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NATO at 70 – cheating death, one threat at a time?

Celebrating 70 years since its inception, many critics have claimed NATO is a relic of the past. Will NATO manage to adapt to the changing environment among its members and outside of it?

April 24, 2019 - Wojciech Michnik - Articles and Commentary

A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey prepares to land on the flight deck of the USS Iwo Jima participating in the NATO-led exercise Trident Juncture 2018 Photo: J. Cardona Gonzalez, U.S. Department of Defense on (cc) flickr.com

In April 1949 – at the dawn of the Cold War – twelve countries met in Washington DC and signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, by far the most successful alliance in modern history. Fast-forward to 2019, NATO – comprised now of 29 member states
– has found itself in crisis. This crisis stems not only from the inner struggles of the Alliance but also from the dynamic shifts in NATO’s direct neighborhood; a resurgence of great power competition and the changing character of conflicts. As no alliances last forever, NATO needs to tackle both internal and external challenges in order to make it through its eighth decade.

Keep calm and carry on?

Looking back at the last 70 years, it might seem surprising that NATO today is alive and doing (relatively) well. Some experts have argued that it has become outdated and that the United States has been both losing interest and patience with keeping it relevant to its transforming international role. Others have claimed that the Alliance made a grave mistake by enlarging itself and thus watering down NATO’s defensive capabilities; overextending its reach and provoking Russia’s aggressive stance in Eastern Europe.  According to the authors of a piece published on the War on the Rocks website: “Expansion weakens the alliance rather than strengthening it. It commits NATO to defending vulnerable, and often politically fragile, states while adding little to NATO’s military capabilities. It weakens US domestic commitment by provoking resentment from NATO-sceptics. Finally, it constitutes yet one more jab at Russia, increasing its sense of encirclement and paranoia.” That argument goes hand in hand with claims that the US should focus its strategic efforts mostly on the great power rivalry – with Russia, China and Iran. It is hard to imagine how the US would be able to implement that policy unilaterally, not to mention that it is already too late to cry over NATO’s enlargement. It is done; the Alliance needs to deal with its consequences. 

Besides, keeping NATO untouched and frozen in a Cold War-like shape and form, would never have worked . The NATO of 1949 operated in a completely different strategic environment than the NATO of 1990, 2011 or 2019. Its first secretary general, Hastings Ismay, memorably summarised NATO’s mission as “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Out of those three key elements, only one – about keeping Russia out – can still hold water in today’s security environment. Only by acknowledging how things have changed can one acknowledge why NATO has recently been facing problems and growing criticism from outside and within the Alliance.

Firstly, NATO assured its members of the common security guarantees that were explicitly stated in Article 5 of the Treaty: “An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence (…)”. This rule is still considered the cornerstone of the Alliance. Yet, the ways NATO members have been or can be challenged militarily has evolved since then. It is no longer about the traditional conventional threats but also about new ones. In other words, the so-called hybrid threats and non-linear warfare. As Sean McFate explains, this is “when Russia wants to disunite Europe it bombs civilian centres in Syria. That creates a tidal wave of refugees that crashes on the shores of the European Union and creates Brexit. It creates the rise of right-wing national parties that then want to break apart the European Union.” If that seems too indirect or too far-fetched of a threat to NATO for some, one needs to examine cyber attacks (like the one in Estonia) or foreign election interference in the US in 2016. Is NATO prepared to face these challenges and defend its members in 2019 and beyond?

Secondly, needless to say, challenges for NATO do not come only from the outside. With the recent rise of populist and antidemocratic sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic it is important to remind that the opening passage of the Washington Treaty pledged that:  “The Parties (…) are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” It is no secret that that the above-mentioned principles have not recently been met by at least three member states (to different extents in Turkey, Hungary and Poland). One might even argue that if NATO made an enlargement in 2019, some of these countries would have problems with meeting the Alliance criteria.

Another problem is now the almost ‘ancient’ intra-debate about NATO military spending. Mainly Americans push for other NATO member states to spend more on their defense. The recent example of those disagreements was President Trump’s remarks that suggested that other members of the Alliance need to pay more if they want to rely on American help, implying that those who pay less owe the US money. Aside from the business or mercenary-like rhetoric that puzzled many allies, it is worth pointing out that NATO members did indeed agree in 2002 to contribute two per cent of their GDP to collectively share the financial burden. Yet two per cent of GDP is a declared benchmark, not a condition upon which NATO’s collective defense rule is based. Moreover, as Anthony Cordesman emphasised, instead of pointless debates about percentage of budget devoted to military spending, it would serve NATO better if member states focused on the qualitative aspect of the spending and real force planning. In other words, a joint NATO budget for military spending would suffice. What lacks is smart defense spending.

From the eastern to far eastern flank?

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has seemed to adopt a reactive rather than proactive strategy in the face of serious changes in the international security environment. This approach resulted in NATO’s implementation of the “out of area” concept in the 1990s (vide Bosnia and Kosovo missions) and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in invoking Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and consequently expediting NATO forces to Afghanistan (within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force). Finally, as a response to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy that included the annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, NATO member states during the Warsaw Summit of 2016 agreed to send multinational forces to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as a part of the so-called enhanced Forward Presence. These strategic decisions show not only NATO’s commitment to adapt to the changing security environment. They also indicate that NATO has remained mostly a defensive alliance with a small appetite for comprehensive grand strategies that would force the Alliance to pursue more active and global policies.

This may turn out to be its main problem. Although NATO is committed to collective defence, crisis management and projecting regional security, it lacks a new strategic concept that would jointly address the challenges of current and future threats. With the transatlantic rifts over military spending and burden-sharing; NATO’s enlargement fatigue; and diverse outside challenges (from counter-terrorism to dealing with Russia, and most likely with China in the coming years), there are few reasons to count that those obstacles would be overcome. Instead, NATO might keep on following the minimum model that concentrates on one threat at a time – designing and adapting ad hoc strategies to the situation on the ground. Although not a perfect solution, it would not be the first time in history when NATO goes back to doing less and decides to stick to its deterrent and defensive roles.

Last but no least, a “known unknown” is the question of how the United States-China rivalry evolves and how it will influence other NATO members in the coming years. It can be argued that the more Washington is preoccupied in Asia, the less it is focused on its European allies. This would also mean that European members of NATO would need to be more assertive towards the potential adversaries in their closest neighborhood.


The 70th anniversary of the Alliance should neither become an occasion to bash NATO nor create a false illusion that all is well. Instead we should acknowledge both the weaknesses and opportunities of NATO in 2019. Despite announcements of NATO’s premature death, it is not that clear that the former outweighs the latter.

Repeating the mantra that NATO is a unique alliance based on both interests and values may sound like a cliché. Yet this assertion is still true in 2019 even though an increasing number of member states and diverse threats that NATO faces from inside and outside makes it harder for interests and values to remain coherent and self-evident. NATO members have enjoyed more prosperity and security than most of the non-NATO states around the world. It has built not only a group of 29 states committed to defend each other but created a network of partners that stretches from the Middle East through to Japan and New Zealand.

How successful NATO’s record has been can be debated. It is not debatable though that the Euro-Atlantic region would be better off without the Alliance. The end of NATO would have dreadful consequences, not only for NATO members that joined the Alliance after the end of the Cold War but also for those states whose leaders may take the existence of NATO for granted.

Wojciech Michnik is an assistant professor at Jesuit University Ignatianum. He is a former Fulbright scholar at Columbia University. Between 2016-2018 he taught International Relations and Security Studies in the United Arab Emirates.

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