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The future of NATO – an alliance under strain?

The future of NATO – an alliance under strain?
02 Apr
Angus Parker questions how NATO can remain relevant in the 21st century

On 4 April 1949, a group of nations, still recovering from the shock of the Second World War, came together to sign the North Atlantic Treaty resulting in the birth of NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Twelve nations signed a pledge to protect and defend each other, resolving to: ‘unite their efforts for collective defence and the preservation of peace and security.’ However, over the intervening seven decades, the political winds have carved a very different geopolitical landscape. The threat of an explicit attack or invasion by an outside power has morphed into a multiplicity of 21st century challenges which are more complex and multifaceted.

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When NATO was established in 1949, the purpose was embedded in Cold War strategies to contain and deter the expansion of the Soviet Union. After 1989 it then shifted its attention to facilitate the integration of Eastern and Central European countries into Western democracies, before transforming into a platform for joint US-European interventions in the Balkans and Afghanistan. In the past decade, with Russian policies towards Georgia and Ukraine at the fore, NATO has begun to shift focus back to its original remit of protecting European territory from a Russian state that increasingly appears to see security in geographical terms.

Size matters

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nature and extent of NATO’s operations and mandate have diversified significantly. The alliance has shifted from a mono-focussed organisation to one that has to deal with multiple strategic fronts simultaneously. These include a return to collective defence in Central and Eastern Europe, dealing with issues affecting its southern flank in the Mediterranean and North African region and, perhaps most significantly, addressing the initiations of hybrid warfare and novel forms of attack. The missiles and tanks of yesteryear have been supplanted by targeted infrastructural attacks and cyber operations designed to destabilise the operations of entire countries. As Camille Grand, assistant secretary general for defence investment at NATO outlined in a recent speech: ‘NATO faces the most unpredictable security situation in many years.’

The admission of new members has also led some to question whether NATO is now too big to be effective. At its outset, NATO had a distinct, core membership as well as a clear purpose: ‘To promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area…and unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.’ While enlargement may have been politically astute in promoting democracy across Central and Eastern Europe, strategically it may prove less wise. The admission of new members expanded the alliance from a group of 15/16 nations to one of 30 nations which has taken on commitments and responsibilities which it is increasingly struggling to honour in a military sense.

shutterstock 1261290100Trump has made it clear that he is not prepared to foot NATO’s defence bill

Added to this, internal tensions have begun to rise – most notably over the issue of burden sharing in relation to the defensive demands of NATO. The US has continually been the nation that bears the greatest burden in this regard. This imbalance has long been an issue of dispute which was seemingly addressed at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 when all members pledged to move towards spending two per cent of GDP on defence. However, there are indications to suggest that these targets are not being realised in many countries and President Trump has been particularly outspoken over the issue, going as far as to label NATO ‘obsolete’ in a speech last year. The US President’s transactional approach to foreign policy has led him to question what NATO is providing for the United States.

This apparent ambivalence has in turn raised concerns in Europe – most explicitly from Emmanuel Macron. The French President warned last year that NATO is in danger of becoming ‘strategically brain-dead’ as he looks to push for a more united European defence force. His comments were, in part, politically motivated – a form of discursive sparring in response to both Trump’s NATO remarks as well as the American President’s decision to withdraw US forces from north-east Syria without consulting European allies beforehand – a move which President Macron is said to have discovered through Twitter.

However, President Trump’s rhetoric has certainly shattered any illusions in Europe that the United States is prepared to endlessly provide the bulk of funding and resources for an alliance which, currently, is focussed mainly on European defence issues. The lack of political consensus among NATO’s allies makes it easier for Russia to potentially re-establish influence in Eastern Europe. It has also raised concerns over the sustainability and future of the North Atlantic alliance.

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Triple threat

The debate over the future of NATO is not new. When the alliance marked its 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries, concerns were raised over its sustainability. At the same time, supporters of the alliance extolled the relevance and virtues of NATO in maintaining and upholding unity. The multipolar nature of geopolitics and global relations in the 21st century present a situation in which cooperation through alliances such as NATO are both increasingly necessary, yet simultaneously increasingly difficult to maintain. In that regard, NATO’s relevance will rely on its ability to react to growing tensions, adapt to a multipolar world and modernise to combat new threats.

In relation to reacting to growing tensions, the issue of burden sharing is clearly the most galling for the current American administration. Yet, despite President Trump’s comments, things are changing. An additional $100 billion was invested in defence between 2016 and 2020. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said in November that: ‘the majority of Allies have plans in place on how to meet that [two per cent] guideline by 2024.’ The EU has also launched a series of initiatives which appear to put resources and structures behind defence aspirations. From the European Intervention Initiative, which aims to foster a common strategic culture on power projection and mission planning, to a European Defence Fund with initial funding of €13 billion, to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) which has 34 multinational projects – it seems that European attitudes towards collective defence are developing.

shutterstock 1130910494NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg

Aside from burden sharing, the increasingly multipolar world is an equally important area of consideration. Since the alliance was established, the world has shifted from one in which two major powers dominated geopolitical events to an arena with a plethora of state and non-state actors. With the emergence of nations, most notably China, as global powers, Dr Jamie Shea, official spokesperson for NATO during the Kosovo War and a member of the International Staff for 38 years, has suggested that the alliance should look to: ‘develop a diversity of partnerships to manage the complexity of the modern world.’

The military and political capabilities of NATO, in relation to defence, crisis management and crisis response are extremely valuable and, as Dr Shea notes in an article for NATO review, one of NATO’s biggest success stories since the end of the Cold War has been the structured partnerships that have been established with 40 other countries. These established relationships could be supplemented and improved with similar connections with other international bodies, individual countries as well as the private sector with the aim of providing further stability in relation to NATO’s future.

The final key issue is the changing nature of threats and emerging risks in the 21st century. NATO’s Article 5 states that: ‘The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.’ This has been heralded as an unprecedented agreement of collective security and has only had to be invoked once following the attacks of 11 September 2001. The issue currently is that ‘armed attacks’ are based predominantly on conventional military attacks and do not include the hybrid warfare that has emerged over the past few decades. Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that this is a cause for concern. In an article for CSIS she wrote that NATO should formally expand its definition of deterrence ‘to include non-military, whole-of-government, and whole-of-society tools, to address so called "gray-zone" threats that fall below the level of armed conflict’.

shutterstock 450828169NATO will have to withstand the forces apparently pushing the US and Europe further apart

The threats of the 21st century would have been unimaginable in 1949 and, consequently, modernising the treaty is perhaps more prescient than it has ever been. Maintaining loyalty to the text of the original treaty could be particularly risky if the depth and breadth of threats continue to expand. Despite the changes that might be required, NATO has been one of the most successful military alliances in history and, over 70 years, has upheld and promoted peace and democracy across a great swathe of the northern hemisphere.

As an organisation that operates through, and relies upon, consensus, questions over unity are particularly pertinent – NATO will have to withstand the forces apparently pushing the US and Europe further apart. In comments about NATO’s future, Camille Grand concluded that: ‘NATO’s relevance in 10 years will rely on its ability to continue to react, adapt, modernize and reflect the common interests of the allies.’ As the alliance enters its eighth decade, it appears that adaption has become ever more important to ensure that the alliance continues to be effective.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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