NATO was 63 in April and will celebrate its birthday at today’s summit meeting in Chicago, no doubt accompanied by much debate about what purpose the alliance now serves and whether it has a future.
The backdrop is somber. The NATO heads of government will focus on the withdrawal of the alliance’s forces from Afghanistan by the 2014 date set by President Obama. NATO’s legacy is uncertain but there is little optimism that, despite the blood and treasure expended over the past decade, Afghanistan’s fragile progress will weather a renewed Taliban onslaught.
NATO’s leaders will be keenly aware, too, that their discussions will be taking place against the backdrop of over-stretched defense budgets and a continuing economic and financial crisis on both sides of the Atlantic. Can they afford to maintain defense spending, already on a downward path, when there is so much pressure on domestic programs?
Can they afford not to? The international landscape is barely recognizable compared with that of 1949 when the alliance was founded to safeguard the fragile democracies of a shattered post-war Western Europe. But although the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the international environment remains unstable and uncertain.
The NATO partners must now confront a range of elusive and complex global threats from rogue and failing states to terrorism, piracy and cyberattacks. They must also adapt to global power relationships that are changing rapidly and bringing new challenges. China’s economic miracle is fueling a military buildup that may well lead to increased tensions and an accelerating arms race in Asia.
The prospect of a nuclear Iran is provoking fears of a new war in the Middle East and doubts about the durability of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If Iran gets the bomb will others in the volatile Middle East be far behind? As NATO’s efforts to construct an anti-ballistic missile shield recognize, Europe could before long find itself next to a Middle East of nuclear armed states.
The NATO corridors and council table are where the 28 members can daily discuss these and other security challenges with a familiarity that, most of the time, allows them to forge common positions and policies. NATO still guarantees Europe’s security and the security of America’s close partners.
As both of us can testify, having worked closely together in NATO a decade ago, talking the talk is an essential prerequisite for an alliance that can walk the walk.
The consultative and cooperative reflex that has developed within NATO is rare in international relations. It brings many benefits. Small as well as large countries air their security concerns and enjoy the guarantee that comes from belonging to an alliance in which all members are committed to one another. This has greatly reassured the East European and Baltic countries as they have tackled the enormous task of rebuilding themselves following their liberation from Communism and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
NATO not only plays a valuable role in helping to stabilize relations between its members and awkward and uncertain neighbors, but acts as a dispute resolution mechanism between members themselves.
We take it for granted that cooperation, not conflict, is Europe’s default mode, but the suicidal first half of the 20th century, and the mayhem that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, are reminders that we should beware of pushing our luck. Investment in an alliance that in large measure denationalizes defense, and contains or resolves old antagonisms through family arguments around NATO’s kitchen table, provides a remarkable rate of return.
The alliance is good at talking to others as well as itself. We both remember when NATO stopped the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and played a vital role in averting civil war in Macedonia.
When preventive diplomacy succeeds it gets few headlines and is quickly forgotten. But NATO’s engagement averted what might easily have become another Balkan war. One lesson from Macedonia is how powerful NATO and the European Union can be when working together, a relationship the trans-Atlantic community might exploit more energetically as it navigates the uncertainties of an emerging multi-polar world.
“Will you still need me when I’m sixty-four?” sang the Beatles. NATO is now in its 64th year, and in our view the answer is an unequivocal yes. The alliance still underwrites our security and underpins our prosperity. It gives us a global voice that no member state would enjoy individually. And if “it’s good to talk” in a dangerous world, there is no better trans-Atlantic forum.
R. Nicholas Burns, Atlantic Council Board director, and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, was under secretary of state for political affairs from 2005-2008 and now is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. David Manning, former British ambassador to NATO, also served as foreign policy adviser to the British prime minister and as British ambassador to the United States. This piece originally appeared on The New York Times, and is part of a series of New Atlanticist pieces on NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit.