By the late 1980s it became clear that the Cold War was about to end. In April 1988 Gorbachev announced the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan. In December, speaking before the UN General Assembly, he offered to withdraw half a million troops and thousands of tanks from eastern Europe, which subsequently he did. Gorbachev's wide-reaching proposals—his domestic reform policy, his suggestion for a strategic arms reduction treaty (START) and a ban on chemical weapons as well as his agreement to the INF treaty—turned him into an immensely popular person in western Europe. NATO leaders were confused and feared for the relevance of the Western alliance. The North Atlantic Council summit in Brussels in May 1989, NATO's fortieth anniversary, therefore reiterated the common values and interests among all NATO members and announced a "Design for Cooperation."
One of the alliance's earliest tasks had been the reconciliation of France and Germany, and now NATO was meant to become the forum for overcoming the division of Europe, creating a free and united Europe, and integrating the eastern Europeans under a common European roof. Under American leadership this was NATO's counteroffensive to Gorbachev's talk about over-coming the Cold War by creating a common European house. This conception appealed to the Europeans and worried the United States. After all, it seemed to indicate that Washington's participation in a new post–Cold War framework for Europe was not really required. In more practical terms, the Brussels summit also envisaged the creation of a European security identity and the strengthening of transatlantic ties. Thus, NATO intended to remain relevant for the dialogue within the Western alliance. In view of Soviet disarmament moves, the modernization of the Lance missiles was postponed to 1992 and ultimately shelved. NATO also made proposals for the radical scaling down of conventional and short-range missiles on both sides of the Iron Curtain. President George H. W. Bush believed that the alliance should go "beyond containment."
Thanks in considerable part to Bush, Western triumphalism was avoided when the Berlin Wall was breached in November 1989. It was also Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, who attempted to support Gorbachev and his increasingly beleaguered position in Russian domestic politics. In close cooperation with West German Chancellor Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Washington skillfully used the "two-plus-four" talks in 1990 and subtle diplomacy with Gorbachev to ensure that a unified Germany would remain a member of NATO. This was also the desire, if not the condition, of Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand, who both had initially attempted to prevent unification. By the time of German unification in October 1990 the issue had been resolved. The newly united state was both a member of NATO and the European Community, and a compromise had been reached for the position of East Germany. Until the last Russian troops had left the former German Democratic Republic by the summer of 1994, no NATO troops were to be based there. Large amounts of money went to the former Soviet Union to pay for the rehousing of the soldiers as the Russian government claimed officially. The all-German army was to be reduced to 350,000 (the old West German army consisted of just under 500,000 troops).
During NATO's first two post–Cold War summits, in London in May 1990 and in Rome in November 1991, the alliance attempted to devise a new strategic concept and ensure that NATO would be relevant after the East-West conflict had come to an end. It was emphasized that NATO's role was based on mutual values and trust and was meant to improve peace and cooperation. During the Cold War, NATO still did not exclude a nuclear first strike if necessary. Now the importance of nuclear weapons was scaled down. The alliance announced the elimination of all short-range nuclear forces. Henceforth NATO would focus on a more flexible approach to crisis management at a much lower level; during the London summit the NATO Rapid Reaction Corps (RRC) was created. It was recognized that NATO would no longer have to concentrate on repulsing a sweeping Soviet invasion of the European mainland but would have to focus on much lower-scale emergency situations. Thus, a wider role for NATO was found that would ensure that the alliance remained relevant for the crises of the post–Cold War world.
This new and already fairly open-ended conception was expanded further at the Rome summit. NATO expressed the desire to be at the center of all major European institutions—the European Community, the Western European Union, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe—to ensure transatlantic unity as well as intra-European cooperation. The alliance also expressed the opinion that it felt responsible for the security of the eastern part of the continent, its former enemies. Thus by late 1991, NATO had turned itself into a global crisis management instrument for the post–Cold War era. At the same time, it continued emphasizing its key role for solving conflicts among NATO members and with regard to transatlantic relations in a wider sense.
