Determining NATO’s Next Act

NATO ExerciseBy Philip M. Breedlove

Foreign Affairs

In May 2013, when I became commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, I found U.S. and NATO forces well suited for their requirements at the time but ill prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. The United States’ military presence in Europe, which had shrunk significantly since the 1990s, was not oriented toward a specific threat. NATO, for its part, was mostly involved in operations outside the continent, primarily in Afghanistan.

Now that I have completed my tenure, I have the chance to reflect on how U.S. European Command and NATO have evolved since I took up my positions. Over the past three years, the United States and the alliance have shifted their focus to threats closer to the heart of Europe—namely, Russian aggression and the vexing challenges associated with the ongoing instability in the Middle East and North Africa. These threats are of a breadth and complexity that the continent has not seen since the end of World War II. Although the United States and NATO are better prepared to confront them today than they were in early 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and con­ducted a de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine, there is much more that the United States and its allies must do—above all, improve their abilities to deter the Russian threat and to deal with the problems associated with regional instability on Europe’s borders, namely, inter­national displacement and transnational terrorism. To better prepare for these challenges, the United States should increase the resources available to its forces in Europe and recognize Russia as the enduring, global threat it really represents.

To appreciate the position the United States and its allies found themselves in when Russia began its intervention in Ukraine, it is helpful to look back to the Cold War. In the final years of that conflict, NATO’s forces and those of the Warsaw Pact enjoyed relative parity. NATO had approximately 2.3 million men under arms in Europe; the nations of the Warsaw Pact had about 2.1 million. Although the Warsaw Pact countries had more tanks, artillery pieces, and fighter jets than NATO, the alliance managed to counter this numerical advantage through its advanced military equipment. NATO’s mission at the time was hardly easy, but it was relatively clear-cut. The West knew how to deal with a potential invasion launched by the Warsaw Pact, and the relative parity between NATO and the communist bloc, along with the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, ensured that such an invasion was unlikely. 

When the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, NATO was already developing a strategic vision for Europe’s new security environment that placed less emphasis on nuclear deterrence and the forward deployment of allied forces. The United States and most of its NATO allies dramatically decreased the size of their forces in Europe. Meanwhile, the sudden collapse of Soviet power, which in eastern Europe had held nationalism and instability in check for decades, allowed democratization to begin in newly independent states, but it also led to civil strife, most notably in the Balkans. NATO, then the world’s only capable multinational force, sent peacekeepers there, tipping the balance toward a political resolution of the conflict. Then, in the years after 9/11, the alliance intervened in Afghanistan, and subsequently in Libya, where it also faced challengers without the advanced military capabilities of a near-peer competitor. In other words, in the decades after the Cold War, NATO found a new raison d’être in stability operations and confronting low-end threats. It adjusted its force structure accordingly.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: SFJZ13 [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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