NATO at 75: an undoubted historical success story but what will the centenary look like?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last week NATO marked its 75th birthday with a special foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. As could be expected, there was a mood of self-congratulation in the air, but one that was not unjustified. After all, the Atlantic Alliance has weathered many crises and survived innumerable media and academic predictions of its imminent demise. The first book bearing the title “The End of the Alliance” by the American academic, Ronald Steel, was published as far back as 1962. But as Mark Twain famously said, “reports of my death have been grossly exaggerated “. Instead of becoming weaker as time goes by, NATO is becoming stronger. It has doubled its membership since the end of the Cold War and Sweden’s foreign minister took his seat as the 32nd ally around the table of the North Atlantic Council for the first time last week. Allies are spending more on NATO’s collective defence than they have done for decades and two thirds of allies should meet the 2% of GDP spending target this year – up from just three European allies when Donald Trump was in the White House. Returning to its core task of collective defence against a rampaging Russia has certainly re-energised the alliance and put NATO and its debates back at the centre stage of international politics and media attention. The alliance’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, bringing to a close a costly and embarrassing failure in nation building outside NATO’s traditional European perimeter, might have provoked more soul-searching, especially given the almost twenty years of the NATO-led ISAF presence in Afghanistan and the large coalition of troop-contributing countries that the alliance put together. A serious investigation of the many reasons for the failure was probably the least that publics and parliaments could have expected. This exercise, if properly done, would have provided valuable lessons for any future NATO interventions “out of area”, particularly as NATO’s other intervention in a non-European country (Libya in 2011) did not bring stability, let alone a lasting peace to the country. But the NATO allies at that moment were already redirecting their attention towards Russia in the wake of the latter’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The reckoning and finger pointing among allies on Afghanistan could be quietly shelved, and then dropped altogether. Although today NATO maintains a training mission in Iraq and routinely invites Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea to attend its summit meetings, its contribution to peace and security on the European continent has arguably been more successful than its efforts to resolve conflicts in the wider world. 

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, NATO thrived

When an institution like NATO reaches the ripe old age of 75, the first question to ask is what explains this longevity? It is a longevity all the more surprising as NATO’s birth in April 1949 was far from automatic or inevitable. Mindful of George Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address to “be wary of entangling alliances” with Europeans, the United States had remained aloof from European affairs and had largely focused on its own hemisphere. Congress even passed a Neutrality Act before the Second World War and only engaged belatedly in the two world conflicts of the twentieth century after blatant provocations by Germany and Japan. After Germany’s defeat in 1945 the imperative for the Truman administration was to “bring the boys home”. The US had devoted little thinking to the shape of the post war order in Europe beyond vague and naive assumptions about reaching an understanding with Stalin’s Soviet Union or turning Germany into a largely agricultural and pre-industrial country under the Morgenthal Plan.

Stationing US troops permanently in Western Europe and committing to go to war against any aggressor launching an armed attack on the Western European democracies was the last thing that Washington had in mind as, with Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists all defeated, the US demobilised millions of conscripts and slashed its military spending. It was the French and British, not the Americans, who proposed an Atlantic mutual defence pact and they might have had a hard time persuading a sceptical US Congress to go along with it if Stalin had not given a helping hand. The blockade of West Berlin in 1948, the communist coup d’état in Prague later that same year and the first nuclear test by Moscow in 1949 came at just the right moment to breathe new life into the negotiations for a North Atlantic Treaty ongoing at the State Department. Ultimately 10 European countries joined the US and Canada in signing the treaty. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952 in the first of several rounds of NATO enlargement. But from the outset the US Congress showed its hesitations. The treaty’s core Article 5 pledging mutual assistance in the case of attack was watered down to remove an obligation to respond with military force, the treaty was initially concluded for 20 years, and Congress fretted that NATO would lead to the US giving expensive military aid packages to the European allies making them permanently dependent on US protection. Apart from some regional planning boards, no bureaucracy was established and NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Hastings Ismay, did not appear on the scene for another three years. It was the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 that put the ‘O’ into NATO by inducing the allies to move the embryonic consultative and planning structures from London to Paris and set up a proper military headquarters under General Eisenhower at SHAPE near Fontainebleau as well as a civilian international staff at the Trocadero. This shaky start led Nicholas Henderson, the British negotiator at the treaty talks in Washington, to entitle his memoir : “NATO’s Anxious Birth”. Fitting the mood, the Marine Corps Band performed two songs from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the signing ceremony: “It ain’t necessarily so” and “I’ve got plenty of nothing”.