Perhaps one of the most important decisions at the Rome summit was the establishment of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), which was a forum of consultation of the defense and foreign ministers of the eastern European states, including the Soviet successor states. It would enable them to participate in strategic planning, disarmament, and crisis management discussions with the alliance. With the help of the NACC, NATO also believed that it was called upon to contribute to the democratization processes in eastern Europe. The January 1994 "Partnership for Peace" (PfP) concept built on the NACC. While the former Warsaw Pact countries were not (yet) allowed to join NATO, the vague and wide-ranging Partnership for Peace as well as the 1997 political cooperation agreement were clearly regarded as stepping stones to NATO membership for many eastern European countries, though not for Russia. Indeed, the April 1999 admission of the former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic was greatly resented in Moscow. The intention to grant NATO membership to former parts of the Soviet Union like the Baltic states, Russia's socalled "near abroad," was perceived as even more humiliating and a severe potential threat to Russia's national security. While attempting to placate Russia as much as possible, however, NATO was unwilling to give Moscow an effective veto over its enlargement process.
The decisive event that convinced the world that NATO was still relevant to the post–Cold War era was the Gulf War of 1991. NATO itself was not a participant in the war, caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, but U.S., British, and French contingents drew on NATO operational resources. In view of the failure of western European countries to provide an effective and united response to the crisis, the successful reversal of the conquest of Kuwait appeared to justify NATO's military and political crisis management techniques. It also meant that NATO members, and the Western public, became gradually used to the out-of-area activities of the alliance.
In response to the dire European performance during the Gulf War, at the Maastricht summit in late 1991 the EC countries decided to further develop the Western European Union in order to build up a Common Foreign and Security Policy. In early 1992 the Eurocorps (initially called the Franco-German corps) was meant to be the core of a new European army. This awakened American anxieties about whether or not the European Union was in the process of building up a serious rival to NATO. It also appeared to challenge the long-term future of America's engagement on the European continent. However, it was soon revealed that this was not the case. The European role in the wars in the former Yugoslavia was frequently characterized by military incompetence and political disunity, as well as financial and political unwillingness to assume a more prominent role in the Balkans. Thus, NATO's activities in the former Yugoslavia relied on American resources. Initially, NATO's performance (in the form of the Implementation Force, IFOR) was less than impressive during the wars of succession in Yugoslavia that began in 1991. In the war in Bosnia it was characterized by much hesitation and exaggerated caution. But in 1995–1996 the alliance embarked on its largest military operation ever and excelled in its effective cooperation. The Dayton Peace Agreement of November–December 1995 was largely due to NATO's belated but ultimately successful bombing campaign against the Serbs. NATO, it appeared, was still greatly relevant. In the absence of any united European military effort and an effective United Nations, NATO was indeed the only organization available to achieve such a task. Moreover, it was the United States that had contributed overwhelmingly to the alliance's military effort and provided it with forceful leadership.
This was also the case in the Kosovo war of 1999. After a hesitant and often ill-conceived strategy to oppose Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of the Serbian province, only the employment of NATO's (and Washington's) over-whelming resources and a forceful American-led bombing campaign seemed to impress the Serbian leader. But it may well have been the threat to employ ground troops, which the Europeans had been pressing for against strong opposition by the Clinton administration, that convinced Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. However, NATO's bombing campaign led to the deterioration of relations with Russia and China, and even NATO countries like Greece were less than impressed by NATO's activities in the Kosovo war, which had not been sanctioned by the United Nations.
