Out of Area Ops Are Out: Reassessing the NATO Mission


On July 8, leaders from NATO member states will descend upon Warsaw for one of the alliance’s most anticipated summit meetings in the post-Cold War era. After months of planning, negotiation, and speculation, the alliance is set to formalize plans to bolster its force posture in Eastern Europe in response to Russian provocation. By focusing on those specific initiatives, however, the Warsaw summit will in all likelihood constitute a wasted opportunity for leaders to conduct a fundamental reassessment of NATO’s mission, as well as roles and responsibilities of the allies.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has dramatically demonstrated that Russia still poses a significant threat to NATO—particularly the newest members of the alliance in Eastern Europe. In light of that resurgent threat, it is imperative to reconsider whether NATO can really afford to devote scarce resources toward preparing for and conducting “out of area” operations rather than focusing on territorial defense. That is the fundamental question that allied leaders should discuss in Warsaw.

In Search of Monsters

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, NATO experienced a minor identity crisis. Since the Western military alliance had coalesced primarily to deter and defend against the perceived threat posed by the Red Army, NATO’s raison d’être had essentially collapsed along with the Soviet Union. But despite predictions that “NATO [was] a disappearing thing,” allied political leaders gave little serious consideration to folding up NATO’s tent. Because the alliance had accumulated an array of general institutional assets (an integrated military command, a well-developed range of committees and consultation procedures, a robust logistics infrastructure, etc.), which could be adapted to address new security challenges, allied capitals perceived substantial value in its preservation.

NATO clearly required a new mission, however. By the mid-1990s a consensus had emerged that the alliance needed “to go out of area or out of business.” There was no question of going out of business, so NATO ventured outward. Primarily to foster stability and development of democratic institutions within the former Soviet sphere, the alliance extended its reach by incorporating 12 new members (going on 13) in Central and Eastern Europe. And perhaps more significantly, NATO embarked on a series of military operations beyond the territory of its member states.

Of course, many of the military assets that NATO allies had developed during the Cold War in order to defend against a potential Soviet attack were inappropriate for expeditionary military operations. Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, the United States consequently pressured its European allies to build greater capacity for projecting military force abroad. As one Bush administration official argued in 2002: ”There are no more threats to NATO from within Europe, but from a nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.  NATO needs an expeditionary force, a strike force, that can move fast.”

Although European allies have responded, to some extent, to those exhortations, the return on those investments has been disappointing. NATO’s intervention in the Balkans did succeed in quelling the intense conflict that plagued the region throughout the 1990s. Yet that success may have encouraged the alliance to overreach. For NATO’s forays into the greater Middle East have failed to foster any semblance of stability in that volatile region—and they have exposed persistent shortcomings within the alliance.

The United States has shouldered overwhelming responsibility for operations in Afghanistan. With the exception of Great Britain and in some cases France, European allies remained either unwilling or unable to deploy any substantial troop contingents. And much to the Pentagon’s frustration, the utility of the troops that European allies did deploy was severely limited by an array of national caveats restricting where and how those forces could be employed. Even in Libya, where Britain and France assumed primary responsibility for conducting NATO airstrikes, the European allies still depended on the United States to provide crucial air-to-air refueling and aerial reconnaissance capabilities.

NATO has failed to transform itself into a robust power projection force. That failure is particularly troubling since allied efforts to build greater capacity for out-of-area operations has entailed significant opportunity costs. Because European allies have devoted little funding to defense throughout the post-Cold War period, investments to build expeditionary capacity have inevitably entailed serious neglect of traditional territorial defense capabilities.

For instance, Germany’s fleet of Leopard 2 main battle tanks has declined from 2,020 in 1990 to only 306 in 2015. Over that same period, the British and French tank fleets have each also shrunk from over 1,300 to about 200.

