Rethinking NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement – part I


(NATO photo credit)

The collapse of the USSR and the future of the Atlantic Alliance

The 26th of December 1991, the day after Michael Gorbachev addressed for the last time his people as the leader of the Soviet Union, the USSR officially ceased to exist.  Among all the possible issues that this historical event could have raised, there was certainly the one regarding the future of the Atlantic Alliance. Now that the main scope of the organization, namely the containment and the deterrence of the Soviet threat, had been successfully accomplished, many commentators started wondering whether or not the Alliance would have disappeared altogether with its adversary. The most expected outcome was certainly the demise of NATO itself: perhaps the Alliance would have not been dismantled immediately, but eventually it would have become “an empty shell” no longer performing any relevant function, or replaced by another European security arrangement with looser ties[1]. Still, not only NATO did not extinguished, but it remained “the leading security organization in Europe”[2], but not before its strategic thinking underwent a process of review. Even prior to the downfall of the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1990, the heads of government of NATO’s member states, agreed on the need to revise the strategic concept of the Alliance, adjusting it to that new environment shaped by the “profound political changes” occurred in 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, and likely to have “a far-reaching impact” on the way NATO’s aims would have been accomplished in the future. More specifically, while the Alliance’s original purpose to ensure “the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means” remained “unchanged”, the very nature of the threats NATO should have been prepared to face, could have rather proved “multi-directional” and harder “to predict and asses”. Perils were more likely to come from the consequences that the instability in the former territories of the Warsaw Pact could have unleashed, rather than “from calculated aggressions”. Here the need to adopt a broader “approach to security” featured by the enhancement of “dialogue”, “co-operation” and “collective defence capability”[3] also with former Cold War adversaries. This new pattern of cooperation took the shape, in December 1991, of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). The NACC originally encompassed, besides NATO’s members, the 11 former Soviet republics now part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, later joined by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Albania and the Central Asian republics.  The establishment of the NACC was presented as “an historic step forward” in the relationship between NATO Allies and their former Warsaw Pact foes, now working together in order to secure the progresses made across Europe “in establishing solid democratic institutions, respect for human rights and economic liberty”[4]. The Council also focused its attentions on the most compelling post-Cold War security concerns, as the lasting presence of Russian troops in the Baltic States, as well as the regional conflicts arising in the former Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia. Most importantly, it encouraged deeper forms of military and political cooperation between its Member States and the former Soviet bloc countries, paving the way to the launch of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1994 and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council that in 1997 replaced the NACC itself. It is clear that the rationale of these latter initiatives relied on the numerous relevant security functions that NATO still deemed necessary to exert itself. These functions were mainly related to the dismantlement of the USSR military and nuclear capabilities in its former territories as well as the threat posed by the rise of Russian nationalism that, if not counterbalanced, could have easily led to a “return to a more confrontational, even expansionist posture” of the newly-born Russia[5]. On the other hand, some observers argued that all these post-Cold War issues could have been rather addressed by other international organizations whose nature was more political than military, as the European Union or the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This latter, in particular, since it involves almost all European states on an equal basis, Russia included, could have offered the proper forum in which each country could have expressed its security concerns, and, eventually, develop adequate “pan-European mechanisms for conflict prevention, crisis management, and dispute resolution”[6].

Yet, the Atlantic Alliance was not willing to retire.  On the contrary, over the decades, NATO had evolved into an institution with “transnational, integrated command structures” and a remarkable “self-preservation instinct”, which allowed it to survive the end of the Cold War[7]. Once the USSR ceased to exist, the political face of the organization emerged over the military one and started serving the diplomatic purpose of securing the democratization of the European continent by attracting the former socialist republics into the Western orbit[8], as demonstrated by the stated willingness to support “with all available means” all those efforts made to “create modern competitive market economies” throughout Europe[9].

However, probably all these contingencies could have not been able alone to justify the survival of the Atlantic Alliance, unless the United States had expressed a clear interest for this to happen. Clinton’s administration efforts to re-launch the mission of NATO, had been, in fact, fundamental in the process of re-organization of the Alliance that, eventually, led to an outcome on which few would have bet at the beginning of the decade, namely the accession to its membership of Central and Eastern European countries.


[1] J. S. Duffield, “NATO’s functions after the Cold War.”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 109, No. 5, 1994.

[2] Ivi.                                                                                                                                                                                     

[3]“The Alliance’s New Strategic Concept agreed by the Heads of State and Government participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council”,

[4]“North Atlantic Cooperation Council Statement on Dialogue, Partnership and Cooperation”,

[5] J. S. Duffield, op. cit..

[6] Ivi.

[7] R. K. Betts, “The three faces of NATO”, The National Interest, March-April 2009, p. 15.

[8] Ibidem.

[9]“North Atlantic Cooperation Council Statement on Dialogue, Partnership and Cooperation”,

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