The analyses and recommendations in this collection of essays are not exhaustive. For example, it could be argued that deterrence in the Black Sea deserves greater attention than it has received. This theater of tensions is geographically separate from NATO’s northeastern flank of the Baltic countries and Poland and materially different, representing a maritime threat rather than a mainly terrestrial one.1 In addition, space policy could have merited more than a passing reference in the essay on technology. Space assets have become, simultaneously, the great enablers of the vast majority of military operations today and are a prime target for NATO’s adversaries. The latter’s ability to deny NATO the use of space could be a vulnerability in allied military plans.2
Notwithstanding inevitable shortcomings, we hope that the essays have succeeded in calling attention to the main decisions facing NATO as the allies reflect on their organization’s next seventy years. The essays do not add up to a single prescription; they are more like a menu of distinct challenges and related solutions. Readers will have quickly worked out that this poses two problems.
The first is interrelation: by pursuing one of the paths of adaptation laid out in this collection, it might become more difficult for NATO to address a different challenge. This is a problem not necessarily of resources but of specialization. It may turn out, for example, that it is too much to expect NATO to signal readiness for a high-tech, high-intensity war in order to deter a peer adversary in one part of the world while also making friends elsewhere with a state that has a pacifist mindset—as desirable and important as that partnership might be. In athletics, one can be either a sprinter or a long-distance runner, but not both.
Financial and diplomatic resources may become an issue, too. That brings us to the second problem: will member states muster the collective will and patience to execute the adaptations outlined here?
The most immediate risk is a rupture in U.S.-European relations. With the passage of time, it has become too easy to forget that the U.S. commitment to the European security order in 1949 was an eminently realist, self-interested choice: it was a move that not only immensely benefited Europe but also helped the United States as much as its allies. (The same can be said of U.S. support for the multilateral order writ large.)
All U.S. leaders pursue American greatness first, but wise ones recognize that this need not be at the expense of others. For evidence, reflect back on NATO’s first seventy years. Findings strongly suggest that the U.S. public is in favor of recommitting to the alliance.3 And the conditions that led the United States to agree to NATO’s creation in 1949 have, if anything, been reasserting themselves. Law and order in international relations are in slow retreat, and in the words of American historian Robert Kagan, the “jungle is growing back.”4
Another, less often discussed challenge to the alliance’s ability to adapt is its gradual relegation to the margins of key capitals’ interest and attention. After all, most military alliances of the past did not go out with a bang; they fizzled.
Whether NATO follows suit depends, in great part, on how it manages the diversity of interests among its members. Since the demise of the unifying Soviet threat, allies have inevitably come to different conclusions about their primary defense worries. Geography and history are central factors once again. The essays here offer a fairly representative swath of the broad spectrum of concerns on member states’ minds.
This fragmentation has been partly obscured by the popular narrative of NATO as an institution committed to a changing yet single mission. That mission is said to have ranged from deterring, and defending against, the Soviets until 1991 to reunifying Europe and stabilizing the Western Balkans in the 1990s to fighting terrorism after 2001—and back to deterrence and defense since 2014, this time vis-à-vis Russia. This narrative is only partly true, in the sense that since the end of the Cold War, these tasks have taken turns in garnering more newspaper headlines than other activities that NATO was carrying out at the same time.
However, the most consequential change may have been not in the nature of the dominant task but in the way that each successive focus has had to compete harder with other, multiplying jobs on NATO’s to-do list. And while Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in 2014 refocused minds somewhat on collective defense, the near simultaneous emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the subsequent migration crisis have ensured that the Eastern and Southern flanks both occupy NATO. The alliance has truly become different things to different people.
The allies have responded by becoming more transactional in their relationships with each other. They all remain interested in having recourse to outside help, at some point in time, from the rest of the alliance. So they assist each other, still out of a sense of shared community but also—and increasingly—as part of an implied bargain, in which they help each other to increase the probability of receiving aid in return in the future.
This blend of idealism and pragmatism sounds crude, but it has worked well in practice. It may continue to serve NATO well for a long time, assuming that three conditions are met. First, NATO needs the means to deal with the full spectrum of contingencies that the allies expect it to address. The alliance’s ability to specialize in multiple areas at the same time, as discussed above, may yet prove difficult.
The second, closely related condition is that the alliance pays roughly equal attention to the different worries that occupy national capitals. All allies need to feel that the rest of NATO takes their concerns seriously.
The third condition is that allies continue to regard each other as acting responsibly, with restraint and with the interests of the entire alliance in mind. This has always held true, which is why articles 1 and 2 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty bind the signatories to settle conflicts peacefully and help build friendly international relations. But the rule applies even more stringently in today’s more transactional age. All governments need to seek public—and, frequently, parliamentary—approval for NATO missions. This has become a taller order now that, more often than not, the public does not necessarily consider the threat being addressed to be the nation’s top concern.
And the argument in favor of helping an ally becomes even more of a challenge if the country pressing for NATO action is not seen as having tried hard enough to help itself or solve the problem through other means. That is why growing divergence on values matters. When the case for action is ambiguous, allies are less inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt to a country not seen as a kindred spirit.
These thoughts are not meant to downplay the expectations of a successful adaptation but to provide a chart with which to navigate the obstacles ahead. Most challenges described above are manageable and, in fact, are already being managed. Resources—the prerequisite for being able to address multiple challenges at the same time—have become less of a problem as defense budgets have gone up. Although an economic crisis could slow the trend, the new money in the defense budgets of NATO countries—$41 billion in 2016–2018 alone—is already making a difference to allies’ capabilities.5 And while much public attention has been on transatlantic divisions, the United States has doubled down on its military commitment to Europe by stationing 4,500 troops in Poland and prepositioning heavy stocks elsewhere on the continent.6
Throughout NATO’s history, leaders of allied nations have shown the foresight and resolve to adapt the alliance to each successive new challenge. As NATO turns seventy, they show every indication of doing so again.
1 “Black Sea and Balkans Security Forum 2019,” New Strategy Center, June 12–14, https://www.newstrategycenter.ro/black-sea-and-balkans-security-forum-2019-day-3/.
2 For more, see “Challenges to Security in Space,” U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, January 2019, https://www.dia.mil/Portals/27/Documents/News/Military%20Power%20Publications/Space_Threat_V14_020119_sm.pdf.
3 Dina Smeltz, Ivo Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, Craig Kafura, and Lily Wojtowicz, “America Engaged: American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2018, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/report_ccs18_america-engaged_181002.pdf.
4 Robert Kagan, “The Cost of American Retreat,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/thecost-of-american-retreat-1536330449.
5 Jens Stoltenberg, “The Secretary General’s Annual Report 2018,” NATO, March 2019, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_publications/20190315_sgar2018-en.pdf#page=35.
6 “Trump Confirms More US Troops Will Be Sent to Poland,” Deutsche Welle, September 23, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/trump-confirms-more-us-troops-will-be-sent-to-poland/a-50554660.