On May 25th, the new NATO Headquarters was inaugurated by the Heads of State and Government of the 28 member states (soon to become 29 with the accession of Montenegro).
Although this event only received moderate press coverage and seems to have gone unnoticed by most people, I think this affair holds great symbolism for the future of the Alliance – and the world.
The inauguration of this new head office for the transatlantic alliance screams to the world that NATO is not dead, in fact very far from it. Those who called it obsolete after the collapse of the USSR have been proven wrong: the organization survived the disappearance of the conditions that first brought it to life, namely the East-West confrontation of the Cold War.
This would indeed confirm the thesis put forward by many IR scholars: R.O. Keohane’s After Hegemony (1984) analyzes the stickiness of organizations even after the decline of US hegemony, and the possible maintenance of organizations even after the conditions that made it possible had disappeared; and P. A. Weitsman’s 2004 article explains the formation of alliances for both internal and external purposes – namely that such an endeavour can be aimed at protecting oneself against an enemy by pooling resources, but also by deterring conflict between members. In the case of NATO, both arguments seem to hold up. And the new headquarters signifies just that. It shows that NATO is set in stone and the need for it is still a reality.
Initially, NATO was located in London, at 13 Belgrave Square. In 1952, it moved in to Paris, first to Palais de Chaillot and then to Porte Dauphine in 1960. However, ensuing Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal of France from the Integrated Military Command, the Alliance had to move elsewhere, and found shelter in prefabs on the outskirts of Brussels, halfway between the city and the airport – it so happened that the chosen location “was once an airfield used by Nazi Germany during World War Two”.
A new headquarters has been needed since then, and increasingly so with the expansion of membership, guest representations and partners, visitors, and widening of activities. It was finally in 1999, at the annual Summit then held in Washington, that the construction of a new building was approved.
Finally, during the Brussels Summit in 2017, host nation Belgium handed over the new building, located across the street from the old HQ, to the Alliance in the presence of the 28 heads of states or governments. For a virtual tour, see here.
The New Headquarters
Although the cost of the building itself has been widely criticized for the amount of the price tag and going over budget, no one seems to have questioned the initiative itself. First, because the project has been in the pipeline for decades, but also because it has been perceived and showcased as a necessary event, especially by Ander Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary General of the Alliance. The move to a new modern-looking building was there to put the final nail into the old Cold War order’s coffin, along with structural reforms and a new strategic concept inaugurated during his mandate.
NATO has described the inauguration and the move as a symbol of modernization of the Alliance, finally adapting the bureaucratic structure to the needs of the twenty-first century. NATO’s website comments on the architecture of the construction:
“The design of the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, reflects the unity and adaptability of the Alliance. State-of-the-art facilities will enable the building to respond to the Alliance’s evolving needs long into the future, while its forward-looking design delivers a sustainable building that significantly reduces the Organization’s environmental footprint.”
Sustainability can here be understood in two distinct ways. The sentence clearly appeals to the energy-efficient materials, collection of rain water, use of natural light, etc., used to reduce the environmental imprint of such a structure. It can also be interpreted in terms of long-term commitment. By inaugurating this new building, NATO declares to the world that it is here to stay.
Symbolism of a New HQ
And what is more clear than a new HQ to do that? When it was finally decided to start the construction, NATO was still in a period of redefinition of its mission, amidst the US-led airstrikes in Kosovo and the ensuing controversies.
9/11 acted as the ultimate turning point for the Alliance, whose mission was shifted to fighting terrorism and external threats to the Allies. And even if Russia has made its way back onto the international scene and is now a source of insecurity for the Eastern allies that needs to be reckoned with, NATO is no longer the same alliance that it once was.
NATO has changed over the years – the Cold War brought it to life, but that is not what is keeping it alive. Rather, it is a commitment to peace. And it can arguably be labelled one of the most successful organizations for its ability to survive and reinvent itself throughout the years – even though this has not happened without controversy.
It is a forward-looking, modernizing military structure that keeps adapting to the current security needs and threats. The East-West feud is no longer the leitmotiv for the organization – discrepancies between East and South, between threats coming from Russia and those originating from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, make most of the discussions internally.
So, Keohane may be right: the conditions that bring an organization into being do not need to be sustained in order for an alliance to survive. Weitsman’s insights are also certainly true: one also needs to look into what happens within the Alliance, and in spite of its resilience, NATO is not without its problems, especially in terms of defining its current priorities. The Alliance is a token of peace in Europe, within its members despite their differences. Weitsman indeed argued that “under certain circumstances, adversaries may have incentives to form alliances with each other, either to react to other threats confronting them or to contain or manage the threat they face from each other” (Weitsman, 2004, p.2). Today, this entails keeping the continent together, as well as ensuring that the US does not disengage despite isolationist tendencies in recent years. NATO is also the reflection of a continent that is faced with external threats that cannot be fought off without unity in the face of adversity, and mutual help.
A new, flashy building thus sends a message to the outside world, both to detractors and admirers, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still relevant in this day and age; but it also sends a message to its members: a message of hope, a boost to morale and an encouragement to follow the Alliance into the future.