Yet despite these inauspicious beginnings, NATO thrived. US troops came back to Europe together with the Canadian air force, an integrated military command for the whole of the North Atlantic area was established with regular exercises to test the alliance’s collective defence plans and individual allies were all apportioned challenging but realistic capabilities targets to meet every two years. Even before the end of the Cold War NATO had added another two members, West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982. Its biggest crisis was the withdrawal of France from the alliance’s integrated military command and common nuclear deterrence arrangements in 1967. But France stayed in NATO’s political structures and at least de Gaulle’s decision to leave the integrated military structures did not mean that France was withdrawing from its collective defence commitment. Indeed, it finally put a stop to France’s constant questioning of NATO strategy and its quest to establish an executive leadership of the alliance in the form of a triarchy of the US, UK and France, something unpalatable to NATO’s smaller members. In typical NATO style the crisis was put to good use with the then Belgian foreign minister, Pierre Harmel, being asked to lead a Review of the Future Tasks of the alliance. His Harmel Report of 1967 was a seminal moment in NATO history. It recommended greater political consultation within the alliance and the right of the smaller allies to table their own initiatives but also that NATO should open a dialogue with the Soviet Union and enter into arms control negotiations with the Warsaw Pact to reduce the level of armaments and tensions on both sides in Europe. This twin policy of defence and dialogue became NATO’s mantra for the next half century. It continued even after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and only stopped after dialogue with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council collapsed in 2022. The rift with France was finally healed when Nicolas Sarkozy brought France back into the integrated military structure at the Strasbourg-Kehl summit in 2009.

There were some underlying reasons for NATO’s resilience.

A third reason for the alliance’s success has been its ability to adapt to changing security circumstances and challenges

In first place the US military commitment proved surprisingly strong despite the US fighting the Cold War principally in Asia and in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The US provided all of the Supreme Allied Commanders (SACEURs) to NATO as well as its 6th Fleet based in Naples. It established a specifically European Command (EUCOM) in Stuttgart. The US quickly recognised that the Europeans were much more willing to share defence burdens and integrate their forces under US leadership than under the leadership of a European rival. It is what Geir Lundestad, the head of the Nobel Committee in Oslo, famously called “an empire by invitation”. Early attempts to form specific European defence groups to integrate the new German Bundeswehr into multinational structures, notably in the plan for a European Defence Community in 1952, floundered on the opposition of the French Parliament and the refusal of the British to join. NATO and the Americans proved to be the only framework acceptable to everyone. This did not mean that Washington was happy to bear most of the costs. Trump was not the first US leader to complain of European free-riding and unequal defence investments. In the 1970s, the Mansfield Amendments, sponsored by Senator Mike Mansfield, called for the US to withdraw a given number of US troops from Europe every year if European allies, particularly Germany, did not offer adequate offsets in terms of buying more US services and goods. Yet despite the burden sharing issue dragging on, the US recognised that a Europe firmly tied to Washington was in its vital strategic and commercial interest. Moreover US military protection for the Europeans made the latter more likely to support US foreign policy objectives on the global stage. This certainty worked for the US in Korea and Afghanistan but not in Vietnam or Iraq. More often than not, the US had to bail out its European allies to preserve the credibility of NATO when they became stuck in messy interventions, as in Bosnia in 1994-1995 and in Libya in 2011. Attending a NATO ministerial in the summer of 1994, former US secretary of state, Warren Christopher, spectacularly declared that “NATO is more important than Bosnia” and that the US would change its policy of air strikes alone and commit to a ground operation in the Balkans to extract European peacekeepers, in order to heal a transatlantic rift over Balkans strategy. Despite the efforts of Trump to get along with Russia, fortunately for NATO the principal adversary of the Europeans has consistently chosen to demonise the United States as well – the same mistake made by Adolf Hitler. Successive US administrations have stuck to the line that the best way to contain malign Russian power and influence is to maintain a robust defence perimeter first in central and now Eastern Europe.

