The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), therefore, is an international organization of military nature, an organizational emanation of an international treaty of mutual military assistance.
However, alliances, like all relations between states, are more than the sum of the policies of the allies themselves: they cannot be understood outside the context of the international system. The system provides a large part of the reasons for joining and the nature of alliances varies according to the characteristics of the system. The formation of alliances and their persistence are elementary systemic processes.
Therefore the question that today we feel most about the Atlantic Alliance is not surprising: what role does it play in the new international context?
The scope of the Atlantic Alliance would not receive an adequate assessment if it were limited to considering only the technical nature of the guarantees. If the sense of the Alliance had really been limited to the prevention of the Soviet danger, the Alliance would not have survived 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed. We must therefore reflect a lot on the political significance that the Alliance had on the balance of that time to understand the sense of the participation of the United States in such a generic commitment but also so vast and, practically, without time limits.
On the political level, the Treaty has constituted a substantially asymmetric collective defense alliance marked by an element of strong discontinuity with the past: the commitment of the United States in defending Europe. The defensive guarantee against the third party attack was contained in article 5 which could not include an automatic military response mechanism, but limited itself to specifying the automatic nature of the obligation of mutual assistance, leaving to the specific case the decision of which means to adopt.
In its first phase, NATO reflected the attributes of the bipolar system not only in the genesis, in the logic of security, in the asymmetry of the Allies’ commitments, but also in its concrete performance of the security tasks. The essential link with bipolarity also succeeded in always imposing a centripetal force on all the centrifugal forces of the Alliance: the correspondence between one’s “form” and the “form” of the international system, that is to say that the security of Europe by the United States was rooted in the very structure of the bipolar system and the common security interests it generated.
As a result, if the end of the Cold War meant the disappearance of the Soviet threat, it also meant the emergence of a threat to NATO’s very survival, as an allied defense organization. The systemic transition of 1989, in fact, has modified the structural data of the international system, radically changing the nature of security challenges by creating a new panorama of threats.
Today, as the American political scientist Jakub Grygie well describes in the recent book “The return of barbarians”, the scenario of the wars of the present and the immediate future will increasingly resemble those that took place between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages, where to confront were not state subjects but a myriad of aggressive, fast and dynamic actors.
NATO is instead, today, a old-Westphalian fashioned organisation. NATO is an alliance between states organized to confront itself with other states, according to a model of “classical” war.
After 70 years, NATO is facing a crossroads: to evolve further or succumb.