70 Years of NATO Review

Monitoring Desk

In 2022, we celebrate 70 years of NATO Review (formerly NATO Letter). Over the past seven decades, NATO Review has been offering expert opinion and analysis on a wide range of Euro-Atlantic security issues in articles that have sometimes been reflective, sometimes predictive, but always at the front line of debate. To commemorate this long legacy, over the course of 2022 we will be re-publishing a selection of NATO Review articles from throughout the history of the magazine.


Looking back on 70 years of discussion and analysis in NATO Review gives us the opportunity to reflect on how our political and military Alliance has evolved across the decades. It also highlights the rock-solid foundation of NATO that hasn’t changed: the transatlantic bond at the heart of the Organization; the unity of the Alliance despite our differences; and our solemn vow to defend each other against any threat.


This article, written by former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson at the end of his tenure in 2003, reflects on his four years at the helm. He oversaw one of the most turbulent periods in NATO’s history. The Cold War had ended. The troops were going home. Without the ever-present threat of Soviet invasion, Allies were rapidly demobilising their forces – eager to spend the ‘peace dividend’ on social programmes for their citizens at home, rather than on armed forces stationed abroad. Doomsayers were – as always – foretelling the imminent disintegration of the Alliance. The Warsaw Pact had been relegated to the ash heap of history, and, according to them, NATO was about to go the same way.


But on 11 September 2001, a new threat shattered the Alliance’s hard-won peace. The day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time in its history. In the following weeks, the Alliance launched its first ever anti-terrorism operation, pushing itself to increase its capabilities and technologies to meet the global threat of terrorism head-on. In the following years, NATO continued to welcome new member countries, helping further coordinate the Alliance’s counter-terrorism efforts and building the resilience of their societies.


If you’ve been reading this series of republished articles chronologically, you may have noticed a main theme in all of the previous entries: that things were not so different, “way back when”. This article provides a valuable counterpoint. When this piece was published, NATO was embarking on a new and optimistic partnership with Russia via the NATO-Russia Council – a positive relationship built on a “common cause in peacetime”. Some elements of this article – including its sheer hopefulness – are difficult to read, knowing what we know now. But it represents a specific and important perspective on NATO at the time, and that is the ultimate purpose of this series. Twenty years later, we live in a very different world. It may be harder to be optimistic, but if there is one aspect of this article that fits the series theme, it’s this: the doomsayers will keep saying “doom”. NATO Allies will keep banding together and proving them wrong, adapting the Alliance to face the challenges of this generation and the next.




In 1949, the Washington Treaty on which the Atlantic Alliance is based, was being written. The authors’ aim was for the language to be as clear and concise as possible. Most writers claim this. Few deliver. This time, however, one of the authors had a benchmark. The Treaty should be written so that it could be understood by a milkman from Omaha.


That Nebraskan dairyman turned out to be an excellent target audience. The Washington Treaty is a model of clarity and brevity. Better still, it has survived half a century of extraordinary change, and the efforts of experts to deconstruct or reinterpret it, in excellent shape. It proved its enduring relevance on 12 September 2001 when Article 5, the collective-defence clause designed to protect Europe from the Soviet Union, was invoked to help the United States respond to the new and evil scourge of mass terror.


But what about the Omaha milkman? How would the Alliance’s original target audience react to the new NATO, 54 years on? What would he understand? Or, indeed, fail completely to comprehend?


First of all, the milkman would probably be surprised to find that the Alliance was still in business. Based on his own experience, he would have expected the Americans to go home and the Europeans to fall out. Neither has happened.


More recently, historians told us that alliances between free nations do not survive the disappearance of the threat that brought them together. NATO disproved that argument. The Warsaw Pact disintegrated but NATO retooled. It retooled first to help spread security and stability Eastwards across Europe, then to use its unique multinational military capabilities to bring peace to Europe’s bloody and chaotic Balkan backyard, and now to confront the new threats of our post-9/11 world.


New challenges, new NATO

The challenges have changed. So has NATO. The Omaha milkman would understand and approve. He would look at the mathematics. Twelve members in 1949, nineteen today and twenty-six next year gives a clear message of success. He might, however, wonder what had happened to the old adversary, the Soviet Union. Here, however, his perspective would be different from ours. Only four years after the end of the common struggle against fascism, and with the Iron Curtain only beginning to fall across Europe, he might not be that surprised to hear that we were once again partners with Russia.