A second factor in NATO’s endurance is in the way that it has denationalised defence and security policies among the Europeans. Students of European history from the Renaissance to the Second World War are familiar with the unstable alliances, shifting coalitions and never resolved security obsessions and dilemmas that dominated relations between the major powers. France obsessed with the superior might of a united Germany, Britain always ambiguous about its long term commitments on the continent, Germany anxious about its position in the middle potentially encircled by a hostile France to the West and a wavering Russia to the east, Poland constantly striving to regain its statehood and secure borders and then being partitioned yet again or experiencing devastating foreign occupation. Territories like Alsace and Lorraine, Silesia, the Baltic states, the Polish Corridor or the Alto Adige being endlessly disputed and small nations always doing their best to survive as part of multinational Austria-Hungarian or Ottoman or Czarist empires. Europe was constantly insecure and chronically unstable with nobody having permanent friends nor trustworthy allies. Until NATO came along. The ‘Pax Americana’ collectivised the defence policies as well as the armed forces of the NATO member states. By making national defence plans and military activities fully transparent and subject to peer review by all allies, NATO enabled allies to stop worrying about what their neighbours or traditional rivals were up to. Even where allies still had territorial disputes, such as Greece and Turkey, the alliance functioned as a circuit breaker preventing them from going over the precipice. The Secretary General could usefully act as mediator and propose a NATO investigation after every incident which played for time and offered both Athens and Ankara a face-saving climb down. Similarly, when Spain joined NATO in 1982 Madrid was happy to post to Brussels the generals and colonels who made up a Spanish army which only a year before had stormed the Cortes and tried to carry out a coup against the post-Franco constitutional monarchy. Spending their days in NATO committee meetings devoted to standardisation and radio frequencies and their evenings at black tie cocktail parties, they were hardly able to play any role in Spanish politics or resist democratic control. But Germany is undoubtedly the best example of this process of defence de-nationalisation as it integrated a greater proportion of its national army, navy and air force into NATO than any other ally and renounced the right to possess nuclear weapons. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 even Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, recognised the merits of keeping a newly united Germany firmly anchored in a multilateral security structure. It obviously could not be the eastern one, the Warsaw Pact, as Soviet troops were withdrawing from Eastern Europe and communist regimes were collapsing in quick succession. So it had to be NATO and Gorbachev accepted this with assurances that NATO would not move its own forces – except the German Bundeswehr – into the former East Germany, thereby triggering a dispute about NATO enlargement and which guarantees were given or not given by the West to Russia that has bedevilled Russian-NATO relations ever since.

A third reason for the alliance’s success has been its ability to adapt to changing security circumstances and challenges. As said, in the 1960s it overcame criticism of an insufficient political role by embracing detente and arms control with the Warsaw Pact. After the Cold War it launched the Partnership for Peace to form new relationships with the post-communist countries by offering help with military transformation, training and involvement in NATO exercises and later operations. In doing so, NATO became the security framework for the whole of Europe. Even Russia and the new states emerging from the former Soviet Union joined the Partnership for Peace. By offering a menu of cooperation activities and being flexible, the Partnership allowed the countries of Eastern Europe to go at their own speeds. Bilateral arrangements were worked out with Russia after NATO and Moscow concluded a Founding Act in 1997 and in 2002 established a NATO-Russia Council, but also with Ukraine in the form of a NATO-Ukraine Commission, upgraded in 2023 into a NATO-Ukraine Council, and with Georgia also receiving a NATO-Georgia Commission. All the partners were included in a Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Council although the diversity of interests among its 50 or so participating countries and the failure to agree on a common agenda or set of objectives made it fall into abeyance after only a few years. There was a similar story with the Mediterranean Dialogue established in 1994 and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative set up in 2002 to talk to the Gulf states. Some partners were clearly more interested in talking to NATO than others and many preferred a bilateral approach than the unwieldy partnership forums. Nonetheless the dominance of the NATO pan-European framework allowed regional sub-structures to develop, such as the Nordic defence cooperation, Visegrád in central Europe or the Bucharest Nine group, but not competing or rival structures. Until, that is, Russia decided to leave the West and start forming its own Moscow dominated structures, such as the CSTO or Eurasian Union, on the territory of the former USSR.

