Is NATO up to the Task?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bears a striking resemblance to a giant tanker navigating the high seas - changing the course of such a unit happens very slowly. This analogy gains particular relevance in light of NATO’s response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, a reaction that unfolded with a deliberateness that left Poland and the Baltic States awaiting a swifter action. Dariusz Rostkowski explores this dynamic in conversation with Łukasz Kulesa, Deputy Head of the Office of Research and Analysis at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, delving into the strategic calculus that governs NATO’s responses to emerging geopolitical challenges.

Dariusz Rostkowski: What is NATO for?

Łukasz Kulesa: The North Atlantic Treaty is the main pillar of security for Poland. It protects us from military threats and armed aggression. In these words, it was put in the Washington Treaty, signed on April 4, 1949. And it remains so to this day.

Within NATO, the main driving force is the United States, with its military, political, and economic power. But the strength of the pact also lies in the fact that it groups many countries. Currently, we are in the process of admitting Sweden to NATO. The last country to fully join the alliance was Finland, and this happened in April 2023. So the current situation is that we have 31 countries, led by the United States. All of them, in accordance with the famous Article 5, are bound by the same legal obligations to provide assistance in the event of an armed attack. At the same time, it is worth adding that these countries have committed themselves to coordinating the development of their armed forces and preparing for action in times of crisis or war.

Looking at what is happening across our eastern border, in Ukraine, it seems a valid question whether Poland would still exist if it wasn’t for NATO?

This is a question from the so-called alternative history. Certainly, if Poland had not joined NATO in 1999, it would have found itself on the grey side of security and probably would have had to ensure peace on its own, which would be very difficult. Certainly, we would have sought other formats of cooperation and other alliances. The example of Ukraine, but also Moldova and Georgia, shows that staying outside NATO in a situation where there is such an aggressive neighbor as Russia directly across the fence, can end tragically. I don’t want to draw far-reaching conclusions, like that war with Russia would be inevitable without NATO membership, but I am convinced that our membership significantly reduced such danger. It also stabilized the situation of other countries that managed to join NATO. After years, we see how important the decision to join the alliance was, and in a broader sense, the tie with the West, including joining the European Union. Both of these organizations are very much needed!

Speaking about NATO, it’s important to remember how much this organization relies on the military power of the United States. The Americans have the most powerful military in the world and allocate the largest funds for armaments. And all of this works when an American president, like Joe Biden, pursues a pro-Western policy. But when someone like Donald Trump appears, who threatens to pull the USA out of NATO, questions arise: isn’t it too risky when the world’s largest military alliance is, in fact, an extension of the USA? After all, NATO’s actions are a derivative of American foreign policy…

One could say that the dominant role of the United States in the alliance is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the USA was able to effectively defend Europe from the Soviet threat, as well as… the German one. The latter is often forgotten, but just after World War II, the first NATO Secretary General – British Hastings Lionel Ismay summarized the essence of the alliance’s existence: “to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The issues of the re-militarization of Germany and its participation in the collective defense pact were very controversial at the time, not only in the propaganda that feared German militarism in the communist bloc but also in the West. In countries like France or Great Britain, there were serious concerns whether or no this posed a spark for future war. However, relations between member states and Germany within NATO were successfully managed, including joint planning, joint military preparation for defense against threats, etc. The potential of Germany, initially a cause for concern, strengthened the pact and proved to be key during the so-called Cold War.

NATO also served to control and reduce tensions between countries like Greece and Turkey – strategically important, remaining in good relations with the West but historically conflicted. Both countries were admitted to the North Atlantic Pact in 1952 simultaneously.

We recommend: Neo-Ottomanism and modern Turkey. A republic looking to the past

Yes, but these arguments partly confirm the thesis that the alliance’s actions are an extension of the influence of the United States. By “arranging” the pact, Americans ensured themselves peace, eliminating hotspots on the world map.

