Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time in its history. Paradoxically, a treaty provision created to guarantee American assistance in case of a Soviet attack on Europe instead brought Europe to the aide of the United States in Afghanistan.

Since then, the credibility of Article 5 has been widely questioned in the face of severe defense budget cuts, rising public weariness of wars, projected reduction of the US force posture in Europe, and trembling transatlantic solidarity. Many NATO skeptics believe that Article 5 is no longer backed up by sufficient military capabilities and is being constantly undermined by lack of political will and internal cohesion.

Indeed, ten years in retrospect, the invocation of Article 5 does not seem to have made the Alliance more ready and capable to face the new security challenges. In fact, it created even more divisive lines that have been troubling the Alliance since:

The Bounds of Solidarity. The response of the allies after the 9/11 attacks proved an admirable level of commitment and devotion of nations of various size, level of economic development, and divergent military strength to the transatlantic partnership.  However, looking back on the way the wars in Afghanistan and Libya have been carried out, they have very little to say about transatlantic solidarity. At first, when entering the war in Afghanistan, the United States made it very clear that they neither expected nor needed any contribution from their European partners. At last, running out of resources and public support, the United States turned to blaming Europe for not carrying an equal share of burden. It is easy to accuse Europeans of lack of commitment. But it is far harder to admit and recognize that invocation of Article 5 dragged Europeans to Afghanistan largely out of devotion to the United States.

The Role for NATO? Undetermined. During the Cold War, there was an unanimous agreement on NATO’s core purpose and perception of threats. Today, nations from different regions have divergent views on what NATO’s primary focus should be. The discussion on “home” versus “expeditionary” missions, largely driven by the diverse perceptions of risks and challenges, arose in the wake of NATO’s dubious performance in Afghanistan. Although NATO’s new Strategic Concept seeks to demonstrate a balance between maintaining territorial integrity while tackling new challenges, the reality shows that this is much easier said than done.

US-NATO: For How Long? The fact more than a half of US public would rather see the United States out of NATO and minding its own business is not a surprise.  In addition, many members of the US Congress no longer recognize the need to fund and maintain any type of US footprint – conventional or nuclear – in Europe in the future. Lastly, the war in Libya has revealed an uncomfortable truth: that the US indeed seeks to limit its global responsibilities and to reposition itself to a more restrained role in regions of a marginal impact to its national security.

Building Security in an Age of Austerity. A decade since the beginning of the ISAF mission, NATO finds itself in a situation where all the allies struggle to acquire and maintain what they consider to be adequate military forces. Military security within NATO overlaps with its economic dimension, and the decisions on the level of military capabilities are no longer formed on a “how much do we need” but rather on “how much can we afford” premise. And the answer is:  not much. Moreover, given the nature of the current security environment and the absence of a tangible direct threat to NATO’s territory, many argue that defense expenditures are no longer worth the cost.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath reunited the United States and Europe stronger than ever before. Yet, the past ten years proved that values and solidarity are not always sufficient unless backed up by adequate military strength and powerful leadership.

Therefore, it is now vitally important for NATO not to underestimate the challenges that arose in the past ten years. The Alliance must keep in mind that in order to preserve its deterrent capability and remain relevant in the international arena, it must remain credible. Only sufficient political will combined with military forces capable of defending the territory of the Alliance symbolizes a key to preserve the credibility of NATO’s security guarantees and the relevance of Article 5 commitment. Finally and most importantly, before sentencing NATO’s Article 5 to death, we should not forget what it has achieved: it was Article 5 that contributed for decades to the defense of the Allies against any form of Soviet aggression. It was Article 5 that has brought the nations of Central and Eastern Europe on the path to democracy and liberated them from the Russian sphere of influence. Lastly, it was the invocation of Article 5 that demonstrated the solidity of our shared values when they were most under attack.

Let’s not wait for another 9/11 before we come to realize this…

Simona Kordosova is an Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council’s Program on International Security.

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