Another step change for the alliance was in sending its forces beyond its borders on peace support and nation building operations. The end of the Cold War and the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia on NATO’s doorstep in 1992 gave the alliance the opportunity to take on this new role at a time when the EU’s capacity for joint military action was non-existent and UN peacekeeping was plagued by poorly trained troops, insufficient capabilities and contradictory mandates. NATO focused on air campaigns followed up by ground forces to stay for the long term and work with other international organisations to stabilise a country until local forces were sufficiently trained and equipped to take over and the peace could be sustained without a foreign military presence. This formula worked reasonably well in Bosnia and Kosovo but failed in Afghanistan due to a lack of equivalent efforts on the civilian and economic sides as well as a lack of effective engagement with Pakistan, a troublesome neighbour. By the time of the Libyan intervention in 2011, allies had cooled on out-of-area operations and only eight participated in the NATO air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces. But the alliance has not given up on them altogether. Twenty five years on, the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo shows no sign of ending and indeed was reinforced by additional UK and Turkish forces in 2023 following rising tensions between Pristina and Belgrade over the status of the ethnic Serb minority in northern Kosovo. NATO has also continued a low profile training mission in Iraq. Yet the return to the primacy of collective defence means that the missions to secure Europe from threats to the south have largely passed to the EU, whether it be training missions in the Sahel and Libya or the recent EU naval operation in the Red Sea to respond to Houthi threats against commercial shipping.

We need two interconnected NATOs: a classical military one for traditional deterrence and war fighting, and a more networked, whole of society one to tackle the non-military threats

Instead of launching new interventions the allies have turned their attention to dealing with other challenges particularly in the area of domestic resilience and securing the home front against non-conventional threats like cyber-attacks, the sabotage of critical underwater infrastructure and cables and the protection of civilian populations in wartime. Russia has shown its capacity to wage full spectrum warfare against the West from nuclear and conventional threats at one extreme to disinformation and election interference at the other. Its aim is to wage political, economic and psychological warfare as much as the military kind with the aim of weakening the West at every vulnerable point. So the alliance has had to develop a full spectrum response. This has led NATO to declare cyberspace and outer space as operational domains and to extend its Article 5 security guarantee to cover cyberattacks and terrorism. The only time thus far that Article 5 has been invoked was after the Al Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. More recently, the alliance has proclaimed the ambition to become the leading organisation dealing with the security aspects of climate change. It certainly helps NATO to engage with its diverse publics in its 32 member states if it is seen to be protecting civilians and individuals as much as territory and borders against the multiple and evolving threats that they face today. It is also easier to argue for higher defence budgets if armed forces are seen giving a helping hand during COVID-19 pandemics, fuel trucker strikes and violent storms and flooding. But dealing with threats that fall short of the definition of an armed attack can also be challenging for the alliance. How severe do they have to be to activate an Article 5 collective response and what if only one ally is afflicted by a cyber or terrorist attack but no others? As an organisation possessing predominantly military capabilities, what does NATO have in its diplomatic or economic toolbox to respond to hybrid warfare activities that fall below the Article 5 threshold, and where using the military would be an unwarranted escalation? Sanctions and diversifying supply chains are more issues for the EU and G7. This said, the work that NATO has done on resilience and the protection of critical infrastructure and key commodities like food, water and energy as well as transport and communications can help to strengthen deterrence by denying an adversary easy targets and the capacity for mass disruption. The other challenge here is that threats against civilian targets or domestic physical and IT infrastructure require a range of actors to be involved, particularly from interior ministries, police, border agencies, the intelligence services and the private sector. Specialised NGOs and academic research bodies are also indispensable when it comes to disinformation campaigns. So, the more NATO tries to occupy the civilian space, the more it needs to build an eco-system of trusted partnerships with these civilian bodies, using crisis management exercises to practice and fine tune the modalities for effective coordination. Often the military will be only a small part of the solution and in support of the civilian agencies rather than always leading. So, we need two interconnected NATOs: a classical military one for traditional deterrence and war fighting, and a more networked, whole of society one to tackle the non-military threats, climate disasters, major terrorist attacks and other shocks to the system.

The US commitment, the denationalisation of defence and NATO’s adaptation to new threats and challenges are three good reasons why the alliance reached its 75th birthday last week in such robust shape. It has not always been successful and it has had its share of mistakes and setbacks along the way, being in this respect no different from any other political institution. But arguably the alliance has managed to get the key things right, maintaining its unity and solidarity and developing the bureaucratic structures of committees and planning staffs to translate policy into action quickly. Here NATO has a better record than many other international organisations, based on the fact that military defence organisations cannot afford to squander their credibility, a key factor in deterrence. Yet a fourth factor in NATO’s longevity cannot be avoided: Russia.

