In the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 and the subsequent intensifying insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, the world leaders and policy professionals have begun to re-assesses the state of burgeoning conflict between the globe’s preeminent powers: the United States/European community and Russia. Policymakers, politicians and leaders in international organizations have begun the process of interpreting recent events and analyzing how the consequences for actions such as the disaster in Donetsk impact policy, alliances, and international agreements between states.

As the West strives to present a united front in confronting the increasingly antagonistic posture of the Russian government, competitive geopolitical positioning between the two sides is fast approaching a zenith where adjustments in the approach of how each side confronts the other will be made. These strategies will have long-lasting diplomatic and geopolitical consequences for both sides.

As the European Union continues to threaten the tightening of sanctions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has once again emerged as the only international organization capable of even somewhat enforcing international norms governing the behavior of states in the international system.

As the international system is essentially anarchical (without a set of legitimate laws that are reinforced by a power higher than the state), states naturally coalesce into alliances based on common interest in maintaining a semblance of stability in the system and thus keeping a tenuous balance of power and peace. NATO plays an important role in this regard, holding within its unofficial purview the task of both threatening and carrying out the use of force against states that act outside of the boundaries of accepted international norms and behaviors.

In short, NATO is the action arm that keeps specific belligerents from upsetting the entire applecart. Therefore, the largesse of the burden for acting to ensure the reinforcement of international norms lies heavily upon the Atlantic Alliance. In seeking to confront threats such as Russian support for insurgent elements in Eastern Ukraine, the international community often defers to NATO (even if reluctantly and with great protest by majorities of the public in some countries) in committing military mechanisms to operations in which the mission is to drive back destabilizing forces.

This brings us to the issue of how NATO best positions itself to combat the threats of the 21st century.

Since NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the alliance has been in a state of war, battling insurgencies in an asymmetric environment. This is a massive change from NATO’s previous mission, which was to ensure the collective defense of member-states in the alliance against attacks waged by external states.

In the short life of NATO, the organization has shifted from its original mission of collective defense against the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War to a collective security mission in places such as the former Yugoslavia, and back again to a collective defense mission in battling the insurgencies of Afghanistan. Today, the alliance again confronts the threat of external countries upon both its member-states and their neighbors. In this, we find a hybrid of NATO’s previous two overarching missions of collective defense and collective security.