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NATO in the Multi-order World

Author: Trine Flockhart

Affiliation: European University Institute

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: February 2024/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 19


Keywords: NATO, Multi-order World, LIO



The article discusses NATO’s enduring relevance at its 75th anniversary amidst evolving global challenges, particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It highlights NATO’s transformation into a more dynamic alliance, necessitated by changing global dynamics, including the emergence of a multi-order world. The article emphasizes NATO’s dual roles as a military alliance and a community of shared values, stressing the need for adaptation to sustain its effectiveness. It suggests that NATO must redefine its role within the new global order, maintaining its commitment to liberal values while establishing interest-based relationships. However, challenges such as the rise of illiberal nationalism within member states complicate this transition.


The first section discusses the significant shift in the global order following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, marking the beginning of a new era. It highlights Putin’s challenge to the liberal international order (LIO) and the existing global rules-based order (GRBO), which gained momentum with China’s alignment. The invasion signaled the end of the GRBO, ushering in a period of transformation characterized by uncertainty and geopolitical shifts. While many anticipate a return to multi- or bipolarity, the author argues for the emergence of a new, more complex global order. NATO’s future role hinges on understanding and adapting to this evolving landscape, considering changes in global relations and distinguishing between the LIO and the GRBO, as failure to grasp these nuances could undermine NATO’s relevance in the future global order.

  1. This section discusses the evolving structure of global relations, which are shifting from a European/Western core-periphery model to a decentralized structure with emerging clusters of relationships along cultural, ideological, or ethnic lines. This decentralized structure is further transitioning into a more clustered one, where relationships converge based on shared characteristics. The current global structure combines clustered and decentralized relationships, with swing states positioning themselves between emerging clusters, including the American-led liberal order, a Russian-led order, and a Chinese-led order. This shift undermines the notion of a return to bipolarity or multipolarity, as the new structure is more pluralistic and complex. NATO’s future role must adapt to this multi-order world, managing relationships within the liberal international order (LIO) and between different international orders. Ensuring a resilient LIO will be crucial for influencing the direction of the multi-order world, with NATO playing a significant role in fostering constructive relationships between orders. It is imperative to acknowledge NATO’s role within this multi-order framework rather than clinging to outdated notions of polarity when considering its future.
  2. In the second topic in this section, the author explores the distinction between the liberal international order (LIO) and the global rules-based order (GRBO) within the context of NATO’s evolving role. Historically, NATO’s roles were shaped by Cold War dynamics or under conditions of US hegemony, where the assumption of the LIO’s global reach was prevalent. However, in a clustered and multi-order context, it is crucial to differentiate between the GRBO, which is universal and state-centric, and the LIO, which is founded on and bound to liberal values. While both are intertwined, the LIO prioritizes individual rights, while the GRBO focuses more on state sovereignty and equality. As NATO navigates its future role, it must incorporate this distinction into policy-making, ensuring that liberal values guide actions within the LIO, while recognizing the limitations of influence within the GRBO. The growing contestation against Western influence on the GRBO underscores the need for NATO to strategically differentiate between the two orders and prioritize liberal policies within the LIO.


The second section delves into NATO’s dual structure, comprising its role as both a military alliance and a community of shared values. While NATO’s founding document emphasizes its military capabilities, it also underscores its commitment to democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Over its 75-year history, NATO has oscillated between prioritizing its role as a military alliance and its role as a community of shared values, responding to changes in the global order and political dynamics among member states. This oscillation has been reflected in NATO’s strategic concepts, operational guidance, and narrative. Three distinct patterns of alignment between these roles have emerged throughout NATO’s history, corresponding to shifts in the global order. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO faces the challenge of reconfiguring the relationship between its dual roles in response to the evolving global order.

