Seventy years since it was founded, NATO remains the foundation for the security of North America and Europe. However, the Alliance is now confronting new threats and challenges from within and without that require it to adapt to a new world. “People and institutions at seventy need to have a little refurbishing” and the transatlantic alliance is no different, former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said at an Atlantic Council event on the future of NATO on June 27, in partnership with the NATO Defense College Foundation.
More than twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, NATO is once again confronted with military aggression from Russia, which invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, respectively, and continues to take risky air maneuvers close to NATO personnel. The US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty over Moscow’s violation of the treaty has raised concerns of a new nuclear arms race in Europe, while Russian hackers continue to conduct operations against governments and businesses in NATO countries. Meanwhile, NATO forces have also been involved in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as counterterrorism operations around the world.
Internally, NATO members have also found themselves in intense debates and even open disagreements, such as US President Donald J. Trump’s criticism of the United States’ NATO allies for not spending enough on their own defense or the US government’s threat to sanction Turkey over its potential purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
But these “fault lines don’t tell the whole strategic story of where we are right now,” according to Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson. While NATO is facing a new array of challenges and internal divisions, “the United States and many of our allies are actually strategically aligned in grand strategy perhaps more than we’ve been since 9/11 or 1989,” Wilson said. The United States and its allies, he explained, are beginning to align on the view that the future will be defined by “the competition between the free world and… authoritarian, corrupt, state-led capitalism, and chief among them China and Russia.”
This competition with Beijing and Moscow will require that Washington “reinvest[s] in our series of alliances,” with NATO chief among them, Wilson said. “We need to understand that… we need to put our alliances and NATO, in particular, in the core, not the periphery, of [our] strategy.”
Retired US Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, Jr., agreed that NATO will continue to be a vital asset for the United States as it enters geopolitical competition with Russia and China. Drawing on his experience as the force commander of US Forces-Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, he argued that the use of NATO forces in Afghanistan lent the United States much more legitimacy than it would have had it conducted the operation alone. “Money cannot buy this legitimacy,” which will be even more important as growing geopolitical instability may require more stabilization operations around the world, Nicholson argued.
Moving Beyond Security
But for NATO to become more effective in its operations outside of the European neighborhood as well as its defense of the European continent, the Alliance needs to think beyond traditional military and security functions, Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “There are issues that need to be on the NATO agenda that are not traditional NATO issues,” such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, cybersecurity, and energy security, Kupchan said.
Dearbhla Doyle, a minister counselor and head of the political, security, and development section at the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, said that partnership with the European Union (EU) can help support NATO on many of the non-military aspects of security, such as political and economic development. She pointed to EU missions in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as examples of how the EU could help NATO’s neighbors in areas such as the rule of law and governance to help solidify the security of the whole European region.
Kupchan also argued that NATO needs to deepen its global partnerships, both to expand its capabilities to meet new global challenges and to help export NATO’s model to other regional organizations. “NATO should be very active with the African Union, with ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], [and] with the Gulf Cooperation Council,” he said, adding that empowering these groups will be important as “we are moving into a world in which the United States and its NATO allies are not going to be the providers of last resort anymore… we need to create the capacity, the public goods, for other bodies to do what NATO has done.”
Wilson agreed, saying that the United States needs to “lead a more concerted effort to thicken the political bonds and operational ties between NATO and its global partners. Today, these partnerships are underinvested assets at NATO headquarters.”
At the same time, NATO also needs to invest more in the traditional defense of the European continent as Russia continues to threaten nations on NATO’s eastern front, said Hans Binnendijk, a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Transatlantic Security Initiative. While much attention has been focused on increasing defense spending among NATO members, Binnendijk argued that the Alliance also needs better strategic alignment on how it exactly intends to combat the threats it faces. He argued that the Alliance has no functional plans for how to deal with a range of potential challenges, from nuclear war to cyberattacks, contending that these common positions will be critical to maintaining cohesion among the United States and its allies.
Remember Common Values
Kupchan argued that NATO must also recapture its founding mission, even as the threats it faces evolve. “NATO is on the one hand about the hardware, the strategy, the stuff on the ground, but it is also about values,” he said. “It is about defending countries not just because they are of strategic importance; they are of strategic importance because of who they are. Because they stand by liberal democratic values.”
Albright pointed to the Atlantic Council’s Declaration of Principles, which highlights the common values democratic societies across the world share, as potential inspiration for NATO’s purpose. The Principles call for countries, leaders, and citizens to reaffirm the values of freedom, justice, peace, security, democracy, free markets, collective action, the right of assistance, and an open and healthy planet, that underpinned the rules-based international order which came about after World War II.
Albright challenged the next generation of the Alliance’s leaders to once again find this central purpose, saying there is a chance for a “renewal of our vows” as NATO enters its eighth decade.
David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.