As events seem to accelerate inside and outside of NATO, the focus has been: “What is NATO doing?” or: “Where is NATO heading?”. Yet I venture to say there is a more fundamental question: "What is NATO?” Who we are is more revealing and enduring than what we are doing, preparing for, thinking about, talking about.
Let us think a little about this question of the identity of NATO.
First of all, when NATO was created, it was created to counter and deter an explicit, visible, existing threat. During the Cold War, NATO conducted massive planning and exercises and developed a strong body of doctrine and interoperability. These activities are heavily manpower-dependent, indeed, it was an aim in and of itself: get these people busy, together. The NATO Command Structure became the school of NATO, the body through which thousands of officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and civilians rotated and graduated with a new, multinational perspective, “the NATO way”.
When that threat disappeared, as the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the Soviet Union, and then Russia, entered into a more constructive relationship with NATO, the Alliance remained. To the surprise of many and the dismay of some, the Alliance decided to stay together, for no other reason than a feeling of family. Having started as an Alliance against, NATO became an Alliance for. We do not need a threat to want to stay together, just like families do not need other reasons to persist and prosper.
The driving idea of the time was Partnership for Peace, the endeavour to befriend our former foes. It was successful to the point that 12 of today’s 28 members (and soon 13 with the accession of Montenegro) started their journey as partners. Today, there is no operation that NATO would consider in the absence of partners, for reasons political and ethical much more than operational.
NATO is a successful family. Some of its neighbours want to join, others simply want to associate, from time to time, and that is fine. Each partner decides on its own terms. Whatever their closeness to the Alliance, the partners of NATO have become a defining part of the Organisation, for which engaging with partners is much more than a competency: it is a destiny.
What of operations? Well, operations started in 1993, a full 42 years after the creation of the NATO Command Structure. And insofar as no operation is desired to be perennial, there is an aspiration that, one day, some day, NATO will not be conducting operations. And yet no one sees that day as leading to the demise of NATO.
In other words – and though this may seem counter-intuitive in view of the warfighting ethos of the organisation – operations are not part of the DNA of NATO. They are over and above, they are extremely important and indicative of the value and valour of NATO, but they are not the underlying reason for NATO. Just as NATO developed and prospered before, without operations, so NATO will prosper after the age of operations – if ever that day comes, of course.
So the identity of NATO is nested in planning, exercising, conceiving (all the conceptual work behind doctrine, interoperability, capability development) and partnering. Operations are over and above, the standard, the ultimate measure of effectiveness and legitimacy. But they are not part of the fundamental genetic code of the Alliance. Even if we stopped doing operations, chances are our nations would wish to remain together – as an Alliance, ready, forthcoming, friendly, not necessarily fighting!
Even as a more threatening environment is materialising, I hope the Alliance will remain true to its fundamental nature: an Alliance for, not against.