NATO: Operational Failures and Challenges in the 21st Century

by Aakrith Harikumar - 21 May, 2022, 12:00 11266 Views 0 Comment

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began as an alliance during the Cold War to oppose the Soviet Union. Despite the fall of the USSR in 1991, NATO’s continuity has led to much debate among scholars as to its purpose and relevance today. An organization that started with only 12 member states, has grown to a become a strong network of 30 members, with more states acting as important global partners. While NATO represents some of the biggest western powers, it is also marked by operational failures and internal disparities. Now the question for this research essay is: has NATO truly been a success?

This question is worth exploring from different angles. To find an answer, one must look at the military interventions and activities that NATO has carried out since 1991. This paper will primarily look at NATO’s three most significant interventions in Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. While two of these have been successes in the larger picture, the large opportunity costs are often overlooked. And that is what this piece seeks to explore.

NATO: Origins and Objectives
While countering Soviet expansion is its main goal, NATO member states have also highlighted two other priorities: (1) revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent and (2) encouraging European political integration. Communism was becoming a threat in Europe as governments like that of the Czech Republic were overthrown by rebels. Considering many factors, it was time for a more integrated and like-minded organization of nations to uphold democratic values. The North Atlantic Treaty was enforced in 1949 and mainly laid the foundation for military and political cooperation between its member states.

A fundamental aspect of the treaty lies in Article 5, which states that an attack against one member is an attack against all . But NATO has also shown the same level of support for nations expressing their desire to become member states. For instance, the 2022 Russia-Ukraine conflict has seen strong participation by NATO members as Ukraine aspired to join it. Moreover, the conflict threatened the stability of Europe as a whole, thereby prompting a response from NATO.

NATO’s Operations: A List Marked By Failures?
NATO has a long list of military interventions in other states with hits and misses. This section will look at four major NATO interventions and their consequences.

The Yugoslavian Bombing, (1999)
The conflict in the Balkans worsened as Serbia increased its embargos on Kosovan separatists and Albanian civilians. NATO established the Kosovo Force (KFOR) in 1999 as a part of UNSC Resolution 1244 which mandated international presence in the region to mitigate the conflict. As the Yugoslavians resisted, NATO carried out a 78-day air bombing, formalizing the KFOR’s entry into the region. The biggest debate here is whether NATO’s actions were humane. Although it achieved its larger goal of stopping Milosevic and separating Kosovo (de facto), the air bombing caused more than 500 civilian deaths. There was an exodus of refugees and the fundamental pillars of the Responsibility to Protect were broken because the people did not receive complete protection.

Determining whether NATO’s actions in Kosovo were truly a success or failure depends on what an individual considers more important: the ends or the means. However, in the 21st century, when international organizations are seen as important bodies that represent major interests at a global level, concerns must be solved through dialogue, with force only being used as a last resort. In that sense. NATO’s mistakes in Kosovo seem to overshadow its successes.

The War in Afghanistan, (2001-2021)
The intervention in Afghanistan is arguably one of NATO’s most important ones. After the 9/11 attacks, the US sent forces to Afghanistan to capture Osama Bin Laden and bring the nation back to democracy after five years of Taliban rule. The US, along with its NATO allies, sent forces to Afghanistan under a UN Security Council mandate. Despite fulfilling both goals of overthrowing the Taliban regime and killing Bin Laden, NATO (primarily US) troops continued to stay in Afghanistan till 2021. Interestingly, the US government published an official document of a Congress hearing on ‘The U.S. Lessons Learned in Afghanistan’, which entailed a list of its intelligence and political failures that led to withdrawal. Despite its fragility, the only reason that the Afghan government was able to sustain itself was because of the support of NATO forces. Things took a turn for the worse when then-president Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in 2020 to withdraw troops by 2021.

While Donald Trump’s actions may be justified from a ‘US national interest’ perspective, the larger interests of the Afghan people were compromised. American and NATO soldiers had indeed been there for twenty years, only to be brought back during the country’s toughest time. The withdrawal of troops led to an immediate fall in the Ghani government which had to concede defeat instantly. Despite twenty long years, one of the most powerful alliances was brought down, leading to its NATO biggest and most shocking security failure.