At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Academician, Gyorgy Arbatov, used to taunt NATO with the claim that “we Russians have done something terrible to you. We have taken away your threat”. Fear has always been a great driver of unity and Moscow believed that with the Cold War coming to an end, NATO, the communist threat that for so long had been its organising principle absent, would perhaps not disappear but would inevitably over time become a weaker and more divided alliance. NATO for its part set out to prove that it could peacefully co-exist with Russia and even transform the relationship through regular political dialogue and practical cooperation, especially on challenges outside Europe such as terrorism, Afghanistan and combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden. For a time it all seemed to be working. The NATO-Russia Council met every few weeks. It set up a myriad of sub-groups to work on practical projects from protecting major sporting events to joint airspace management and nuclear weapons safety. The NATO hope was that step by step these cooperative activities would build trust and overcome negative images of NATO ingrained in Russia after 40 years of Cold War propaganda. Russia also participated in NATO’s peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet it was more willing to cooperate outside Europe than inside Europe where it continually denounced NATO enlargement, the unfairness of the post-Cold War nuclear and conventional arms control treaties and what it saw as a ‘NATO-centric European security system’. Yet what Moscow proposed as an alternative was always vague, limited to slogans such as a ‘Common European Home’ or a ‘Pan-European Security Treaty’ or invocations of ‘legitimate security interests’. In reality Russian behaviour in Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and increasingly Ukraine soon made it clear that what Russia really had in mind was the re-creation of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe along Czarist lines. Ultimately Putin decided that Russian foreign policy, if not its real security interests, was better served by having NATO as an adversary than as a partner. Given the history it was easier for Putin to build an expansionist narrative around the familiar Cold War conspiracy of a hostile NATO intent on shutting Russia out and bringing it to its knees than to invent some other form of legitimacy. If Russia had become more democratic and remained on its initial cooperative course with the West after 1990, no doubt NATO would have had to change over time and perhaps merge its functions with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a cooperative security organisation dealing essentially with arms control and military transparency. But just as former NATO secretary general, Paul Henri Spaak, once proclaimed that Stalin was the true father of NATO, so Putin’s two invasions of Ukraine have demonstrated that it is not NATO policy that can change the aggressive behaviour of Russia but only a democratic revolution inside Russia itself. So as the alliance reaches 75 it has had to go back paradoxically to its origins in the early 1950s, building anew a collective defence and deterrence posture against an expansionist and ideologically hostile Russia. Putin has turned his Special Military Operation against Ukraine into the first stage of an ideological war against NATO and the West. It is not the outcome that the alliance wanted, and one that it tried honestly to prevent after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it will keep it in business for many years to come.

NATO will need to develop a grand strategy for the containment of Russia and other authoritarian regimes who make no secret of their desire to harm the West

The aforementioned factors explain NATO’s longevity and its ability to celebrate its 75th anniversary with dignity, if not pomp. But what does it need to do to have an equally upbeat if not even more joyful celebration when it marks its centenary in 25 years’ time? Five key challenges spring to mind.

