NATO at 70: How that happened and what’s next

It’s birthday time for NATO as the Alliance was established on April 4, 1949. Taking into account that NATO was born in a very different era are you surprised that NATO celebrates 70th anniversary? Do you think that NATO will celebrate also 80th, or maybe even 100th anniversary, or perhaps not, and why? Read few comments.

Michael John Williams, Clinical Professor of International Relations, Director of the International Relations Program and Affiliate Professor of European Studies & History, New York University

Given that NATO was founded to secure western Europe against Soviet aggression, and that the Soviet threat disappeared over the period 1989-1991, it is somewhat surprising that NATO persisted. That said when one considers that NATO started off as a defensive military alliance, but over time grew to be an institution where Europe, the US, and Canada can discuss international security challenges, it is not so surprising that they decided to maintain and expand this important institution.

Given the value of NATO as a forum for communication, planning, and execution of transatlantic security and defense policy, it would be logical for the institution to persist far into the future. But there are challenges. Growing illiberalism in European countries, such as Poland and Hungary is particularly threatening. There is little reason for the US to defend ‘illiberal democracies’ like Orban’s Hungary or Kaczyński’s Poland from illiberal Russia – they are one and the same. This trend may necessitate a re-think in US policy on the eastern edge of NATO. In the US, support for NATO runs high amongst the electorate and within the US Congress. However, President Trump is entirely unpredictable and does not follow a clear logic when it comes to defense policy. His confused views on security and defense, and on the US-European relationship are worrisome, and until he is out of office, the possibility remains that he could do something drastic. That said, the US Congress would certainly push back against any such move to withdraw the US from NATO. Brexit, paradoxically, also reinforces NATO’s future importance. With the UK supposedly leaving the EU, NATO becomes an even more important forum for European defense cooperation, given the amount of capability Britain brings to the table, which will no longer be available to the EU.

Jack Goldstone, Professor of Public Policy, Director, Center for Global Policy, George Mason University, Woodrow Wilson Center Visiting Scholar

I am not surprised that NATO is celebrating its 70th birthday – I expect it to still be celebrating birthdays when its 100th birthday rolls around as well.

NATO was designed for a different era, but has timeless goals – to provide for the mutual assistance and protection of all democratic countries against threats of violence and aggression by enemies of those countries. As you know, the first and only use of Article V was in response to the 2001 attack on the U.S. by Islamist extremists; not something anticipated when NATO was born. But it shows the adaptation and necessity of NATO continuing to evolve.

It is my hope that NATO will continue to grow, and become an ever-wider alliance of democratic countries, to include Mexico, Brazil, and at some point FULL membership for countries like Japan, S. Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and even India and Indonesia. At that point, it may need a name change to DATO (Democratic Alliance and Treaty Organization). As the world becomes more integrated, and the Pacific becomes a larger portion of the world economy and global trade than the Atlantic, an alliance that identifies only with the Atlantic region may become out-of-date. But that only means that a truly global version of NATO is required, and that should be yet another evolution and adaptation of the NATO framework.

At the same time, it may be that some nations leave NATO: if Turkey decides it wishes to fortify its defenses with Russian war materials and pursue its own anti-Kurdish goals in the Middle East in opposition to the US and European allies, then NATO may have to deal with a member who does not want to work in close alliance and partnership with other members. That may mean creating some precedent for undoing NATO membership.

Yet however NATO evolves, its purpose is too important to too many nations for it to fade away. Threats to human rights, basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and information and constitutional government under rule of law are, sadly, all too common in the world. As long as other nations or non-state organizations are a threat to those critical ways of life of the Atlantic democracies and their global democratic partners, NATO will have a vital role and will continue its crucial security and defense functions.

Stanley Sloan, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council of the United States, Member, Duco Experts, Visiting Scholar in Political Science, Middlebury College

I am not surprised. NATO was founded on an elegant treaty that made the organization a political as well as a military alliance. It therefore started as a defense of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” as well as of the sovereignty and territory of NATO member states. Over time, the allies have had to adapt the treaty to changing circumstances, in some cases temporarily favoring pragmatic geo-political considerations over the values, such as occasionally tolerating the presence of undemocratic governments in the alliance. Each new generation of leaders in NATO countries has had to revalidate the commitment and has done so. Throughout its history, the alliance has been troubled by the unequal sharing of burdens and benefits – something that was inevitable in an alliance among democracies in which all leaders naturally attempt to get the highest quality of security for the best price. This is a problem that cannot be solved but must be managed successfully, as it has been for most of its history.

I do believe that NATO will celebrate its 80th, as I expect it to experience a period of renewal and rejuvenation after Donald Trump leaves the presidency in the United States. I was the first to advocate for “a new transatlantic bargain” in my book published in 1985. I called for a new deal that would increase European responsibilities in the alliance, and that call has never been abandoned or successfully met. The end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union deceptively suggested that all NATO countries could reduce defense efforts, and they all did. It also suggested to some that European unity would be more easily accomplished – which also has proven not to be the case. While cooperation among the members of the European Union and other European states should make a high priority of improving defense efforts, it still makes sense to set those in a transatlantic framework, in concert with Canada and the United States. This, I believe, is the ticket to rejuvenation of the alliance for another decade, and perhaps many more.