Indeed, this aspect of the alliance’s operation is perceived by some ambiguously, even negatively. Here we come to the second element, the “curse” of the USA’s dominant position. Americans argue that they, through nuclear deterrence, ensure security, and the other NATO members are somewhat “free riders,” not contributing sufficiently to the common budget. This discussion has been ongoing since the Cold War. Efforts are being made to change these very unfavorable proportions of expenditure and resources. Of course, the United States contributes the most to the budget and politically is the most important player in the alliance. But under the treaty from 1949, the organization operates on the principle of equality and unanimity of all members, and it’s not the case that if the Americans “bang on the table,” everything happens according to their will. They have to take into account the other countries.

Theoretically, the voice of Albania, North Macedonia, or Iceland is equal to that of the USA.

Yes. International law applies. Of course, the American side raises issues of bearing huge expenses – about 3.5% of GDP, or over 800 billion dollars. That’s more than half of what the rest of the NATO countries spend on defense combined. During Donald Trump’s presidency, there were ideas of leaving the pact. But on the other hand, it should be remembered that in the USA, a clearly pro-NATO stance has been maintained for many years. The political elites understood that membership in the alliance brings many real benefits and is essentially an action to strengthen their own potential. Donald Trump was the first president to put the matter on the edge, using populist arguments that other countries owe the USA money because they do not contribute sufficiently to the common budget. He concluded that other members should either increase their defense spending or the United States would reconsider its continued participation in the alliance.  To some extent, this worked: some of the other member states reflected and recognized that they were spending at a scandalously low level and this situation could not be maintained for long.

Which countries pay the least?

Proportionally, countries like Italy or Spain spend little on defense – around 1.3-1.5% of their GDP. Germany exceeds 1.6% of GDP. On the other hand, at the top of this list is Poland, with about 4.2% of GDP. Thus, we not only meet but also exceed our obligations.

Why do others pay relatively little?

Some states openly say that they cannot afford a sudden increase in spending on “not their own” defense – because they are not directly threatened. Others treat these expenditures as a kind of voluntary favor towards the rest of the states, thus doing only what is necessary. Most, of course, see the deteriorating security situation, the rise of threats, and consider the costs incurred as a kind of insurance policy. Some countries are increasingly generously financing defense after a long period when there was very little investment in it. In summary, it’s about the majority of Western European countries eliminating their delays in this field that have arisen over the last three decades.

Fot.: Markus Spiske / Pexels

Apart from the low defense spending, the complicated decision-making system seems to be a weakness. It is somewhat similar to the process that applies in the European Union, taking a long time. But even if NATO members decide on something, the famous Article 5 of the treaty, invoking the principle of “one for all, all for one,” is specifically interpreted. The assistance that countries are to provide to each other can be understood broadly, as sending troops with weapons, or symbolically, like sending medical supply kits or food rations. The extent of assistance depends solely on the decision of the individual country.

So far, Article 5 has been invoked only once and not in full; this happened after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. Countries decided to help the United States before even determining who was responsible for the crime (Al Qaeda – a fundamentalist Islamic organization). The decision was made the day after the attack, so very quickly! They did not wait for the investigation results. So, it’s hard to talk about sluggishness here – the procedures proved to be effective and worked quickly. In practice, it ended with declarations of help, as during the counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan, the Americans acted along with a group of countries, not as NATO. If the United States had presented a specific list of expectations regarding assistance, we would learn more about how Article 5 works in practice.

Then, the expectations of the generals could collide with the decisions of politicians and their commitments to voters.

It’s obvious that the political authorities of each country want to have control over strategic decisions about “whether” and “how” to provide help, especially if it involves sending their own soldiers. Here, two different ways of thinking clash: the military, which emphasizes prior planning, speed, and maximum automatism in decision-making, and the civilian, where political factors are significant, for example, mutual agreements, deals with allies, weighing interests, etc. The size of the country also matters. Leading countries use their influence derived from their potential and often try to pressure smaller states that are hesitant. This is currently the case with support for Sweden’s admission to NATO – Hungary, delaying this decision, tries to “gain something” for itself.

