Neutral since the end of World War II, Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last month. Sweden, likewise neutral since the war, has also applied for membership and will likely join soon. After the Cold War, many began to wonder what the point of the alliance would be—particularly after its 2011 bombing campaign in Libya left the country in a state of anarchic civil war. In 2019, French President Emanuel Macron claimed NATO was nearing “brain death.” All that was before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, reviving the organization—as member states pledged increased spending and commitments, and Helsinki and Stockholm petitioned to join. But what exactly is this revived NATO?
Tim Sayle is an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto, the director of its International Relations Program, and the author of Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. To Sayle, the war in Ukraine has effectively brought NATO back to its original purpose—even if the original enemy has a new form: to deter and protect against incursion from Moscow. The assault on Ukraine has also renewed the alliance’s goal of preventing Russia from using its military to coerce other countries to follow its dictates. And with the additions of Finland and Sweden, NATO now appears to be the only option for European countries looking to protect themselves. But with member states increasingly focused on security concerns around China and the Asia-Pacific, Sayle says, it’s an open question what role NATO will play in defense issues beyond the borders of Europe.
Michael Bluhm: NATO had been relatively dormant since it led airstrikes on Libya in 2011. Now it’s expanding, with Finland joining and Sweden likely to, on account of the war in Ukraine. Has NATO returned to being fundamentally an anti-Russia defense system?
Timothy Sayle: I see a lot of continuity in NATO’s post–Cold War history. It was founded in 1949 as a way for the United States and its Western allies to counter the threat of Soviet encroachment into Europe. When the Cold War ended, policy-makers in NATO countries talked about the need to maintain the alliance on account of uncertainties about what post-Communist Russia would do. At the same time, Eastern European countries’ concerns about their relationship with Russia led them to look to NATO for security. Those questions across the West and into Eastern Europe explain the continuity and expansion of the alliance.
It’s had a difficult time in the post–Cold War era, in the sense that it’s been hard for its leadership to make the case outwardly for why it remains important and needs to grow. That reason has always been to hedge against Russia, which is why the invasion of Ukraine has led directly to NATO getting a major boost in public and political support, along with defense spending, across member countries.
So even though NATO has experimented with other uses or functions, it’s always been about Russia. The purpose of countering Russia is the most important function keeping the alliance alive and vital—and the key to understanding its entire 70-year history—even through times when it wasn’t talking publicly about Russia.
Bluhm: Globally, China appears a much stronger challenger to the global order than Russia. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region are moving closer to Washington for military protection against an aggressive posture from Beijing. In a strategic blueprint published last year, NATO leaders spoke extensively about the threats posed by China, though they didn’t make any specific commitments to action. But NATO and Japan confirmed in early May that NATO’s planning to open a coordination office in Japan next year. How do you NATO’s role developing in the Asia-Pacific—and in confronting China in particular?
Sayle: It’s an important question. There’s always been a push and pull within NATO about what it should be doing outside Europe. Throughout the Cold War, a lot of European states were trying to get the alliance involved in their crises of colonialism. The Americans hoped for NATO support in Vietnam, diplomatic and otherwise. So it’s very much in keeping with NATO’s history for there to be questions about what role it should play around the world.
Even though NATO has experimented with other uses or functions, it’s always been about Russia.
The U.S. is doing the most to encourage NATO allies to think about that role in the Pacific and in relation to China. Part of that is an awareness-building exercise, so the diplomats of NATO states can understand the American position in Asia and exchange views on the issue, even if NATO as such isn’t going to take any particular action there.
At the same time, NATO and China are both in the Arctic, where they’re in closer contact than you might assume. There’s worry in NATO countries, several of which are Arctic nations, that China sees itself increasingly as an Arctic power. So in the Arctic region, it’s not a question of NATO going to Asia but of China coming to NATO borders.
Bluhm: Do you think NATO might take any action in the Asia-Pacific?
Sayle: The organization has always been a forum for allies to talk about global problems. But I wouldn’t expect NATO to start taking significant positions, let alone to do military planning, in Asia. It’s very tough to get an alliance this large based in the West to see complex problems happening in Asia in the same way.
The Americans would meanwhile prefer to develop their own diplomatic arrangements and alliances for managing their interests in Asia. They don’t necessarily consider NATO to be the best way at that.
But fundamentally, NATO does play a role in U.S. calculations about the Asia-Pacific and China. Which is another example of continuity in NATO. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon was preparing his opening to China, he said that NATO, by ensuring Europe was peaceful and stable, allowed the United States to do what wanted to in relation to China.
So the two things are inseparable: Peace and stability in Europe, maintained through NATO, are extremely important for what happens elsewhere in the world. The limit would be NATO becoming an alliance that takes on global responsibilities for itself. That isn’t likely.
Bluhm: You mention the U.S. having historically viewed NATO as a pillar of stability that allowed it to do what it wanted elsewhere. But within NATO, the U.S. has long pushed European members to spend more on defense and contribute more to military missions. How do the U.S. and their European allies respectively see NATO now?
It’s very tough to get an alliance this large based in the West to see complex problems happening in Asia in the same way.