  1. During the Cold War era from 1949 to 1991, NATO was primarily perceived as a military alliance focused on countering the Soviet Union. Military capabilities, including conventional and nuclear forces, were paramount, with the alliance’s strategic goal being to deter Soviet aggression and defend NATO territory if necessary. The notion of NATO as a community of shared values was secondary, primarily serving to demonstrate the alliance’s cohesion, especially regarding the credibility of NATO’s extended nuclear deterrence. However, maintaining cohesion within the alliance was challenging due to differing interests among member states and European members’ geographical proximity to the Soviet Union. To address this challenge, NATO adopted a strategy of strategic ambiguity, emphasizing consensus decision-making to demonstrate shared values despite internal differences. Yet, NATO faced legitimacy issues within member states due to discrepancies between its foundational values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law, and its practices. The inclusion of authoritarian regimes among NATO’s founding and full members raised concerns about its legitimacy, particularly regarding extended nuclear deterrence. Despite these challenges, NATO managed to maintain cohesion by outwardly emphasizing its role as a military alliance while internally upholding shared values. This delicate balance relied on strategic ambiguity and relatively low public interest in security policy among member state populations.
  2. Following the Cold War, the global order shifted, prompting a reassessment of NATO’s role. With the disappearance of the Soviet threat, NATO faced questions about its purpose and future. Transitioning from its Cold War military focus, NATO’s post-Cold War role evolved to emphasize democracy promotion and enlargement, positioning itself as a community of shared values. This shift was exemplified by NATO’s commitment to democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law, coupled with its role as a promoter of democratic norms through enlargement. However, some viewed NATO’s expansion, particularly the controversial prospect of admitting Georgia and Ukraine, as a power move rather than a commitment to democratic ideals. Despite its pronounced political role, NATO remained militarily active, engaging in operations such as peacekeeping in the Balkans and crisis management, evolving into what Lawrence Freedman termed “liberal wars,” notably in Afghanistan. This period witnessed NATO’s adaptation to a fundamentally altered global order, retaining a military role focused on crisis management and peace operations in out-of-area theaters. While managing a dual structure, NATO’s practices, associated with both a military alliance and community of shared values, underwent substantial reconfiguration, transforming the organization into a fundamentally different entity from its Cold War roots.
  3. During the period from 2008 to 2022, NATO underwent a gradual realization of the transformation in the global order, marked by events such as the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the financial crisis that exposed weaknesses in the liberal international order (LIO). This phase saw divergent threat assessments among member states and a lack of consensus on priorities until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The adoption of the 2010 Strategic Concept highlighted NATO’s traditional dual-track approach, recognizing collective defense and crisis management as core tasks of the military alliance, while characterizing its role as a community of shared values as “cooperative security.” Despite this, NATO’s expeditionary role in crisis management faced internal contention, particularly from allies on the eastern flank, leading to a refocus on collective defense after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, challenges emerged as domestic political changes in member states, such as the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, shifted the focus towards illiberal nationalism, challenging NATO’s liberal internationalist outlook. This internal contestation has created a divide within NATO regarding its shared values, potentially undermining cohesion and its role as a community of shared values. Despite criticisms, NATO’s dual structure, encompassing both military and value-based dimensions, has provided flexibility and relevance throughout its history. Whether this structure remains relevant in the face of the new challenges posed by the multi-order world remains a question for NATO’s future.


Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has undergone significant changes, leading to the adoption of a new Strategic Concept at the Madrid summit in June 2022 and further decisions at the Vilnius summit in July 2023. These decisions marked a return to prioritizing NATO’s role as a military alliance, particularly evident with new defense plans to bolster NATO’s capacity on its eastern flank. While the focus has shifted towards collective security and territorial defense, concerns have emerged about NATO’s role as a community of shared values, especially amidst the possibility of a second Trump presidency and changes in the global rules-based order (GRBO). Despite initial efforts to strengthen NATO’s political dimension and reaffirm its values, the strategic environment has evolved due to the conflict on NATO’s borders, leading to a greater emphasis on the military alliance aspect and a lesser focus on shared values in the new Strategic Concept. This shift is concerning given the ongoing challenges to NATO and the liberal international order (LIO), indicating the need for NATO to address these issues while navigating the complexities of a multi-order world.



In brief, the challenges facing NATO in the evolving global order are complex and multifaceted. While the alliance has demonstrated resilience and adaptability, recent developments, particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have highlighted both strengths and weaknesses within the alliance. Despite efforts to bolster its military role, concerns persist about NATO’s ability to uphold its values and navigate the complexities of a multi-order world.

The current geopolitical landscape underscores the importance of NATO’s role as a bulwark of the rules-based international order. However, internal divisions between member states with differing ideological outlooks threaten NATO’s cohesion and effectiveness. This internal cleavage, exacerbated by populist movements and illiberal nationalism, undermines NATO’s ability to articulate a clear narrative and respond effectively to the challenges posed by the multi-order world.

Moving forward, NATO must prioritize democratic resilience and unity among its member states. Clear articulation of shared values and a nuanced understanding of the global ordering architecture are essential for NATO to navigate the complexities of the contemporary geopolitical landscape. Without addressing internal divisions and reinforcing its commitment to liberal values, NATO risks being ill-prepared to meet the challenges ahead and may become vulnerable to exploitation by its adversaries. Therefore, as NATO approaches its 75th anniversary, it must confront these challenges head-on and adapt its policies and strategies accordingly to remain a relevant and effective force for global stability and security.


By: Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher



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