Can one country block the actions of the entire alliance? Probably, if necessary, ways to bypass such individual opposing countries could be found, especially in the event of a crisis or war. This could mean formal actions outside the structures of the North Atlantic Council. However, regarding technical procedures, the most important is the authorization of the North Atlantic Council – if there is consent for military actions, then generals gain the freedom to make decisions and can mobilize armies or transfer soldiers to other parts of the globe, for example, to the eastern flank. Civilian discussions end, replaced by orders issued by military personnel.

However, it seems that the civilian structures, NATO analysts, failed by underestimating threats from the East. They did not appreciate the growing power of Russia. They did not draw conclusions from what happened in Georgia and Moldova, underestimated the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. They also failed to see that an information war was underway, spreading fake news, in line with Moscow’s propaganda line.

It must be remembered that NATO is a large organization, where different views clash and where distinct positions on individual challenges are very clearly marked. The result is that what is agreed upon as the alliance’s action agenda is to some extent a compromise. In this case, we were dealing with a clear emphasis on the threat from Russia, articulated by Poland, the Baltic states, supported by Great Britain. We mentioned the growing military potential of Russia, the actions in cyberspace – after all, already at the beginning of the 21st century, there were first serious cyber attacks, for example, on Estonia. This stance collided with the German and French policy, but also with the position of the United States, which were still seeking a path of dialogue and agreement with Russia. These countries believed that diplomacy could and should be more effective than increasing NATO’s military potential and deterrence policy.

It took a long time.

Only in 2014 did this perception start to change. But again: it was a very slow process. Such a large organization as NATO can be compared to a giant tanker at sea – changing the course of such a unit happens very slowly. And in this case, it was happening much slower than Poland or the Baltic states expected. Only then were the first decisions made regarding the deployment of additional alliance forces on the eastern flank. These were, however, quite modest forces, intended to symbolically deter Russia and would not have been sufficient to oppose aggression. At that time, discussions also began about returning to defense planning. For years, NATO did not have defense plans concerning its eastern flank. There was a return to discussions about what the forces that could actually fight and defeat Russian forces should look like, because for at least 10 years, the main task of the allied military was to conduct missions in Afghanistan. And these were tasks carried out under different conditions, where the opponents were the Taliban, not an armed-to-the-teeth professional army of an aggressor.

So, it can be said that in matters of the eastern threat, NATO wandered for quite a long time.

To a large extent, yes. That’s why it was necessary to make significant changes, including increasing armaments and the number of forces. From Poland’s perspective, the transformation was too late and too slow. But over time, our arguments convinced our allies. To some extent, we imposed our security perception and action program.

Yes, but for example, Italians still see a greater threat in the thousands of immigrants arriving at Lampedusa, somewhat underestimating the Ukrainian issue.

This is precisely the problem with understanding NATO’s mission. The organization should fulfill the expectations of all member states, at least partially. It would be difficult to return – even if we wanted – to the Cold War mission of defense then against the Soviet Union, and now against Russia. We must look broader and see threats to those southern allies affected by serious problems in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

We should also look in NATO towards China and India, as well as the Pacific, because what happens there affects security in the Euro-Atlantic area. We need to observe threats arising from technological development.

We recommend: From Defeat to Self-Discovery: How Modern Individuals Confront Extreme Situations in the Spirit of Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy

But I’m still wondering: isn’t it happening too slowly, aren’t the reactions delayed?