But for those of us who are children of the Cold War, the journey from the shadow of mutual extinction to a NATO-Russia Council in which Russia sits as an equal with 19 NATO members to deal with the common threats of the 21st century, is nothing less than epic. Many of our young people are only hazily aware of the details. For them, the Cold War is almost as remote as the Great War, a different world, barely relevant and hard to understand. Yet when you explain to them what was done and why, they are enthralled. This is because this journey, from 40 years of ideological hostility and head-to-head global military confrontation, to a working partnership and real cooperation, is one of the main platforms on which their very different world is based.


We still have our differences with Russia. But they are the stuff of politics and diplomacy, not mutually assured destruction. We must therefore do more to explain all of this to a new generation so that the NATO-Russia Council and other mechanisms for cooperation get the credit and support they deserve.


The same applies to NATO’s other partnerships, with Ukraine, and with new democracies and old neutrals in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and Partnership for Peace. Never before have 46 countries, as diverse as the 19 NATO members, Russia, Ireland and Switzerland, the Baltic Republics, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, made common cause in peacetime. That they do so on the basis of our common values, and that their partnership extends beyond political jaw-jaw to practical military cooperation, against terrorism and on the ground in NATO-led missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, is another extraordinary but too little known achievement.


As the name says, this really is a partnership for peace. More than that, it is the world’s largest permanent coalition, which works through and because of NATO. This is another clear and concise message that the milkman would understand and endorse.


Nonetheless, some critics argue that the real comparison is not with the NATO of 1949 but with the NATO of 1989, before the Berlin Wall fell, or the NATO of 1999, before al Qaida struck the Twin Towers. NATO may have done a decent job in those days but what added value does the Alliance have today? Is it anything more than a political talking shop?


To begin with, no one should disparage talking shops. Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war. And ours is jaw-jaw of the highest quality. Frank and open debate within a close but diverse family. At their December 2003 meetings, Alliance defence and foreign ministers tackled the most difficult current issues head-on: Afghanistan; European defence; and Iraq. We made progress in every area because NATO is the tried and tested forum for debate, decision and then action.


Alliance transformation

More importantly, in the past two years, NATO has been truly transformed. The initial impulse came from 9/11 but the process rapidly became much deeper and much wider


During 2001 and 2002, NATO sent AWACS aircraft across the Atlantic to help protect US cities, reversing the expectations on which the Washington Treaty had been based. We ditched a decade of sterile argument about whether NATO could operate out of area by agreeing that threats would be met from wherever they might come. We created the NATO-Russia Council. Then the Prague Summit began to pull the Allies towards even more radical change. An enlargement summit became a transformation summit.


Prague was so important a watershed because it encompassed transformation across the whole spectrum of Alliance business. This extended from new members and new partnerships with the European Union and Russia through new capabilities and new missions to the most radical reform ever of the Alliance’s internal processes and structures.


The decision to admit seven new members, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, was highly symbolic. Yet it was also eminently practical. All of the new Allies will add value to our collective security. Sceptics need only look at the ceremony to stand up NATO’s first multinational chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence battalion in early December. This new battalion, which is a key capability in today’s military armoury, is being led not by a traditional NATO heavyweight but by the Czech Republic, one of the first wave of new members, now self-confident and capable enough to take the lead in one of our most important projects. Another Ally to have joined in 1999, Poland, is now leading a multinational stabilisation division in Iraq.


The CBRN battalion was just one of the many military capability improvements that we were able to generate at Prague. Some, like the cutting-edge NATO Response Force and the new command structure, were the fruit of national thinking. Others, especially the Prague Capabilities Commitments, needed additional input from NATO’s International Staff and my own interventions around, behind and under the North Atlantic Council table.


The overall result was a major package of military transformations, more far-reaching than past initiatives, and underpinned by the strongest possible commitments by presidents and prime ministers that their governments would deliver. At the heart of these decisions was the new Allied Command Transformation. This is NATO’s motor for continued change and a vehicle for ensuring the future compatibility of European and US armed forces.


