Chicago NATO Summit 2012: How NATO Can Become Relevant Again

ByDaniel Pitcairn

As NATO adapts to new security and global challenges in the post-Cold War world, a nationwide poll of university students will help the organization redefine its role and relevance. 

This piece was co-authored with Anna Moore, Jenny Zeng, Sofia Knutsson, and Avery Jones

Founded in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) weighed heavily on the politics of the Cold War, serving as a deterrent to Soviet military force in Europe, as well as a bargaining chip towards the end of the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the USSR, though, NATO’s role in preserving American and European security has seemed less obvious to some observers. As instances of major interstate war decline, small-scale civil wars, counter-terrorism initiatives, and humanitarian crises have become far more frequent. 

Though very different in nature, the intervention in Libya and the Afghanistan War both represent a departure from NATO’s traditional role and served as recognition of this new trend in warfare. NATO is forced to evaluate its future role in the aftermath of these new trends and will redefine its future mission.  As the debate surrounding NATO’s continued relevance regarding American security concerns, a poll should be taken to determine its future role and status within American foreign policy. 


NATO can and should make itself relevant in the post-Cold War world through occasional, targeted military intervention. We caution that this should by no means become a frequent role or one that supersedes treaty obligations amongst member states. Rather, NATO should only intervene in conflicts that threaten international security or appear egregious from a humanitarian perspective. This view is favored because there is a need for more traditional military intervention in political and humanitarian crises. Unlike the United Nations, which does much to provide aid and neutral peacekeeping, NATO responds quickly and effectively to military conflicts, best exemplified by the Libyan no-fly zone during the revolution. 

A multi-state military coalition intervened on behalf of the National Transitional Council in the 2011 Libyan Civil War, with a fair degree of success.  As the world sees more civil wars, political crises, and humanitarian crises, the need for this kind of intervention will only grow. By working with the UN, as NATO did during the Libyan intervention, it can achieve military success under the auspices of the international community. To continue this cooperation, NATO member states should meet to discuss the feasibility of assuming a more central role in other, similar conflicts. 

Next Steps

Through a partnership with NATO and the Atlantic Council, the Yale Security and Foreign Policy Center will work to create and disseminate an important poll asking questions such as: “Some people say that NATO is essential to American security, while others disagree. Do you believe NATO is essential or unessential to American security?” Among others, this question will help gauge future leaders’ opinions of NATO. The poll will measure American college students’ attitudes toward NATO and its continued relevance in the post-Cold War world. By coordinating with Roosevelt Institute Campus Network chapters and other politically inclined student organizations, the poll will be sent to various American college campuses throughout the United States. This method of dissemination will ensure the results are particularly reflective of politically inclined college students. This specific data is especially useful and relevant because it reflects the opinions of those future leaders in politics, the military, and the media who will play key roles in determining America’s relationship with NATO.