NATO Turns 70

The alliance remains critically important but lacks a clear mission

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General / Getty
• April 4, 2019 5:00 am


Seventy years ago on Thursday, the United States, Canada, and 10 western European countries created what became, and still remains, the most successful military alliance in history. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization deterred the Soviet Union from overtaking western Europe and, remarkably, won the Cold War without actually fighting the communist empire. Then, after the Berlin Wall fell, the alliance endured, using military force in the Balkans and the broader Middle East to stop Islamist terrorists and brutal, destabilizing authoritarians. All the while, NATO expanded from its original 12 member states to 29.

The foundation of the alliance is of course collective security—pledging to treat an attack on one member as an attack on all members. But that alone is not why NATO has thrived for seven decades amid significant geopolitical change. Each country, according to the North Atlantic Treaty, agrees to "safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law." Yes, NATO is a military alliance, but its members share a much deeper bond than overlapping security interests or similar threat perceptions. So countries that want to join must prove that they are sufficiently free and democratic, and they have gone to great lengths to do so. NATO can deter adversaries with its military (and economic) power, but it can also inspire others with its political power.

Because of its military might and commitment to Western values, NATO has, since 1949, been a pillar not just of European stability, but also of the American-led world order. NATO is more integral and fundamental to a free and united Europe than the European Union, which now seems to be creating more division through its bureaucratic overreach into state sovereignty than actual unity. And NATO has become essential to the global order that followed World War II and reached new heights after the Cold War—an order defined by an open global economic system, international institutions, and liberal values. It is hard to envision a scenario in which NATO dissolves or is seriously undermined without the world becoming a much darker place.

Yet, despite its success, NATO has serious issues today. The alliance's 70th anniversary offers a perfect opportunity to address them.

Some of these issues are internal, such as President Trump's tussles with the Europeans over defense spending. The media and Trump's critics decry the administration for pressuring the Europeans to spend more on defense. But such pressure is nothing new. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who headed the Pentagon under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, often lambasted America's European allies in NATO, saying that the alliance risked "collective military irrelevance" unless other members increased military spending. And the Europeans do need to spend more. Take Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe. The German Defense Ministry found last year that only about one-third of its military assets are operational, and the RAND Corporation found in a report from 2017 that the German army would need a month to mobilize a full armored brigade, and only by stripping equipment from other units. Yet Germany is now expected to spend less than 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense, according to a three-year budget plan from the government. That must change.

To be clear, plenty of NATO's members contribute a great deal to the alliance and to American national security, even if they do not meet the requirement to spend two percent of their GDP on defense. And it is unhelpful when Trump questions the viability of, and his commitment to, the alliance altogether—in fact, Trump should reiterate America's commitment to NATO whenever he gets the chance. But the substance of his argument is quite valid, and is actually benefiting the alliance. The question is how to find some sort of compromise that mitigates the current political tension and induces the Europeans to spend more, while setting realistic goals. The two-percent threshold should not be treated as NATO's messiah.

The alliance has other serious internal problems. Turkey, a member of NATO, is no longer a true Western ally—at least under President Erdogan's authoritarian rule. Beyond shifting from democracy to dictatorship at home, Turkey is deepening its commercial and military cooperation with Russia, NATO's chief rival, to truly worrisome levels. Ankara is even moving to purchase a Russian air defense system, the S-400, knowing full well that such a purchase risks killing military sales with the U.S. and compromising American military technology. Turkey is driving toward a crisis with NATO, and it is unclear how the situation will play out. All we know is the result will undermine the alliance.

Hungary is another NATO member state that, through its friendly approach to Russia and anti-democratic measures at home, is distancing itself from the alliance.

The most important issue for NATO is to find its purpose going forward into the 21st century. During the Cold War, the alliance's strategic mandate was clear: contain and counter Soviet expansion. During the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s, NATO's mission was less clear, but there were no strategic threats significant enough to warrant a serious discussion about the alliance's fundamental mission. Today, however, that is no longer the case, with a revanchist Russia, a belligerent Iran, a rising China, an unpredictable North Korea, and Islamist terrorism all posing serious threats to the West. In this dangerous, chaotic environment, NATO has focused new attention on threats from China, and Trump has called on the alliance to pay closer attention to Middle Eastern terrorism. NATO has, in recent years, also dipped its toe into humanitarian intervention in Libya and state building elsewhere. The alliance, it seems, is having an identity crisis, unsure of what its role in the world is and should be.

Looking forward, NATO should not be the world's policeman or sheriff. That is (or at least should be) the job of the United States specifically, along with all of its allies around the world, not just in Europe. Instead, NATO should focus first and foremost on defending its members' territory. Russia's imperial expansion is directly threatening the territorial integrity of several NATO members, so that should be the alliance's main priority. The Cold War may be over, but the same basic dynamic that shaped NATO in the first place—defending the continent from Russian aggression and influence—now applies once again. NATO should simplify its strategic outlook and make countering Russia and protecting Europe the core of its identity and its primary mission in the 21st century.

Given the threat that Russia now poses to European stability, prosperity, and cohesion, NATO is still critically important, even after 70 years. The alliance does not need to slay dragons everywhere to matter. It can still be an essential pillar of global order and an inspiration to smaller democracies that refuse to be bullied by larger autocracies. With that thought in mind, NATO must be willing to expand, to let in those who champion freedom and will contribute to the alliance's collective defense. Maybe in another 70 years, NATO will be celebrating another big anniversary, with more flourishing democracies able to participate. It is a future worth fighting for.