NATO is the tried and tested forum for debate, decision and then action


The Prague Summit did not close the transatlantic capabilities gap about which I have made myself such a pest in so many capitals. But the gap is narrowing. European governments really are transforming their forces. And Allied Command Transformation now provides the carrot of compatibility to add to the stick of marginalisation.


Compared to the delivery of new strategic airlift aircraft, air tankers, precision weapons and the like, overhauling the Alliance’s internal processes may seem mundane. It is not. NATO Headquarters in Brussels is the Alliance’s heart, brain and central nervous system. It is the forum for political and strategic planning and discussion, consensus-building, decision-making, public and private diplomacy. The Headquarters has worked with 19 members because hard-pressed civilian and military staffs are committed to the organisation and have been able to stretch a small civil budget to make do. Every person working in NATO Headquarters, military and civilian, shares the credit for what this great Alliance has achieved. However, with 26 members and major new responsibilities, but no new money, it was a case of change or collapse.


In the run-up to the Prague Summit, I therefore persuaded the nations to accept the most radical internal change agenda in NATO’s history. We fundamentally restructured the International Staff to reflect the outputs of 2003, not the Cold War. We streamlined the Committee Structure and the decision-making process. We gave the post of Secretary General new delegated powers to manage the organisation effectively. We introduced objective-based budgeting and new, fairer and performance-related employment conditions for civilian staff. Now we are examining decision-making processes in capitals and in NATO from end to end. Most important of all, we demonstrated to the sceptics that NATO as an institution could change, could change itself, and could change quickly and for the better.


The Alliance became the focal point for developing military capabilities to deal with the threats posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Our new Czech-led CBRN battalion is just one example. Cooperation with Partners on terrorism and with Russia on theatre missile defence are others. All of the Prague improvements in focused military muscle, turning NATO from a sumo wrestler to a fencer, would of course be for nothing if they were to remain on training grounds rather than in crisis zones. So the most important of all the Prague transformations was NATO’s adoption of new missions.


Impact of Iraq

In early 2003, when the international community and every other multilateral institution were split and paralysed over Iraq, NATO was able both to agree and to act. It did take us 11 difficult days to meet our Washington Treaty commitments and reinforce Turkey. But we did so when others failed. Indeed, some people will recall that it took NATO longer still to reach a similar decision in politically less difficult circumstances at the time of the first Gulf War.


Moreover, in building agreement, we confounded the critics who said that this crisis would shatter NATO’s cohesion forever. Only weeks later, our supposedly crippled Alliance took two previously unthinkable decisions: first, to take over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul; then to provide support to Poland in setting up a multinational stabilisation division in Iraq.


I have seen very few attempts to analyse how and why NATO went so quickly from the brink of going out of business to agreement to go out of area instead. In part, I think the reason was that nations peered into the abyss of a world without the transatlantic alliance, and recoiled. But I also sense that too many people underestimated the deep consensus that exists across Europe and the Atlantic on post-9/11 threats and how to deal with them. NATO’s Prague Summit statement and the European Union’s new security strategy do not reflect divergent worldviews.


Of course there were – and still are – differences inside Europe and across the Atlantic on Iraq. But the differences were about how to handle Saddam Hussein in 2003. They were not on the big picture of the global and continuing threats from apocalyptic mass terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and failed or rogue states. If the differences had been as fundamental as the pessimists believed, NATO would not today be in Kabul and preparing to move beyond of the Afghan capital. Nor would it be supporting Poland in Iraq, and discussing calmly a potentially larger role in 2004.


Prague has set in train a genuine and profound transformation, one that is already firmly embedded in the Alliance’s culture and being implemented on the ground from Kosovo to Kabul. The Omaha milkman would, I am certain, understand and approve. But he might still have one or two questions to ask. How, for example, will an Alliance created to defend Cold War Europe fare beyond the Hindu Kush?


The answer is that NATO will succeed because it has no alternative. All of its members understand and agree that if we do not go to Afghanistan, and succeed in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and its problems will come to us. Worse still, we would have to deal with the terrorists, the refugees and the drug traffickers with a much weaker international security structure because NATO would have been severely damaged and the concept of multinational security cooperation, whether in NATO, the European Union, the United Nations or coalitions, would have been dealt an equally heavy blow.


