlantic area. Needless to say, Afghanistan presented a sea change in this regard.

However, the dispute over whether to intervene militarily in Iraq reignited the debate over NATO’s ability to survive the loss of the common external threat that inspired it. Acting under the excuse of pre-emption, the Bush administration largely cut off its European allies, not convinced in both their commitment and the value of their military contribution, frustrated with its consensus-based decision making at the same time. When the Defence Secretary dared to produce the rift between “Old Europe” and “New”, the damage seemed to be beyond repair.

This brings us to contemporary challenges. The first of them regards the future mission statement of NATO as a military alliance, that is, its future engagement in peace support operations, seen through the prism of the successes and failures in Afghanistan. Whilst some Allies now want to return to a static, defensive posture, focused primarily on traditional territorial threats, others want to focus mainly on expeditionary operations like ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. [4]

The second challenge will be NATO’s relationship with Georgia and Ukraine. Russia opposes the prospect of the two countries becoming NATO members. What we might witness is a tacit recognition of the “national sphere of influence” and “strategic depth” that Russia has in this post-Soviet space. However, this and last year’s summit conclusions show that US will not give up on NATO’s ‘open door’ policy.

European members are far from univocal on the matter. It is not just that many of them depend on Russia’s energy to make their industry going, as last year’s Bucharest summit has shown, but many also feel that the years of containment are gone for good.

We have underlined the importance of the relationship with the European Union. Experiences in the Balkans and Afghanistan have shown that military capability is not enough to guarantee success. A more complex mix of political and development tools are required. This is where the EU fits perfectly, being able to choose from a great variety of diplomatic tools when managing a crisis, from institution building to project implementation assistance.

However, the Europeans themselves must decide whether they wish to place the development of ESDP in the service of NATO’s success. Hard questions remain to be asked concerning the development of capabilities and the “division of labour” in global peace support and state buildings.

NATO has evolved. In supporting institution building through tailored cooperation programmes, it sets benchmarks for success. It is providing transforming societies with toolkits necessary for handling civil-military relations, democratic oversight, budgeting and procurement, strategic planning and else.

In the Western Balkans, present through KFOR, it provides “hard security”. Yet, for most of the countries in the region, this does not go against the appeal of membership. The Alliance is aided by the fact that its criteria correspond to those of the EU, with membership in NATO becoming the “unofficial condition” for EU accession. With challenges ahead and disputes unresolved, it is here to stay.

Marko Savkovic is a Research Associate at the Centre for Civil-Military Relations, a Belgrade based think-tank active in promoting the democratization of Serbia’s security sector reform.


  • 1. This presentation was prepared for the workshop ‘The Evolution of Collective Security: NATO in the 21st Century’, organized by TransConflict Serbia and Youth Dialogue Programme.
  • 2. James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, 1992, “A Tale of Two Worlds: Core and Periphery in the Post-Cold War Era”, International Organization 46, Issue 2 (Spring 1992): p. 468-469.
  • 3. Rebecca R. Moore, 2007, “NATO’s New Mission: Projecting Stability in a Post-Cold War World”, Praeger Security International: p. 2.
  • Daniel Korski, “Keeping in shape at 60”, NATO Review, February 2009, (accessed July 20, 2009)


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