NATO's involvement in the wars in the Balkans at the turn of the century and the alliance's careful crisis management and disarmament role in Macedonia in 2001 decisively contributed to NATO's new confidence and rediscovered sense of importance. While NATO took the credit for the defeat of Serbia in Kosovo, the poor performance of the European NATO allies catapulted France, the United Kingdom, and other countries into making renewed efforts to build up a European military force. By late 2001 these efforts, though not the intention, had largely petered out. The economic difficulties of the global recession of 2001 and a persistent high rate of unemployment in Europe were welcome excuses for not dedicating an increased share of the national budgets to build up military resources and capabilities. Washington resented this but did appreciate that a European rival to NATO was no longer on the horizon. Even the right-wing administration of George W. Bush had no intention of returning to isolationism and leaving the European continent. In fact, in 2001, as in 1949, NATO was still the most important American instrument for maintaining Washington's involvement in European affairs. This in turn contributed significantly to the ability of the United States to continue playing such a dominant global role.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was widespread perception among both Western politicians and Western public opinion that NATO was still of great relevance. While in the years immediately after the end of the Cold War and German unification many critical voices could be heard that questioned the necessity of NATO's further existence once the Soviet threat had disappeared, in the course of the 1990s this strand of thinking lost support. NATO's on-the-whole not unsuccessful peacemaking activities in the former Yugoslavia decisively contributed to this. In view of an ineffective and divided United Nations, it was increasingly NATO that was seen as a factor of stability in the post–Cold War world. Although the presence of American NATO troops on the European continent was regarded as much less crucial after the disappearance of the Soviet Union than during the Cold War, on the whole, both Washington and the various European countries still viewed them as a constructive force for good. They still gave the United States an important political and military voice in intra-European squabbles and contributed an element of psychological security to latent French fears about the rise of a too powerful Germany. For the United States, its troops in Europe made global military activities in the Balkans and elsewhere logistically easier. But perhaps most important, they provided Washington with a crucial, albeit expensive, symbol of its global reach and worldwide power and influence. Perhaps surprisingly, most European countries were keen on the continuation of America's military presence in Europe. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the Western public's hostility to NATO, which could be frequently observed during the Cold War, had almost disappeared, and most eastern European nations were keen on joining NATO as soon as possible. Even Russia indicated that it would like to become a member. While this posed the question of whether NATO would make itself redundant once most of Europe had joined the alliance, this was not the way it was viewed in Brussels or indeed in Washington and most European capitals. NATO, it was argued, was the primary factor of stability in the post–Cold War world. The alliance appeared to be here to stay for a significant period of time.
Yet NATO was also faced with a great number of new challenges. There were increasingly heated transatlantic difficulties in political, military, and, perhaps most importantly, economic and trade areas. NATO's crisis management capability was persistently challenged by the enduring civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. The enlargement of the alliance posed further serious problems, antagonizing Russia and also the countries who would be left outside. Increasing the number of NATO members also complicated organizational, operational, and indeed financial dimensions of NATO. George W. Bush's declaration to develop a missile defense shield to protect the United States (and perhaps its allies) from nuclear attacks by so-called rogue states, a scheme similar to Reagan's ultimately unrealistic SDI program, exposed great rifts within NATO. Most European NATO members strongly opposed Bush's scheme; it was regarded as technologically untested and prohibitively expensive. The missile defense scheme also appeared to be politically destabilizing as it threatened to undermine relations with countries such as Russia and China and to lead to a new arms race. The terrorist attack on America's financial and political centers in New York and Washington, D.C., in September 2001 demonstrated however that unprecedented terrorist attacks that could not be prevented by even the most sophisticated antimissile scheme were to be feared more than attacks from foreign states. It threatened to undermine relations with countries such as Russia and China and to lead to a new arms race.
Despite these problems, it was thought that for the foreseeable future reasonable transatlantic relations would be maintained. In all likelihood European Union member states would reluctantly agree to continue accepting American predominance within NATO. Ultimately, however, the latter will be influenced by American flexibility and willingness to enter into a constructive dialogue with its allies. During the Cold War, American unilateralism always caused great resentment and proved damaging to the alliance. In the post–Cold War world Washington's European NATO allies were even more unlikely than before to accept this. Yet, American unilateralism may well have been profoundly undermined by the terrorist bombing of American cities in September 2001. Asking for the invocation of article 5 of the NATO treaty was an indication that the Bush administration hoped to fight the war against terrorism with the help of multilateralism and close cooperation with the NATO allies. While the United States will still, and quite justifiably in view of its powerful military and economic potential, demand a clear leadership role, it can be expected that this new kind of war can only be successfully fought with the help of a common cooperative effort.