By: Kathleen Shea
NATO was founded in 1949, under the premise of collective defense. Specifically, the 12 founding states promised to provide collective security against the Soviet Union and “counter the risk that the Soviet Union would seek to expand its control of Eastern Europe.”
Yet, NATO never reached military confrontation with the Soviet Union. By 1994, the group even launched the Partnership for Peace in order to “develop military-to-military exchanges with Russia” and former Warsaw Pact nations.
It was not until the post-Cold War era, when NATO executed its first offensive military action during the Bosnian War. After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs began to drive out other groups from their new territory claims, committing war atrocities such as ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, and imprisonment of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Although U.S. President George H. W. Bush had initially designated the crisis in the Balkans as a “European issue,” the succeeding administration of Bill Clinton resolved to become more involved in reducing the conflict.
This week 23 years ago, on February 28 1994, Serbian warplanes entered Bosnia’s no fly zone in a bombing mission of a Muslim munitions plant in the midst of the Bosnian War.
According to Operation Deny Flight, these warplanes were ordered twice to either land or exit the area. When the Serbian planes did not comply, the NATO Combined Air Operations Center authorized the attack and U.S. F-16 fighter planes, comprising allied aircraft, shot down five in total.
With further U.S. pressure, an agreement between Muslims and Croats in Bosnia was reached against the Serbs. NATO continued to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina through 1995, with several attacks on Bosnian Serb military positions. In this same year, NATO troops fully took over the enforcement of the Dayton peace accords, in response to a failed UN mission that had begun in 1992.
Today, the essential purpose of NATO is “to safeguard the freedom and security of its members.” Despite success in the Balkans, NATO’s relevance has recently been questioned by no less than an American president. President Donald Trump questioned the continued relevance of the alliance, deeming it “obsolete.” Yet, Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis assured America’s European allies at last month’s Munich Security Conference that Trump “has thrown now his full support to NATO.”
However, Mattis may have deemed rising tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe as another “European issue,” in which the U.S. is not interested.
“No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values,” Mattis said. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.” Nonetheless, the U.S. is currently preparing to send 1,000 troops and vehicles to Poland by the end of March, amid rising tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO may continue to focus on balancing its successor.
Kathleen Shea is a Strategic Trust-Building Intern at EastWest Institute. She is currently a junior at New York University, majoring in International Relations with a minor in Mandarin Chinese.