The alliance born in the Cold War has seen better days, but it has a chance to repurpose itself for global security in the 21st Century.
As the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance returned to the news last week, conversations resurfaced over whether or not NATO is still an important institution to upholding the international order. During his campaign, Trump sharply criticized the alliance as “obsolete,” which in turn drew backlash from foreign policy elite at home and leaders in Europe. Meanwhile, Russia continues its persistent endangerment of Eastern Europe as well as covert action levied against democracies all around the world.
NATO faces renewed skepticism both in the United States and in Europe. It is frequently portrayed to Americans as an ineffective, inefficient body that sucks up taxpayer dollars. In fact, even as President Trump has castigated European allies for failing to meet their required defense spending thresholds, President Obama also called on NATO partners to boost their defense spending. However, President Trump has taken his criticism a step further by reportedly considering unilaterally withdrawing from the organization. This has precipitated into doubts and anxiety for Europeans. Especially for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that directly border Russia, these signals from Washington cause them to question the integrity of the “Article 5” mechanism. This section of the NATO Charter – which essentially states that an attack on one is an attack on all – is the cornerstone of the alliance. Without it, the alliance would fail to deliver upon its mandate of collective security in a crisis.
This leads to the challenges NATO faces today and in the coming years. The foremost agitator of NATO is the Russian Federation. Russia interprets the inclusion of former Soviet states in NATO to be a humiliating affront to its past sphere of influence. Thus, Russia resorts to meddling and interference in Eastern Europe to attempt to punish Western aggressors and prevent further erosion of its control. Though fears of direct military conflict are certainly legitimate in the wake of prolonged Russian interference in Ukraine, the majority of Russia’s actions utilize “short-of-war” tactics that do not trigger an Article V response. The strength and character of NATO’s response will be crucial to the long-term stability of Europe. Beyond Russia’s immediate periphery, Russia has found ways to make life difficult for the states it despises. Russia’s interference in the 2016 American elections is the most famous case, but the German Marshall Fund has documented Russian interference and subversion in almost every major democracy in the world. Whether or not electoral meddling becomes a norm instead of an exception will depend upon how NATO can adapt to these evolving threats.
These challenges can also be opportunities for NATO. Many observers feel that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO did not serve a coherent purpose. The events of recent years demonstrate that peace and prosperity are not a given for Europe. Moreover, threats to NATO members also come from China. As the Middle Kingdom’s technological power grows, many European and American companies will face unique threats from clients of the Chinese government. Industrial espionage is already a persistent problem in Sino-Western relations. Once Chinese technology begins to capture more of the market share in the U.S. and E.U., it will be more difficult to keep data and communications secure. NATO has already prioritized cyber defense, but it must also foster trust among member-states in order for intelligence and technological sharing to be successful.
Finally, NATO members would be wise to remember a core fundamental of military strategy: know thine enemy. Since George Washington’s forewarning against “foreign entanglements,” security alliances have been perceived as threats to sovereignty. Although partnership comes at a cost, true violations of sovereignty emanate from hostile powers with militaristic mindsets, not from the multilateral bureaucracies that are originally based in shared values. As the world grows more complex, the success of NATO in the future might lie in getting back to basics.