NATO’s Identity Crisis: Two Policy Approaches for the Future


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been in the throes of an identity crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union with little relief in sight. This research seeks to address this chronic crisis of identity by outlining two new policy approaches for NATO which would directly benefit the member states themselves and better ensure their stability, security and prosperity. The first policy approach suggested here regards Russia, in whose direction further NATO expansion has reached the point of diminishing returns in the form of increased Russian resistance, and should therefore be ceased. The second policy approach suggested here regards using NATO’s collective naval capacity to help stop the irregular flows of persons across the Mediterranean into Europe, which are likely to increase in the future and which pose a direct threat to Europe’s internal stability. These two policy approaches attempt to ameliorate NATO’s crisis of identity by redirecting its focus to operations directly benefiting its member states and ensuring their security and stability in the future.

NATO’s Identity Crisis:

It is no secret that NATO’s sense of purpose was strongest during the Cold War when it served as a collective deterrent against Soviet aggression.[1] The identity crisis began after the fall of the Soviet Union and its NATO doppelganger, the Warsaw Pact. Since then, NATO has taken on new, expansive roles in the international arena, though none has given the organization a sense of purpose quite like the Cold War did. This repurposing of NATO, however, only mitigated its identity crisis temporarily. Once NATO ended its eleven-year role as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the same crisis of identity reemerged.[2]

The ISAF role, which brought the organization’s reach all the way from the frozen fjords of Greenland to the deserts of Afghanistan, was a remarkable show of NATO’s malleability, however it did little to benefit the contributing nations, especially those in Europe. Policy approaches which are clearly to the advantage of member states are key to shoring up collective support for NATO. The following sections will provide two such policy approaches which are geared towards the stability, security and prosperity of NATO member states themselves rather than far-flung operations that span the globe. In presenting these new approaches, the author’s aim is for NATO to help itself out of its identity crisis while at the same time assuring its member states that the organization’s existence is purposeful, beneficial and forward-looking.

 Halting NATO Expansion:

Few realists would deny that NATO’s expansion into Central and Eastern Europe was done with Russia very much in mind. Weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was little that Russia could do to stop the West from rapidly exerting its influence in the former Soviet sphere. Although Russia certainly does not feel reassured by the expansion of a hostile military alliance to its very borders, NATO’s collective security guarantee to states formerly within the Soviet sphere is quite popular in those countries.[3] However, the policy of ever eastward expansion has reached a point of diminishing returns in the form of increased Russian resistance. In fact, this rush to Russia, if continued, will likely provoke more instability and insecurity in Europe.

According to John Mearsheimer, it was after NATO’s issuing of the Bucharest Summit Declaration in 2008, which declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”,[4] that Russia made it clear that Western military assistance to these two states would come with huge consequences. Later that same year, the Russo-Georgian War proved just that. According to Mearsheimer, the potential for Russia to violently escalate the conflict in Ukraine could have been inferred from events that occurred in Georgia five years prior but, tragically, few if any made this connection until it was too late.[5] Russia surely poses a security risk to Eastern Europe, however, just like with a cornered animal, the more it is boxed in by NATO member states the more likely it is to react aggressively.

This is hardly a fringe view. George Keenan, the distinguished Russia expert and architect of the U.S.’s Cold War containment policy, similarly voiced his concerns over NATO expansion to Russia’s borders. Keenan considered later enlargement to be a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions” and “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era”. Keenan’s reasoning for why such a policy was folly coincides with that expressed above by Mearsheimer, i.e. expansion would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion[,] restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations[, and] impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”[6] Given Russia’s current trajectory, Keenan’s words were nothing short of prophetic.

In light of the risks of further NATO expansion eastward, it is recommended here that expansion should be halted so as to avoid greater tensions between Russia and the West. This is not at all to say that NATO should be scrapped, as Russia does pose a real threat to Eastern Europe. However, further expansion has reached a point of diminishing returns in regards to security and stability. Mearsheimer suggests that the West should instead seek to work with Russia wherever it can in order to balance against China, which poses the biggest threat to both the U.S. and Russia.[7] There are glimmers of hope in this area with the incoming Trump administration.

 Securing Europe’s South:

The second policy approach directly benefitting NATO member states regards securing Europe’s vulnerable south from irregular flows of persons. As the world saw with the refugee crisis in 2015, massive waves of migration posed a serious risk to Europe’s internal stability.[8] Given that the vast majority of NATO member states are also EU member states, it would be beneficial for both to work together to ensure their mutual stability, security and prosperity. Therefore, this policy approach looks to NATO as a force for protecting Europe’s south from future waves of irregular migration which are likely to destabilize the continent. This would likely help shore up internal support for NATO as it puts the organization to a future-oriented task which would directly benefit its member states.