Like most large organizations, NATO exhibited a lot of conservatism, fear of making sudden changes. Some member states, especially before 2022, expressed concern that if the alliance strengthened its deterrence and defense potential, further armament could be seen as adventurous. In short: it could be seen as an unnecessary escalation of the situation with Russia. That’s why NATO stuck to certain limitations resulting from the Founding Act of 1997 (Russia – NATO Founding Act) regarding the deployment of troops on the eastern flank, the West met with the Russians within the NATO-Russia Council, though little came of these meetings. Unfortunately, only the shock caused by the first Russian invasion in 2014 and another in 2022 became the impulse that led to decisive changes in the approach to Russia, the aggressor.

How – in a broader sense – should NATO approach threats that do not directly concern alliance members but threaten world stabilization?

NATO’s perspective on this issue has changed. We already mentioned that NATO was engaged in Afghanistan, a country that does not border any pact member. This issue is formally not defined by the famous Article 5. In the 1990s, many politicians repeated that NATO had to choose: go beyond this treaty area, protected by Article 5, or… pack up. This view somewhat stemmed from the assumption that countries in the middle of Europe are or will soon be pact members and are not threatened with serious military danger. Russia was then weak, and there was no fear of a threat from it. Meanwhile, disturbing, tragic things were happening in the immediate neighborhood, with the Balkans in the foreground. That’s why leaders rightly (then) recognized that the mission of stabilizing the situation outside the treaty area had to be added to the primary mission, which is, the direct defense of alliance members.

Was this formally confirmed?

Yes. To this first mission – defense and deterrence – were also added crisis response missions and creating a more cooperative international order. Thus, relations with Russia and other countries formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union emerged. A more global perspective appeared. The first war in which the pact engaged was the conflict in Kosovo in 1999.

This intervention still raises – to put it mildly – controversy.

I am not a diplomat. I won’t say that wherever NATO engaged, it achieved success. It was rather the opposite: the list of interventions that ended with a big question mark or failure, like in Afghanistan, is long.

Why did this happen?

In a sense, this resulted from the alliance then recognizing that the main mission of collective defense was no longer that important. The security of the member states themselves was quite certain. NATO documents from the 1990s state that it is difficult to imagine a large war in Europe. Therefore, the alliance began to engage more convincingly in other conflicts. There was then the assumption that peace could only be brought about through military interventions. It was believed that military means could solve very complex conflicts and crises. But this also led to a situation where some started to treat NATO as a global policeman, which could be sent to various more or less volatile regions. And this pushed the main mission – the defense of member states – to the background.

So currently, we are dealing with a return to the roots.

Yes. We are returning to the Washington Treaty. Negative intervention experiences of the past decades have led to less idealistic and more realistic thinking. NATO is again focusing on its primary task.

To sum up: how would you assess the last few decades of the alliance? What were the most important failures? But also successes.

Looking at the intervention wars, the list of Western failures would be quite long: Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. But delving into the details, remember that keeping world order was never the main goal of the alliance’s operation or existence. And, for example, Iraq was not a war of the alliance, but of some member states. For instance, France distanced itself significantly from these actions. If NATO was engaged there, it was later, in the form of a training mission for Iraqi forces. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is an example of the alliance’s overstretching in an area that, from the perspective of most members, was of second or third-rate importance. We were dealing with an operation that continued using very different, often very stretched justifications. At first, we started with fighting terrorism. At some point, the argument was raised that it was about the social peace of Afghanistan. About allowing women to go to universities. Some of these justifications changed, but they did not convince the public opinion in an increasing number of NATO countries. Alliance countries wanted to transfer responsibility for Afghanistan to local forces, but this process ended in failure. There was probably a lack of reflection on the significance of Afghanistan for the alliance and the adequacy of the means used there: the costs and losses were too great for the individual member states, but the commitment was also too small to ensure security and stability in Afghanistan.

Where, then, are the positives?

First and foremost, let’s not forget that the main function of the alliance is to ensure defense and protection of its members from armed aggression and attack. And so far, thanks to the alliance’s deterrence potential, this mission is being carried out every day. Of course, we have dealt with some hybrid actions and information warfare, but Russian tanks have not advanced on Tallinn! Nor on Warsaw or Suwałki!

