NATO after Riga

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many predicted the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet a few weeks ago, NATO held its summit meeting in the Latvian capital of Riga, formerly part of the USSR.

NATO was created in 1949 as an alliance to contain Soviet power. Its focus was on Western Europe, and, as one joke went, it was designed to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. But that Cold War world is long gone. Germany is a democracy firmly anchored in the European Union, and there is no threat of Soviet tanks sweeping across the North German plains.

NATO survived by transforming itself. While some Central European members that were formerly occupied by the USSR continue to see NATO as a political insurance policy against a revival of Russian ambitions, NATO is no longer aimed against Russia. In fact, Russian officers are welcome to participate in military exercises and to visit NATO headquarters under the Partnership for Peace program. Residual suspicions and Russian pride limit the NATO-Russia agreement, but the organization is no longer focused on Russia.

One major task that NATO performed in the first decade after the Cold War was to attract the newly freed countries of Central Europe toward the West, with the prospect of membership conditioned on meeting democratic standards. Another important task was to help bring stability to the troubled Balkan region after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resultant wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO peacekeeping operations have been a stabilizing factor in the region. For example, NATO and EU diplomacy prevented ethnic conflict in Macedonia from erupting into a crisis.