The first is the preservation of Ukraine as a sovereign and independent state integrated into NATO and embedded in the EU and the West. The problem here is simple. NATO has always been clear that it will only defend member states. Partners, no matter how close and likeable, are outside the treaty perimeter and therefore on their own. It was this hard fact of life that led Finland and Sweden to abandon their traditional policy of non-alignment and decide to join NATO after February, 2022. Yet for the first time in its history the future of the alliance’s security depends on what happens in a non-member country, Ukraine. If Putin wins in Ukraine he may not go on to attack a NATO ally. But the risk of such an eventuality will increase massively and the cost of a robust defence to prevent it will also increase in equal proportion. This would be an enormous setback for NATO, especially compared to the advantages of an independent Ukraine securing NATO’s eastern flank against Russia for decades ahead. Given the stakes, NATO has to take much greater ownership of the defence of Ukraine than it has done hitherto when its assistance has been limited to non- lethal capabilities and advice and training. The NATO structures now need to take full charge of weapons supplies to Kyiv, training and operational planning and the development of a joint NATO-Ukraine industrial base to produce adequate supplies of equipment, spare parts and ammunition. This is the sense of the useful proposal that the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, made to the alliance’s foreign ministers last week. He suggested a long term package of $100 bn over five years to help Kyiv fulfil its military requirements and to move beyond the current day to day gap filling approach that is helping to stave off a Ukrainian defeat but not building an army for long term victory and the country’s permanent security. Stoltenberg is on the right track here as it makes sense to integrate Ukraine into NATO’s own plans for industrial production, capabilities development, technological innovation and war gaming and doctrine development. It seems absurd that the EU, with much smaller military planning structures and procurement agencies than NATO, is using its European Peace Facility to buy and transfer weapons to Ukraine and finance the training of Ukrainian soldiers in a way that NATO is not doing. There have been objections to Stoltenberg’s plan ranging from scepticism that NATO can raise the money to worries that it might duplicate current bilateral defence cooperation agreements with Ukraine or supplant the work of the US led Ukraine Contact Group comprising over 50 countries. But these non-NATO contributors can work under a NATO roof too, as they did together in Afghanistan. NATO is the best place to coordinate all the bilateral assistance programmes and the EU packages and to integrate the weapons procurement, production and training and maintenance aspects of a long term support strategy for Kyiv. This more coherent and long term approach will give Kyiv greater predictability and assurance about weapons supplies and will provide a bridge to Ukraine’s ultimate membership of NATO. By taking the lead away from the United States and making it a collective NATO responsibility, Stoltenberg’s plan will also help to defuse criticism from Trump and his Republican supporters that the US is giving the lion’s share of assistance to Ukraine and Europe too little. So despite some hesitations at last week’s ministerial meeting, Stoltenberg needs to press on boldly and convince the allies to adopt his NATO ownership of Ukraine plan as a key deliverable of NATO’s Washington Summit in July. Ukraine will not be offered membership of NATO at the Summit nor a clear timetable and set of conditions. So, Stoltenberg’s plan is the most credible alternative that allies can give to Zelensky.

The next key challenge will be to make NATO into an alliance that is ready and able to fight and defeat Russia if necessary. It is a strange fact that although the alliance has been in the Russia deterrence business for over seven decades, since the detente of the mid 1960s it has not had to seriously contemplate a real war with Russia. Deterrence has meant showing up and waving the flag of solidarity and resolve but not demonstrating an actual war fighting capability. Putin’s invasions of Ukraine have changed that calculus making it urgent for NATO to assess and truly know how its forces would perform in various realistic scenarios of war against Russian forces. These could be short term or long term and the confrontation might drag on for years before the alliance has liberated all its territory or achieved all its strategic objectives. So the next two decades have to be spent making NATO Russia proof. It will mean putting NATO countries, their industries and societies on a semi-permanent war footing so that they are able to withstand the initial shock of conflict without instant panic and collapse. Many allies will need to re-introduce conscription or some kind of national service for civil defence or military reserve forces. Citizens with special skills as in cyber defence, countering disinformation, public communications or medical support will need to be organised and trained for crisis management. Stocks of critical supplies and industrial components and spare parts will need to be built up, as will reserves of energy and raw materials and rare earths for weapons production. Nations will be in charge of programmes to make their societies, economies and individual citizens more resilient; but a crucial challenge for NATO will be to stimulate and coordinate these national efforts and to help the nations to make their case for greater military and civil readiness to publics who have become used to peace as the natural state of affairs.

Even with a pro-NATO US President the US will not have unlimited resources to spend on Ukraine or the defence of Europe

In third place, NATO will need to develop a grand strategy for the containment of Russia and other authoritarian regimes who make no secret of their desire to harm the West. The alliance will need to become the forum where these critical strategic discussions are held. Its deepening partnerships with four Asia-Pacific countries – Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – make it the natural venue for such a dialogue as NATO today connects North America, Europe, Turkey and Asia in a common strategic framework. The first task will be to determine which sanctions need to be maintained against Russia even after a peace, no matter how unsatisfactory, has been concluded in Ukraine. Moscow will undoubtedly push for the lifting of all sanctions as the price for halting its offensive or withdrawing its forces from parts or all of Ukraine’s territory. But that is not a NATO interest given that Russia will use the breathing space to re-equip and modernise its forces. NATO could usefully discuss with its partners restrictions on technology transfer, on the export of vital weapons components, measures to diversify supply chains and reduce critical resource dependency, which already ongoing for Russian energy supplies. Another topic could be how to stabilise long term the military competition between the West and Russia – and China. Even during the Cold War military tensions were reduced through confidence building and transparency measures such as limitations on exercises, data exchanges, restrictions on unannounced deployments, mutual observation of exercises and open skies verification arrangements. These arm control measures began to be introduced from the mid-1970s onwards and together with nuclear treaties such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and later the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) helped to make surprise attack or large scale military buildups along borders, such as we saw in Ukraine in February 2022, less likely. Even with a hostile Russia, or more precisely because of a hostile Russia, NATO has an interest in trying to revive some of these confidence building measures and they may be useful vis-à-vis China, given the latter’s rapid military modernisation. But before attempting to negotiate with Moscow, the allies need to clarify internally their own objectives. 

