What is NATO For?

Since the end of the cold war, NATO has struggled to find a role. It can find it in a focus on human security.

This is the first in a series of articles on reframing the transatlantic relationship in the context of the election of Joe Biden, jointly published by Social Europe and the FES DC. 


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a geopolitical alliance. It was constructed during the cold war to counter a potential Soviet threat. NATO forces in western Europe, nuclear and conventional, anticipated and planned for a conventional Soviet attack—a Blitzkrieg across the German plains—on the model of World War II.

When the cold war ended, many hoped NATO would be replaced by a pan-European security organisation. Its basis would be the Helsinki Final Act, signed at the conclusion of the Conference on Co-operation and Security in Europe in 1975 by all the states of Europe and north America. Its principles of peace, economic and social co-operation and human rights we would nowadays encapsulate in the phrase ‘human security’.

The competing, Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact was dissolved and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) established, including Russia and the other Soviet successor states. But it has always been overshadowed by NATO, which not only remained but expanded eastwards while excluding Russia—even though, in the early years, there were efforts to include it as a partner.

Think again

Ever since, NATO has thus been searching for a role. Is its job to counter Russia, and also China, on the cold-war model? Or has it taken on new tasks, such as the ‘war on terror’ or crisis management, as in Afghanistan? Perhaps now is the moment to think again, in the context of Covid-19 and the new administration in the United States.

Could the transatlantic relationship be reoriented towards human security? What would that involve?

Human security is about the security of the individual and the community in which she or he lives. It is about security from physical violence (war, massive violations of human rights or crime) and from material threats (poverty, pandemics or environmental devastation). It is a form of security we enjoy in relatively wealthy, rights-based, law-governed societies—in times of crisis, we take it for granted that police, firefighters and health and social-care workers will be there to look after us.

The goal then is to spread such security worldwide. Instead of protecting ‘our’ borders against perceived external threats, the idea is to construct a safer world—to promote a rights-based rule of law and make available global emergency services to help with pandemics and natural disasters, as well as protecting people in cases of war or massive violations of human rights.

Dominant discourses

Human security is an alternative to the dominant discourses on security: the ‘war on terror’ and geopolitical competition. It is about protecting people rather than defeating enemies.

Over the last two decades, a largely invisible and unaccountable campaign of long-distance assassination—using drones, special forces and private security contractors—has been pursued, primarily by the US though other countries have been involved. This is the continuing ‘war on terror’, although it goes under other names. According to the last known figures, based on a classified brief, at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency US special forces were on the ground in 97 locations in at least 27 countries.

Thousands of violent, non-state actors have been killed along with thousands of civilians—whether by mistake or as ‘collateral damage’. Twenty years of the ‘war on terror’ have not however diminished the threat of ‘terrorism’. On the contrary, it has been hugely magnified: al-Qaeda and Islamic State have grown and proliferated across the world.

Moreover, the campaign totally undermines the west’s claim to uphold the rule of law and human rights. We need to find other ways to address the growing global threat of violence.

The other dominant discourse is of military competition with Russia and other repressive and illiberal states, engaged in widespread repression of political opposition or groups (such as the Uyghurs in China) and/or external provocations (as in Russia’s threats to Ukraine or China’s threats to Taiwan). But military competition does not reduce this danger either: an arms race merely provides these countries with a rationale for their actions, contributing to their paranoid perceptions of internal and external ‘threats’.

Any inter-state war would be suicidal—and the deterrent effect of that knowledge is the most we can hope for. But active military competition, in words and deeds, only makes accidents, mistakes and continued risky incursions by these rivals more likely.

Damping down conflict

So what it would mean for NATO to adopt a human-security posture rather than one based on national or bloc security, as in the cold war? Armed violence and geopolitics thrive in conflict situations. Al-Qaeda, IS and their affiliates have diffused in places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as in west and east Africa. And Syria (again), the south Caucasus or Ukraine are the locations where geopolitics plays out.

NATO could be transformed into an organisation for reducing and damping down conflict within the framework of the United Nations. It could represent the transatlantic contribution to peacekeeping. It would mean a focus on crisis management—reducing violence in the context of armed conflicts, massive violations of human rights or genocide.

A human-security approach to crisis management involves an array of diplomatic, political, economic and social tools. But there is also a role for the military in protecting people, upholding negotiated ceasefires and overseeing disarmament and demobilisation. This is more like policing, however, than classic war-fighting: protecting people comes before defeating enemies.

Of course, it might be necessary to arrest or even kill those responsible for violence, but only if this can be done without harming innocent people—‘collateral damage’ is not acceptable on a human-security mission. Dealing with violent groups would focus on policing and intelligence, as well as addressing the conditions from which violence stems.

Addressing Russia and other illiberal states would require a differentiated approach. It is important to co-operate on climate change, ending pandemics and reducing the risk of war, through agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal or extending the Strategic Arms Reduction and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaties. At the same time, serious, targeted sanctions and other measures must be taken to stop human-rights violations, while transnational links among social movements and civil society need to be fostered. This is the combination of peace, co-operation and respect for human rights enshrined in the Helsinki accords.

Opportunity for a transformation

There is an opportunity now for such a transformation. European members of NATO do already focus, for the most part, on crisis management. The European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy is primarily designed for what used to be called the ‘St Petersburg tasks’: peacekeeping, peace enforcement, crisis management and rescue.

Progressives often criticise increased European co-operation on defence because they fear the construction of a European army on the superpower model. But if we understand European defence co-operation as contributing to multilateral missions, this could be a positive development. Britain and France also have nuclear weapons and claim to be competing with Russia and China, while France is deeply mired in the ‘war on terror’, especially in west Africa. But both countries play major roles in crisis-management missions.

By contrast, the new US administration under Joe Biden is withdrawing from crisis management. Many on the left are applauding the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria, suggesting that it marks the end of ‘forever wars’. But the wars will continue and, in the case of Afghanistan, get much worse. The troops on the ground do represent a contribution to crisis management. What needs to be ended is the ‘counter-terror’ forces—and there is no indication yet that this will happen.

Overall goal

NATO has already established a human-security unit. It is supposed to undertake planning for the protection of civilians and cultural heritage and for the women, peace and security agenda and the prevention of sexual violence. But these tasks cannot be carried out in conjunction with NATO’s classic war-fighting role. They need to become the overall goal of the transatlantic alliance.

Security is central to legitimacy: we trust our institutions if we believe they keep us safe. During the cold war, the biggest threat to security was a third world war. Now we are worried about Covid-19 and climate change, illiberalism and extreme inequality. Conflicts are inextricably linked to all other global challenges.

Take the case of pandemics. Because of lack of healthcare, and because of crowded places such as refugee camps or prisons, conflicts represent transmission belts for the coronavirus. Polio was supposed to have been eliminated in 2005 but it has reappeared in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is always the risk that a new variant, resistant to vaccination, develops in conflict zones.

NATO should thus refocus on protecting people in violent situations. It would thereby contribute to the legitimacy of a broader transatlantic partnership, aimed at strengthening global governance to deal with the perils of today.


Mary Kaldor is professor emeritus of global governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a member of the national committee of Another Europe is Possible.

This article was first published on Social Europe

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