The Intervention of Libya, (2011)
While there is much debate on whether the NATO intervention in Libya was a success, it is important not just to look at the conflict itself, but its aftermath as well. Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya was an epicentre of tyranny and human rights violations. As a part of the Responsibility to Protect, the international community had to act. Once again, the result was the victory of NATO forces and the fall of the Gadaffi regime. But the US-led NATO which was supposed to be a ‘beacon’ of democratic values, was not entirely true to its purpose of protecting the civilian population of Libya. While NATO’s main target was the Gadaffi regime, it did not emphasize enough combating rebel groups which were equally dangerous.

Libyan rebel groups were responsible for many civilian murders, robberies, and war crimes. The rebels even killed civilians who merely supported the Gadaffi regime but did no crime. As per the first pillar of the R2P, protection applies to the ‘population’ of a nation, which includes every individual residing in the nation. The UN and NATO forces failed to protect a large section of the population. Therefore, while NATO managed to protect those fighting against Gadaffi, it still failed in other areas, leading to another civil war despite an end to Gadaffi’s regime.

NATO’s Internal Differences
While the previous section primarily focused on the operational and military failures of NATO, this section is going to explore the administrative issues among NATO members which further complicate its functioning. While NATO has always seemed to present a united front on the global stage, there is no denying that nations and leaders within the organization have fundamentally different views on how it should function.

Turkey vs Greece: An Ongoing Feud
Greece-Turkey relations are historical and have been a source of controversy for almost two hundred years. While both joined NATO in 1949 and 1952 respectively, there was hope that their conflict would subside. Two main points of contention between both states are control over the maritime domain in the eastern Mediterranean region and the Cyprus conflict. Affairs took a turn for the worse with the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey’s president. Erdogan’s emphasis on military power and a hardline stance in East Mediterranean has only added to the fire. NATO has spent a significant amount of time and resources in solving the conflict between these nations. Although it was able to avert the Cyprus crisis in 1974, it has failed to propose a long-term solution to end tensions. Today, Erdogan’s Turkey seems to be moving away from NATO toward Russia. In many ways, this has challenged the influence of other NATO members to hold the alliance together.

Divisions in 2022: The Ukraine Conflict
As this paper is written, NATO faces one of its biggest challenges in Ukraine against Russia. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, its inclination to join the latter was a defining factor in Russia launching an attack. As Ukraine is important to regional stability in Europe, NATO has enough incentive to act without direct intervention in the war. Now, the fact that Ukraine has stood its ground against Russia for two months is commendable. But even in this conflict, NATO seems divided.

While it is true that matters would only worsen if NATO directly intervened, the actions of each member state convey different intentions. For instance, the US’s stance on banning Russian oil and sanctioning its rival has been clear from the beginning, but the EU’s position is different. Russia’s Nord Stream II pipeline is as important for the EU as it is for Russia. Banning it would lead to an economic disaster for the region. Additionally, the EU’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs is high. US’s sanctions have only raised energy prices which are now impacting civilians as well.  NATO members have also been unsuccessful in creating a no-fly zone on Ukraine, fearing escalation of the conflict. NATO’s idea of ‘no direct intervention’ has backfired as Russia is still aware of NATO’s indirect involvement and the former’s attempts continue despite Ukraine’s willingness to stay away from NATO in exchange for its sovereignty.

Looking Ahead
This paper was a summation of NATO’s important operations from the end of the Cold War in 1991 to the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2022. Through the examples of its interventions in various international conflicts and a glimpse into its internal disputes, this paper wished to address that despite its larger successes, NATO’s failures are more prominent. Whether it was the large loss of lives in its interventions or its failure to bring about real changes in governance patterns (in Libya and Afghanistan), the organization with some of the world’s most powerful nations has had its fair share of struggles.

In international politics, there is always the conflict of following universal principles versus choosing to follow one’s national interest. NATO is a classic example of that debate. Its member states have always had to tread that fine line. In Afghanistan, the US pulled back due to national interest despite knowing the horrible consequences that may follow. Even today, the EU is hesitant to cut energy ties with Russia because the former is dependent on the latter for its energy needs. As long as nations have split loyalties and try to fulfil both sides of their goals, there is little opportunity for growth.


Aakrith Harikumar
Author is a second year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His research interests include International Security, Diplomacy, and Economic Development.

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