Neutral since the end of World War II, Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last month. Sweden, also neutral since the war, has applied for membership, as well, 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.

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