NATO’s “not our problem” response to the Ukraine crisis discouraged me–a perhaps too idealistic student. Currently, NATO’s political leadership touts alibis derived from legal obligations to collective defense and semantic differences between supporting and defending what seems to be a convenient, democratic identity. However, I left NATO with strong doubts about the importance of ideals in determining alliance policy. And if the debate had devolved into a “we don’t owe them collective defense” argument, it would be a deeply disturbing exemplar of the alienation of Ukraine, stemming from the tricky nature of its political context.
Politically, NATO is stuck somewhere between Weimar escalation and Chamberlain conciliation, as regards NATO-Russia relations; its internal dissensus has led NATO to settle on suspension of general cooperation and communication as an appropriate response to Russia (notably, Ukraine-related, ambassadorial-level communication is still there). In this regard, NATO has neglected an opportunity to actively address legitimate Russian concerns of NATO’s European dominance and aggressive expansion. NATO has denied an active role in redefining NATO-Russia relations. In doing so, the Ukrainian crisis persists, and complacency among otherwise seized NATO members threatens to leave the issue as unresolved as Cyprus.
SHAPE cast these concerns into the crucible of a structured approach to true problem solving, assuaging my doubts in NATO’s abilities to respond effectively to crisis. The no-nonsense approach to observing, analyzing, and understanding international relations left no room for legal excuses or marginalization rampant in the North Atlantic Council. SHAPE recognized a limited role of armed force in reaching constructive resolution to the Ukraine crisis, in large part due to Russian ‘escalation dominance.’ It further expressed solidarity with Ukraine while confounded by any means to help with armed force. SHAPE maintains NATO problem solving, even amidst a generally risk-adverse political milieu. But SHAPE is not the primary NATO decision-maker, and this inspires my concern for NATO’s future relevance.
In the coming decades, NATO will have to address increasingly complicated global issues. It cannot make proactive and constructive decisions without consensus on NATO’s political vision and mission. What does that vision look like? And how do we get there?