The issue of defending Europe’s south is nothing new. Since the days of the Barbary pirates centuries ago, European states have dealt with corsairs and privateers profiting off flows of vulnerable persons across the Mediterranean Sea. In those days, the Barbary States profited handsomely from slave raiding and ransom payments,[9] with Europe footing the bill. Today the problem persists in the form of migrant smuggling and human trafficking of vulnerable persons seeking to get into Europe. The business of human smuggling in the Mediterranean nets billions of dollars annually for the smugglers and leads to human rights abuses and even deaths.[10] As this phenomenon threatens Europe’s internal stability, NATO should be put to use in hampering these criminal networks and stopping the irregular flows of migrants.

Future migrant crises, which are surely to happen, pose a serious challenge to Europe’s future. The fallout from the refugee crisis has led to deepened divisions across the continent, made the Dublin Regulation toothless, caused suspensions of the Schengen Agreement, and threatened to destabilize the Balkans. The EU in particular needs to face the reality that it cannot have both open internal borders and porous external borders. UN population projections paint a gloomy picture for Europe’s stability in the face of future migrant flows. By the year 2100, Africa’s population is set to quadruple from today’s estimated 1.1 billion to 4.4 billion,[11] which will undoubtedly lead to massive migration flows to an aging, shrinking Europe.

The future effects of Africa’s soaring fertility rates are hardly on the minds of any Western leaders, however. Certain leaders on the fringes of Europe, contrarily, have been very much aware of what future migrant flows to Europe mean for the continent. For example in 2010 while on a trip to Italy, Libya’s former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, sought what was essentially a €5 billion bribe from the EU in order to keep irregular flows of mostly African migrants in check[12]. The EU wisely rejected this proposal, signing instead a more modest €50 million deal with the Libyan leader to stem the flow of persons from Africa. With the EU now setting aside as much as €6 billion for Turkey to help clamp down on migration,[13] Qaddafi’s initial demand of €5 billion no longer seems far-fetched—in fact, it now seems remarkably prescient.


NATO is an important collective deterrent that does not need to be in such a deep crisis of identity. Although its initial security threats in the form of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are long gone, Russia has increasingly posed security challenges to Europe which the organization needs to address. NATO’s task along its eastern front, however, should not be one of provocation through further expansion, as this threatens Russia’s security and aggravates East-West relations. This policy approach does not erode NATO’s responsibility to its Eastern European members but rather stabilizes the eastern front so that tensions between the West and Russia can ease. Russia will be an important partner for the West to balance together with against a rising China, which is likely to pose the greatest threat to the global balance of power in the coming decades.

The second policy approach suggested here regards securing Europe’s south along the Mediterranean Sea. Criminal human trafficking networks are a scourge on human rights and should be stopped, while the internal stability of Europe needs to be placed at the forefront of its leaders’ interests. Migrant crises, which are likely to persist given demographic trends, have been shown to pose serious threats to the delicate balance of relations within Europe. As most NATO members are part of the EU or are significantly integrated with the EU, the former should be utilized to ensure the stability, security and prosperity of the latter. Naturally, this is also in the best interest of member states not located in Europe. Bringing NATO’s focus back to its original theater—Europe—should help allay its identity crisis and give it new purpose geared toward the future.


[1] NATO Website, Operations and Missions: Past and Present, 21 December 2016, [ /cps/en/natohq/topics_52060.htm], 18 January 2017.

[2] Jamie Shea, “NATO’s Future Strategy: Ready for the Threats of the Future or Refighting the Battles of the Past?”, in Liselotte Odgaard (ed.), Strategy in NATO, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, Chapter 3.

[3] Agnieszka Lada, All Quiet in the Baltics?, December 2015, [], 19 January 2017.

[4] NATO Website, Bucharest Summit Declaration Section 23, 8 May 2008, [ en/natolive/official_texts_8443.htm], 19 January 2017.

[5] The University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer: UnCommon Core: The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis, 2015, YouTube video, [ watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4], 19 January 2017.

[6] Michael J. Glennon, National Security and Double Government, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 p. 144.

[7] John J. Mearsheimer, Can China Rise Peacefully?, National Interest, 25 October 2014, [], 20 January 2017.

[8] Stefan Lehne, How the Refugee Crisis Will Reshape the EU, Carnegie Europe, 4 February 2016, [], 21 January 2017.

[9] Robert F. Turner, President Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates, in Newport Papers no. 35, 2010, pp. 157-171.

[10] Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, Refugee Crisis: Human Traffickers ‘Netted Up to £4bn Last Year’, The Independent, 17 January 2016, [ refugee-crisis-human-traffickers-netted-up-to-4bn-last-year-a6816861.html], 21 January 2017.

[11] United Nations, World Population Prospects, 2015, [ publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf], 22 January 2017, p. 1.

[12] Ian Traynor, EU keen to strike deal with Muammar Gaddafi on immigration, 2010, [], 22 January 2017.

[13] European Council, EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016, 2016, [], 22 January 2017.


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