Summary of the breakout conversation “The Future of NATO: What will it take to save the Alliance?” at the 2010 Annual Members’ Conference.


Kori Schake, Former Director for Defense Strategy and Requirements, National Security Council
Harlan Ullman, Founder, Kiloween Group; Senior Advisor, Atlantic Council
Kurt Volker, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO; Senior Advisor, Atlantic Council
Moderated by Damon Wilson, Vice President and Director, Program on International Security, Atlantic Council


NATO has lurched from crisis to crisis since the onset of the Cold War and the signing of the Washington Treaty that created the Alliance in 1949. Throughout the Cold War, Atlanticists on both sides of the pond sounded the alarm over concerns such as the strength of European military capabilities in the face of overwhelming Soviet might, a proper role for Germany in the Alliance, the credibility of America’s nuclear guarantee, or the ability of NATO to survive France’s withdrawal from the integrated command structure.

NATO survived all those crises and emerged from the Cold War with a burnished reputation as the most successful Alliance in world history. But today that victory appears Phyrric, and somehow the current crisis facing NATO feels more existential than ever before.

Ironically enough, the greatest threat to NATO today is the fact that the Alliance lacks a unifying threat. With the Soviet menace long since disappeared from history, individual allies face a number of security threats, but they are disparate and varied in their severity and point of origin. Without a common threat to scare allies into making major defense investments for the cause of equal burden sharing, defense spending in the Alliance has fallen sharply since the end of the Cold War as a share of GDP.

And that was before the financial crisis and the wave of austerity programs began to sweep across Europe. Finance ministers in Europe are looking to their counterparts in the defense ministries for major cuts in spending, most notably in Germany and the United Kingdom. Already flagging European capabilities are sure to weaken as a result, calling into question the effectiveness of European NATO members as a strategic partner of the United States. If Europe loses interest in spending on defense, will the United States lose interest in Europe?

Finally, the tiresome war in Afghanistan threatens to weaken the credibility of NATO’s fighting power and plunge the Alliance into further crisis if America’s Canadian and European allies are seen to be rushing for the exits. Such a scenario risks the potential that Europe and the United States will draw divergent conclusions about the Afghan war, with Europeans vowing ‘never again’ and the United States concluding that Europe is an inadequate partner for global military missions.

Despite the seemingly existential crises facing NATO, there are reasons for optimism. NATO leaders will meet at Lisbon in November to approve a new Strategic Concept giving the Alliance guidance for its future missions and tasks. Many expect NATO to approve new responsibilities for missile defense, and the Alliance hopes to profit from the U.S.-Russia ‘reset’ to gain Russian cooperation on a shield to protect against Iranian ballistic missiles. Some even see the financial crisis in Europe as an important motivating factor for Europeans to cooperate more on defense procurement and emerge with a stronger, more coherent defense capability. While some are more optimistic than others, all agree that strong Presidential leadership from the United States is needed if the rest of the allies are to find the political will to ensure that NATO continues to survive this latest crisis in its history.     

-Summary by Jeff Lightfoot, Associate Director, International Security Program

This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.” 

Related Experts: Damon Wilson and Harlan Ullman