Moreover, NATO has almost surely heightened Russian insecurity by going out-of-area. Through three rounds of enlargement, NATO has sought to assure the Kremlin that it remains a defensive alliance, which poses no threat to Russia. By conducting offensive military campaigns in Kosovo and Libya, however, the alliance has seriously undermined those assurances. Given that the alliance has orchestrated the demise of both Slobodan Milosevic and Muammar Qaddafi, it is unsurprising that Russian officials has grown increasingly wary of NATO’s encroachment to Russia’s border.

In retrospect, NATO’s decision to venture beyond Europe appears to have been a major mistake. The alliance has failed to foster stability in either Afghanistan or Libya. Going out-of-area has clearly antagonized Russia. Yet because NATO has focused so intently on improving its capacity for external operations, its ability to defend against Russian aggression has atrophied significantly.

The Pendulum Swings Back

In 2014, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea demonstrated that the threat of Russian aggression had not evaporated following the Cold War, as many Western officials had come to believe. The Ukrainian crisis also highlighted the fact that NATO had devoted little attention (and fewer resources) to the potential defense of its new members in Eastern Europe—particularly the Baltic states on Russia’s border. Over the past two years, NATO has consequently refocused on strengthening its ability to deter and defend against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

Toward that end, the Obama administration launched the European Reassurance Initiative in 2014. After allocating $1 billion to the initiative in 2015 and $800 million in 2016, the United States is devoting an additional $3.4 billion in 2017 to fund increased multilateral military exercises, upgrades to military infrastructure, prepositioning military equipment, and maintaining a rotational armored combat brigade in Eastern Europe. Just as importantly, the NATO summit in Warsaw will mark the occasion upon which the allies formalize additional measures to bolster deterrence in Eastern Europe—most notably, by rotating four multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

The realization that Russia poses an ongoing threat to NATO’s frontier states should prompt the alliance to do more than simply shuffle troops and equipment to Eastern Europe, however. For the reemergence of the Russian menace calls into question the fundamental purpose of the alliance. Is it to ensure the collective security of its member states? Or is to project force outside of Europe to address more distant threats and stabilize more volatile regions?

Unfortunately, NATO appears determined to avoid facing up to those questions. The NATO Summit Guide explicitly asserts that “To safeguard security at home, NATO must also project stability beyond its borders.” In other words, the alliance remains intent upon doing it all—defending Europe and stabilizing the near (and sometimes not-so-near) abroad.

However, the U.S. European allies have neither the will nor the wherewithal to do it all. Since most allies devote less than 2 percent of GDP to defense, they simply cannot afford to field robust forces for both territorial defense and expeditionary missions. In other words, building up Europe’s capacity to defend its Eastern frontiers will necessarily entail the degradation of its ability (and inclination) to project and sustain force outside the continent. Given that reality, it would make sense for the alliance to abandon its crusade to export stability.

Unfortunately, the United States represents the primary obstacle to any such retrenchment. The White House cherishes its ability to endow military ventures with greater legitimacy by invoking NATO participation, even if its allies bring little military power to the table. Yet relinquishing that privilege may prove beneficial to the United States. By rendering the White House more circumspect about intervening abroad, NATO’s retrenchment could dissuade the United States from embarking on counter-productive operations, such as the war in Libya. After all, it seems likely that the Obama administration would have intervened in the Syrian civil war if the British House of Commons had not voted against participating in such an operation. Sometimes not being able to call on allies is an invaluable force for restraint.

In the 1990s, NATO’s decision to go out-of-area was entirely reasonable. With the apparent disappearance of the Soviet menace, Western leaders’ compulsion to endow the alliance with a new mission for a new era made sense. But now that it is clear that the threat of Russian aggression had not disappeared but merely gone into hibernation, it would be foolish to persist in pursuing NATO’s new mission to project stability abroad. The alliance does not need that mission to justify its continued existence. And it cannot afford to allow external operations to divert attention and resources from its core mission—to ensure the security and territorial integrity of its member states.


Brad Stapleton is a Visiting Research Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. He is an expert in transatlantic security and processes of strategic adjustment. His current research agenda focuses on how military quagmires influence states’ subsequent decisions regarding the use of military force.

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