September 11, 2001
NATO’s strategic concept from 1991 was updated in 1999. The purely military threats were further toned down, while other security threats, such as economic and political, were given a more prominent place.
But the terrorist attacks that shook the United States on September 11, 2001, also affected NATO. This was underlined by the fact that, for the first time in its history, on 12 September 2001, NATO invoked the so-called Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which provides for mutual assistance in the event of an attack on a Member State.
There were two somewhat paradoxical aspects of this situation. First, NATO had lived for more than 50 years in the notion that if Article 5 were ever invoked, it would be the United States that came to the rescue of the weaker Western European NATO countries in an attack from the east. Now it was instead the Western European allies and Canada who in this way declared their solidarity with the attacked United States. Secondly, NATO as such was completely unprepared to actually take action against the strategic terrorist attack on the United States carried out by the al-Qaeda network and its leader, Osama bin Laden. On the one hand, there was very limited preparedness in the fight against terrorism, and on the other hand, there was simply no goal to strike. NATO countries, like all other states, had become accustomed to defining threats in terms of other states,
US war in Afghanistan
From the beginning, the United States gratefully accepted help from NATO countries. For example, NATO lent its fleet of air surveillance aircraft (Awacs) to the United States, whose own resources were then deployed elsewhere, and offered US aircraft free access to airspace and airfields within the alliance.
The United States soon came to define the fight against al-Qaeda as the fight against the terrorist network’s bases in Afghanistan, which since the early 1990’s has been ruled by the fundamentalist, Islamist Taliban regime. Less than a month later, after significant diplomatic work, the United States was given a mandate by the UN Security Council to take military action in Afghanistan to either persuade the Taliban regime to extradite al-Qaeda terrorists or, if not, to overthrow the Taliban. As the Taliban rejected US demands, military operations against Afghanistan began in October 2001, leading to the fall of the Taliban regime just over a month later.
When the Taliban driven from power was established with UN support a new provisional government in Afghanistan, and it was supported by an international security force ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). Here, NATO received its first major mission outside the European continent, when it took over command and responsibility for ISAF in August 2003 (see Peacekeeping Operations).
The Iraq war tempts cohesion
The US war on terrorism continued in the attack on Iraq launched by a US-led alliance in the spring of 2003. The aim was to oust President Saddam Hussein and “disarm” Iraq, that is, to find and destroy the weapons of mass destruction alleged in country in violation of UN resolutions.
NATO as an organization did not participate in the war, but it meant a serious strain on the cohesion within the alliance. Like the EU, NATO was deeply divided over the attack on Iraq. About half of the NATO and EU countries supported the offensive plans, and Britain and Poland contributed troops. The other half – under mainly French and German leadership – were completely opposed.
In addition, solidarity within the alliance was questioned. Turkey relied on Article 4 of the NATO Charter, which deals with consultations within the Alliance in the event of external threats. Turkey requested that NATO initiate some planning work in the event that Iraq retaliates against a US attack with a counterattack against Turkey.
Belgium, France and Germany vetoed this request, which could be interpreted as meaning that some NATO allies did not want to join another Allied country’s defense when it felt threatened. This was considered by many to be in conflict with the whole core of NATO, the mutual defense guarantees. The motive for the three countries to veto was that they did not want to see a war against Iraq as inevitable.
The conflict was resolved in less than a week by a decision to start planning for a possible protection of Turkey by another NATO body, the Defense Planning Committee – which did not include France. This decision was taken with the good memory of France, as it began to realize how destructive the alliance would be if Turkey’s request was not granted.
Another operation that split the alliance was the operation in Libya in 2011 when a NATO-led alliance carried out airstrikes to protect the civilian population during an uprising against the country’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi (see Peacekeeping Operations).
The differences between the countries’ defense spending have been a constant issue within NATO. The United States has demanded a more equal “distribution of burdens”. Member States have to some extent been able to bridge the contradictions, but the debate has flared up on a regular basis. Recently, the question has been raised when US President Donald Trump threatened to condition the security guarantees on only those countries that “fulfilled their financial obligations” to the United States.
The outcome can be seen in the light of the fact that during the period 2001 to 2011, the United States increased its defense spending by just over 82 per cent, while the European NATO countries decreased theirs by 5.7 per cent in real terms. With the financial crisis in 2008 and its continuation in 2011, the trend intensified.
In light of this and the deteriorating security situation in Europe, the NATO countries decided in 2014 to recommend their member states to pay two percent of their GDP to their defense forces. The goal was for the two percent to be achieved over a ten-year period. Apart from the United States, only four other NATO states actually paid at least two percent. In 2018, the number of allies who managed two percent had risen to a total of eight as Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania qualified in the same category as the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece and the United States. But at a summit in 2018, President Trump on his own raised the bid to three percent – and then to four percent, which means a greater commitment than the United States’ own (the United States spends about 3.6 percent of its GDP on defense).