Fourth comes relations with the EU. There is always a sense in Brussels that they are good but could and should be better. The areas of interest increasingly overlap and senior EU officials talk as much about security and defence these days as their NATO counterparts. NATO and the EU have undoubtedly stepped up their cooperation, signing three Joint Declarations since 2016 and listing over 50 areas for more information exchange and practical coordination. The NATO Secretary General regularly attends EU meetings and the two EU Presidents and the High Representative are always to be seen at NATO Summits or ministerials. An incipient division of labour that entrusts collective defence against major military threats to NATO while the EU focuses on the challenges of Europe’s periphery – including Houthis, piracy, migrant smuggling, the Sahel and Libya – also seems to make sense as it plays to the comparative advantages of each institution. But as the EU becomes more involved in NATO’s core military business of capably developing and weapons procurement using common funding, there will be a need to avoid duplication and competition, particularly when it comes to helping Ukraine. If Stoltenberg’s plan for a long term Ukraine military support fund of $100 bn is approved, should the EU Peace Facility recently restocked by €5 bn be folded into it, especially if NATO is to become the primary agency to organise the West’s assistance to Kyiv? Should the EU combine its plan to buy one million 155 mm shells for Ukraine with a more modest NATO plan to do the same? What about combining strategies to ramp up defence production or to have the EU’s Defence Agency work together with NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency in Luxembourg to help Ukraine negotiate the best defence contracts and to find partners to invest in its own defence industries? Can the training programmes for the Ukrainian army be better coordinated? Given that NATO and the EU are both proud institutions protective of their autonomy, integrating their separate Ukraine assistance activities will not be straightforward; but establishing a short term joint NATO-EU Agency for Ukraine Assistance with a joint planning staff and funded in common might be the way forward here. It would be another useful deliverable for the NATO Washington Summit and would make Western help to Kyiv more efficient, faster and effective.

Finally, NATO has to rebuild a political base in the US. The Trump presidency was both good and bad for the alliance. On the one hand it showed NATO’s vulnerability to the renascent populist and isolationist right in American politics as well as the continuing salience of the burden sharing issue. Yet on the other hand Trump’s criticism of NATO and threats to withdraw US military support, subsequently repeated by Trump the candidate, encouraged the internationalist Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress to speak up in favour of the Atlantic alliance and to pass a resolution forbidding a future President from withdrawing from the NATO treaty without the consent of the Senate. But as US politics become more populist and polarised and Congress more gridlocked, the senior Congressional internationalists are retiring from the scene. A new generation of more inward looking politicians is coming to Washington with little knowledge of or interest in NATO. Public opinion polls in the US still show majority support for maintaining the alliance but these are uncertain times and the balance between supporters and detractors could shift towards the negative, particularly if Trump returns to the White House after the November elections. Even with a pro-NATO US President the US will not have unlimited resources to spend on Ukraine or the defence of Europe as the Middle East and Asia increasingly occupy its attention span. So, NATO will have to devote serious time and effort to how to build a durable and broad basis of political support in the US. Jens Stoltenberg has demonstrated skill as well as perseverance in handling Trump and making the argument for NATO in his speech to a joint session of Congress. But the alliance will need a sustained and nationwide strategic communications campaign.

When he steps down in October Jens Stoltenberg will be able to take some pride in steering NATO through some difficult crises and shocks both internal and external to the NATO system. Largely due to him, the alliance’s 75th birthday has been the occasion for mainly positive rather than the customary questioning media coverage. His successor is likely to be Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – although four allies are still holding out on approving his appointment. Rutte may not serve for 10 years like Stoltenberg, but his task will be to set the agenda to ensure that NATO is not just still in existence but also has something to celebrate when it reaches its milestone centenary in 2049. If only we mere mortals who participated in its first seven decades could still be around to witness it as well.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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