I am, however, optimistic, firstly because NATO has an unbroken record of success. Second, because nations have woken up to the need for more usable and more deployable forces for operations of this kind, and are beginning to do something about it. My efforts in the autumn of 2003 to provide helicopters and intelligence teams for ISAF were well reported in the newspapers. There were fewer reports of our success in December in meeting the requirement – exceeding it in some respects. The mood has changed. I hope that next year we will be able to change the process as well so that my successor, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, can spend less time than I have been obliged to on persuading nations to make the necessary forces available.


My third reason for optimism is NATO’s record in the Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* are no longer in the headlines because NATO acted, and because NATO learned lessons and put them into practice. We helped stop civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We acted to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. We intervened to prevent a civil war in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* In each successive crisis, our involvement came at an earlier stage and was therefore increasingly effective in saving lives and preventing overspill. And we were prepared to stay the course.


During December’s ministerial meetings, the foreign ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro sat side by side to my right at a working lunch of the EAPC countries. They are not NATO Partners yet, but only eight years after the Srebrenica massacre, they are well on the way towards Europe’s mainstream. Most extraordinary of all, the strongest voice raised among the existing Partners in favour of their early membership was that of Croatia. If NATO can succeed so spectacularly in the Balkans, the great challenge of the 1990s, we can succeed in Afghanistan today.


European defence

A final question from the milkman might be: what is this row about European defence all about? Will the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) really damage NATO?


My answer is an emphatic no. I have been as robust as anyone in my opposition to unnecessary duplication between NATO and the European Union. We need more capabilities, not paper armies and wiring diagrams connected neither to soldiers nor to reality. But that does not mean I do not welcome a stronger European security and defence role, including the ability to conduct autonomous EU missions where NATO decides to stand aside and the arcane but essential “Berlin-Plus” arrangements prove inappropriate.


I therefore welcome the agreement reached recently among the EU members on strengthening ESDP because it involves no unnecessary duplication. I am also reassured by the commitments to a strong Atlantic alliance, and to complementarity between NATO and the European Union, being made on all sides of the debate not least because governments know that genuine institutional duplication and competition would cost much more to produce much less. No government likes that kind of deal.


My message is therefore that everyone should take the long view. Put proposals to the acid test of whether they deliver real capabilities, real added value, but do not turn a Euro-drama into an Atlantic crisis. NATO and the European Union both have more than enough to do without a new round of theological nit-picking.


The intricacies of European defence apart, I suggest that the 1949 milkman from Omaha, and his European equivalents from Oslo to Oporto, Oban to Oberammergau, would come quite easily to understand and applaud the new NATO. Our world is not his. But his NATO is our NATO, transformed to deal with a new generation of threats yet based firmly on the same shared transatlantic history, culture, values and interests. It was not then, nor is it now, an alliance marked by homogeneity. Diversity is a strength, not a weakness. We do disagree. We will disagree. But in NATO – and now with Partners and with Russia – we work out our differences and move on, together. On 1 January, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer takes over the reins. Those who know him well already know his mettle. Those who do not will soon learn. The face at the top will change but it will be the same transformed NATO.


As Secretary General, I have seen the successes of our new NATO in the villages of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* where the children can now look forward to peace and prospects, not war and exile, because of the commitment of half a million or more NATO soldiers who have served in the Balkans since the mid-1990s. I have seen the final divisions and stereotypes of the Cold War smashed around the new NATO-Russia Council table in Rome, and by NATO’s largest ever enlargement at the Prague Summit.


I saw what the terrorists could do in the rubble of the Twin Towers and then how NATO could retool to help defeat them. I saw Alliance troops bringing hope to the streets of Kabul, a continent and a half away from the old Iron Curtain. Most of all, I have seen a transformed Alliance doing what it has done best since 1949: delivering safety and security where it matters and when it matters. This is a simple message that everyone should understand and welcome.


What is published in NATO Review does not constitute the official position or policy of NATO or member governments.

NATO Review seeks to inform and promote debate on security issues. The views expressed by authors are their own.

Courtesy: (nato.int)