Sayle: In the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine, there were serious questions about NATO’s future—and obvious disagreement among its members on how they saw the alliance. Emanuel Macron famously said NATO was brain-dead. The U.S. was meanwhile pushing a discussion about China.
But the Russian invasion has led the allies all to focus on the need to defend against and deter Moscow from expanding its war in Europe. A British ambassador to NATO during the Cold War said that every time the organization gets into trouble, the Russians come along and save it. He was referring to the Soviet-led invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but the same thing’s happened here.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine—first when it annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region, and then in 2022 when it invaded full-scale—have saved NATO. They’ve gotten all member states to appreciate the most pressing, common danger they all face: war in Europe. All NATO countries now see the alliance back in its original form, as a means of keeping peace in Europe.
Bluhm: You mention Hungary and Czechoslovakia. After the fall of Communism, many of the Soviet Union’s former satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe joined NATO—with these countries’ top priority being to protect themselves from malign Russian influence. How do these countries view their membership in NATO now?
Sayle: NATO countries that were members of the Warsaw Pact or were even Soviet Republics, like the Baltics, see NATO today as they saw it in the 1990s: as the one way of preventing them from again being subjected to the power of Moscow. Those states are saying, This is exactly why we wanted to join NATO in the first place. This is why we thought it was important for it to expand. Whatever entity is led by Moscow, it will always seek to gain influence over our countries.
In that sense, NATO is now living up to the hope and the promise it represented in the 1990s. Membership in the organization has been a real boon for these countries. It’s allowed them to modernize and develop their armed forces. It’s been extremely important in building relationships with Western Europe and North America that have important diplomatic and, especially, economic dimensions.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have saved NATO. They’ve gotten all member states to appreciate the most pressing, common danger they all face: war in Europe.
But fundamentally, these states can now see Russian armor rolling across borders elsewhere and know that if the Russians ever threatened to do that to them, they’d be able to point to NATO and make it totally unprofitable for the Russians to do it.
In the minds of NATO’s European members, it’s first and foremost an alliance that protects them from Russian blackmail. Nobody thought that after invading Ukraine, the Russians were going to launch an invasion of Europe. But everybody worried about what the Russians had previously done to Finland and other countries, when they rolled weapons up to their borders and said, We’d really like your policy to be this. Many think that NATO was founded in the Cold War because a hot war was imminent, but it was really founded to defend against this kind of blackmail.
Bluhm: Last May, Susan Colbourn said that Finland and Sweden joining NATO could change the organization’s thinking about the Baltics and improve its work on information warfare. How do you see NATO having changed from bringing in Finland and Sweden?
Sayle: I agree with those points, and I’d add a few more. The sheer number of troops that Finland brings to the alliance is astounding. It also affects the geography of NATO. The Baltic states were always geographically highly exposed and vulnerable to Russia, but it’s a different situation with Finland and likely Sweden joining.
But the biggest impact of Finland and Sweden joining NATO is that it takes away other possibilities for a European security architecture. As long as those two countries were outside NATO, they could be champions and symbols of a different way to achieve security for Europe.
Since the end of the Cold War, many have asked, Are there alternatives to NATO? Could the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe be strengthened? What role does neutrality have in shaping European security possibilities? The Finnish and Swedish applications mean that NATO is the only security game in town.
In the global discussion about the idea of a new Cold War, this is a significant point. Two states that had avoided formal alliances during the original Cold War have now put their flags with NATO in this new iteration.
In the minds of NATO’s European members, it’s first and foremost an alliance that protects them from Russian blackmail.
Bluhm: Last March, you said you were surprised by how much the global political dynamic after the invasion of Ukraine resembled the dynamic of the Cold War. With more than a year passed, and the war still ferocious, how do you see this dynamic today?
Sayle: My thoughts have changed somewhat, though I’d still use a lot of the same words. Something striking now is how many countries want to remain aloof from the war—not taking sides and not critiquing Russian aggression. That harkens back to the Cold War with the Non-Aligned Movement and the states who didn’t align themselves with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact. It’s remarkable to me that, even a year later, such a large ratio of the world doesn’t see this conflict in the black-and-white terms that both the Russians and the West portray it in.
Another big question that remains is how China’s place in the world relates to this conflict, and how the conflict relates to tensions between the United States and China. China clearly supports Russia.
There’ve been reports of the Chinese sending them artillery shells, but there’ve also been reports of the Chinese indicating to them that the use of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable. So the relationship between the two countries seems extremely important to the future course of the war. Potentially, Beijing could have a significant role as a peacemaker.
But the other side of the question is how the war is affecting China’s thinking about a possible conflict over Taiwan. But there’s a lot of debate about this. Many Western Europeans and Americans argue that they have to continue to support the Ukrainians and ensure their victory, or else the Chinese will get the impression that Taiwan is theirs for the taking. But some are making the opposite argument—that the weapons going from Europe and North America to Ukraine are stripping the U.S. of its ability to ensure military support for Taiwan, so supporting Ukraine is weakening the American and Taiwanese positions against China.
So there’s a tremendously important connection in the minds of many around the world between Ukraine and Taiwan—but also a tremendously stark contrast in their interpretations of what that connection is.