I believe that the alliance is performing well in its main mission. And that is a success.

What will happen next with NATO, after Sweden joins?

Indeed – the entire policy of expanding the pact is also a success. Of course, it is criticized by Russia, also by some experts, as the main reason for misfortunes in Europe. But from the perspective of a country like Poland, which emerged from this security gray zone and is protected by NATO, the balance is definitely positive.

Expanding the alliance meant enlarging areas of stability and security. And the stance of Finland and Sweden is significant. These countries remained outside NATO for a long time, but when the security situation around them deteriorated, they concluded that membership in the pact is the best solution. There is, therefore, a “demand for NATO.” If the alliance were an organization going from failure to failure, there wouldn’t be a queue of applicants.

What about Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova?

Currently, we have a situation where Ukraine, as well as some of the supporting countries, believe that the sooner Ukraine joins NATO, the better. They argue that this will also be a way to deter Russia from further attacks. But some allies, led by the United States, are much more cautious and, if they think about Ukraine’s membership at all, it’s rather after the end of this active phase of the war.

What is your opinion?

Ukraine is a key element in the future of security in Europe, as well as in future alliance expansions. Personally, I believe that its presence in NATO is the best solution right now. As an alliance, we have already tried to build security and a European order together with Russia as a partner. But it didn’t work out! Russia was not and is not interested in cooperation. Moscow would like to set up a security system in Europe on its terms, ensuring its full freedom in what it can do in its immediate neighborhood, not only in Ukraine but also in the Baltic states, Finland, Poland, etc. The Russians would like there to be a kind of no-man’s land, separating them from the West. This is absolutely unacceptable to us! The European vision of security, including an independent Ukraine, and Russian concepts are completely divergent. Whether we like it or not, the next few years will be an attempt to arrange the European security system without Russia, avoiding war more through deterring Russia, rather than through dialogue and cooperation.

And for deterrence, Ukraine’s participation in NATO would be definitely beneficial. It would also be a clear, unequivocal signal that Ukraine is also emerging from the security gray zone and entering as a full member into NATO and the European Union. Speaking loftily: into the European family. Because Europe is not just international organizations, it is also contacts at various levels between people from all member states.

And finally, for me, an important issue: membership is, or at least should be, a guarantee of maintaining certain standards regarding democracy and human rights.

Would Ukraine’s membership in NATO really be beneficial for Poland?

A country like Poland cannot pretend that Ukraine doesn’t exist. We can’t isolate ourselves with a wall. So, anchoring Ukraine in terms of security, along with the rest of the European states, will be beneficial for Poland.

There are many proposals and concepts. In reality, the NATO option is the best-known one. We have already practiced it and it is probably also the cheapest. An alternative is that everyone has to arm individually, and Ukrainians should absolutely prepare their state for warfare only. But this is a more expensive option and perhaps suicidal for Ukraine. If we act together as NATO countries, the burden of expenditure is distributed more evenly.

Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that membership in major international organizations provides protection for various kinds of investments, for state development. This is also a signal to foreign investors, to financial markets, that this is a place where one can operate calmly. This aspect will be very important in the process of rebuilding Ukraine and integrating with the EU. We mentioned Albania – this country, like Slovenia or North Macedonia, took this argument of the positive impact of membership on economic development very seriously. Membership in NATO definitely improves the climate for talks with foreign investors. And that is also part of the alliance’s attractiveness, which is a component of its – in my opinion – success.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Dariusz Rostkowski


The first studies: philosophical, the second: economics. Passionate about non-obviousness - non-obvious journeys, situations, people, events. Observes the world, digs in history. Nurtures own astonishment. The modern world helps with this.

Want to stay up to date?

Subscribe to our mailing list. We'll send you notifications about new content on our site and podcasts.
You can unsubscribe at any time!

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Zmień tryb na ciemny