NATO was founded in 1949 as a response to the rise of the Soviet Union, but the USSR’s collapse in 1991 challenged the Alliance’s sense of purpose. Conflict in the Middle East and the rise of terrorism provided it with a new direction, as the security focus shifted from Europe to the world.
More transformative, however, was the move from security towards supporting the rules-based international order.
The rules-based international order is the sum of international laws, norms and institutions that govern transnational and international affairs. It includes rules on war, trade, human rights, and diplomacy. In some cases states choose to transgress these rules. Generally, however, states opt for the substantial benefits of greater certainty, reduced risk, and standardization of interstate interactions that these rules bring. In recent years the rules-based international order has become a more prominent area of discussion. For instance, it now features as the top priority of the G7 in their upcoming meeting in Charlevoix, Quebec.
Until the end of the Cold War, NATO’s role in supporting the rules-based international order was limited. The preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty states that the purpose of the Alliance is to protect democracy and individual liberty. However, the membership of authoritarian countries such as Portugal and Greece made clear the goal was to counter the Soviet Union, not uphold international norms.
Its original function was made obsolete once the Soviet Union collapsed. Some even considered disbanding the Alliance. Uncertainty regarding its future was, however, mitigated with the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. Fearing Iraqi military action against Turkey, NATO created and deployed the Southern Guard as a deterrent. While not a formal participant in the Gulf War, member states involved in the operation used NATO as a forum for discussion and intelligence sharing. In addition, the joint military training the Alliance conducted in Europe over the previous four decades proved useful in pushing Iraq out of Kuwait.
The Gulf War represented an important juncture for NATO for three reasons. First, the aggressive action of Iraq affirmed the need for collective security to protect member states. Second, the Gulf War demonstrated that NATO could be an effective actor outside Europe. Third, and most notable, was the decision to use military force in a case that did not directly threaten the security of a member state. Even after guaranteeing the security of Turkey, NATO continued its involvement in the Gulf War. While Iraqi aggression threatened Saudi Arabia—a close ally of the United States—and global oil markets, it did not pose a direct threat to any member state other than Turkey. Rather, the Gulf War was important due to its threat to the international laws and norms that prohibit the use of force against a non-aggressive state. Thus, the Gulf War was a critical turning point for NATO: the organization transformed into a military alliance that not only ensures the security of its member states, but also protects the rules-based international order.
NATO’s role in the Gulf War was limited but set a precedent. The following year, as the breakup of Yugoslavia turned violent, NATO imposed a naval blockade and no-fly zone on Serbia. The conflict was not a threat to any member state. Rather, NATO’s motivation was to halt acts of genocide that clearly violated international laws and norms. Likewise, two decades later when Muammar al-Gaddafi engaged in war crimes during the Libyan Civil War, NATO intervened. In 2008, as acts of piracy around the Horn of Africa increased, NATO launched Operation Ocean Shield. Security was not the motivating factor of the operation, given that the majority of ships attacked were not from NATO members and that attacks occurred outside the Tropic of Cancer, the area in which the North Atlantic Treaty applies. Rather, NATO’s intervention was to protect the free flow of goods. Here NATO ensured that threats to the global trade system would not be tolerated.
NATO’s increasing role in supporting the rules-based international order is tremendously valuable. Nevertheless, the Alliance’s record has not been perfect. Questions remain over the legality of its intervention in the Balkans, which did not receive approval from the U.N. Security Council, as airstrikes in Serbia and Libya contradicted international laws on excessive force. Double standards, such as the decision to intervene in Libya but not Syria, are numerous. While these cases may be exceptional, they can give the impression to other states that NATO only values the rules-based international order when it works in its interest. Were states to emulate this perceived self-interest, NATO actions would effectively help to undermine rather than protect the rules-based international order.
As NATO moves forward, it must be conscientious of past mistakes and ongoing challenges. Tradeoffs are sometimes unavoidable, such as intervening to stop genocide without U.N. Security Council approval. However, in other cases NATO can take actions that fall closer in line with international laws and norms. Doing so will bolster NATO’s role in supporting the rules-based international order—a role that is becoming more central to NATO and gives vitality to the Alliance.
Photo: USAF aircraft F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Operation Desert Storm, by US Air Force via Air Force Space Command. Public Domain.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.