Stan Sloan’s most recent books include Transatlantic Traumas: Has illiberalism brought the West to the brink of collapse? (2018) and Defense of the West: NATO, the European Union and the Transatlantic Bargain (2016), which will appear in a new, updated edition in 2020.

Sean Kay, Professor, Department of Politics and Government, Ohio Wesleyan University

No, not surprised at all. Many scholars predicted the collapse of NATO at the end of the Cold War, but that was really never in the cards. The member states wanted to keep it, and that was what mattered. The real question was the degree to which NATO’s survival would be relevant to the new security challenges of the new century and with that NATO has struggled. What is more concerting is the existing inability to reform NATO to make it more relevant to existing security challenges – climate, illiberal democracy, etc. NATO is well suited to conventionally contain Russia, but it’s decision-making process and minimal deterrent forces risk serious gridlock in an actual crisis. In effect, NATO appears well on the outside, but internally the alliance is fraying. Perhaps the best that could be hoped for so long after the passing of the Cold War. Today, Donald Trump has contributed much to those of us who believe NATO had a role to play, given his reckless attacks on America’s key allies in Europe. But at the same time, we cannot just let NATO’s 70th slip by without some tough critiques of where the alliance currently stands – it is confronted with internal conflicts, members that are leaning despotic, and the credibility of Article 5 is in serious question. So while many will celebrate, underneath, the alliance is in crisis – and failure to address that in effect becomes an advantage to Russia, which has long sought to fray the transatlantic ties that bind.

Sure, I don’t see any reason why the basic assumptions of security cooperation in Europe won’t persist for some time; unless the core mission of NATO is called into question – then it is possible that the entire institution could collapse on itself with members seeking bilateral and national solutions to their security concerns. Much, however, can happen in ten years, and if NATO is to remain a valuable anchor of the transatlantic relationship, then its leadership needs to be much more public and frank about the internal challenges that are eroding the alliance within the context of its institutional activity. So the question might not be so much “will NATO persist” but rather will it matter?

Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, American University

On the surface, it is surprising that NATO is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Alliances normally don’t survive when their main function/purpose – i.e. deterring the Soviet Union – has disappeared. But even during the Cold War, NATO was a versatile and resilient Alliance, that showed a great capacity for adaptation. First, it was helped by the very vagueness and ambiguity of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which easily allowed the Alliance to add new functions and responsibilities (be it becoming committed to detente and East-West dialogue in the 1960s; enlargement and the security of former Warsaw Pact states in the 1990s; or out of area operations and providing stability in Afghanistan). Second, the leadership of major powers, especially the US, was instrumental in ensuring the survival and continued relevance of NATO. In particular, the George HW Bush administration put its weight behind NATO continuing to play an important role even after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the Alliance was a key forum to ensure continued US leadership in Europe. And third, NATO has often acted (and still does) as a hedge against uncertainty. Over the last 70 years, NATO has proved to be a reassuring presence for its member states, making it easier to navigate changing security contexts in Europe.

My crystal ball has often failed me in recent years, considering the unpredictable context we are living in at present! So making predictions 1-2 years ahead, let alone 10, is challenging to say the least. That said, and on balance, I think that the very resilience of the Alliance, and the great degree of uncertainty we are facing now, make me believe that the Alliance will celebrate its 80th birthday. Of course, one cannot ignore the great deal of disruption caused by Trump and his frequent criticisms of the Alliance; but beyond these public disputes, the Alliance has been hard at work behind the scenes to improve its cohesion and preparedness to tackle a resurgent Russia. In other words, I dont want to completely downplay the very real challenges that the Alliance faces, but NATO has sufficient experience and resilience to weather this current storm and to make it to 2029 intact. 2049? I am not prepared to be optimistic that far ahead in time!

Gianluca Pastori, Associate Professor, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano

I am not surprised that NATO is today celebrating its seventieth anniversary. Both during and after the Cold war, the Atlantic alliance has showed a remarkable degree of flexibility. Since 1989, it has been able on the one hand to incorporate thirteen new members, on the other to adapt its mission at least three times: during the Yugoslav wars, after 9/11, and after the Crimean crisis. It has developed a large-scale partnership policy in both its neighbourhood and at global level, while the structure of its forces underwent massive transformations. In many respects, present-day NATO is quite different from Cold war NATO. On the negative side, these results have often been reached at expense of internal cohesion. Present-day NATO seems far more divided than Cold War one. Overcoming these divisions is, today, the main challenge that the Atlantic alliance is facing, a challenge that the negative attitude of the US administration makes more difficult.

NATO is now a permanent element of the international system. Between 1989 and 1991 it faced a dangerous crisis but, since then, there have been no real threats. I do not think that present-day tensions could really jeopardize its existence. Too many issues are at stake. Central and eastern European countries look at NATO as the bond of their alliance with the US, which, in their turn, are willing and ready to support them. Western European countries take NATO for granted and have no real interest in replacing it with a European military subject. In the long run, this kind of subject will probably emerge, but I think it will preserve strong ties with NATO. Worth noting, the development of a European military identity could strengthen NATO precisely where now it seems more fragile, offering member states a ‘flexible’ alternative to pursue their security needs while retaining a link to the alliance, whom the consensus rule gives undeniable rigidity.

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