NATO’s seventieth anniversary has attracted a good deal of attention. Many observers have marveled at the fact that the alliance is still here. Four factors explain NATO’s past resilience.
The first is the nature of the alliance’s initial principal adversary, the Soviet Union. Moscow posed a threat, but when this was countered, the Soviet Union was prepared to negotiate and submit to arms control and transparency arrangements. It was also fragile domestically, particularly in the economic area, and had too many expensive overseas commitments. The Soviet Union could realistically compete only in the military sphere, and NATO was ready to meet this challenge through deterrence, avoiding the need for, and the unacceptable cost of, conflict.
The second factor is that NATO had to deal with only one major challenge at a time. After the Soviet Union, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall, then former Yugoslavia, and then Afghanistan. This gave the allies ample time to build consensus, try various strategies, and learn and adapt as they progressed. NATO could concentrate its resources and political and military solidarity on this single purpose.
The third factor is the former relative stability of the international system. Despite a number of conflicts and crises, the last seventy years marked the heyday of the liberal international order. Multilateral institutions increased their roles and memberships. New sets of rules began to crimp the sovereignty of states and authorize interventions to uphold universal norms. It was easy for NATO to thrive in such an environment and rebrand itself from an alliance focused on preserving the status quo to an agent of change and a pillar of a new, more peaceful, and more cooperative international order.
Finally, the United States was prepared to underwrite and lead NATO—not only because doing so was a formal treaty obligation but also because it was a means for Washington to shape global security and project its influence. Allies needed to be protected, but they also provided the United States with support for its actions. So burden sharing worked both ways. To relieve the burden on itself, the United States called on the Europeans to do and spend more. Yet the only way the Europeans would ever do this is through forming their own security and defense union based on autonomous defense industries. The United States saw this as a challenge to NATO, its leadership, and its markets. So Washington grumbled about uneven burden sharing but largely stuck with the old state of affairs.
Issues at Stake
As NATO embarks on its next seventy years, the central question is whether these four enabling factors will still hold. The evidence so far is that they will not. This does not mean that NATO will disappear, even in the long term. But it does mean that the alliance’s luck is running out, and it will need to work harder and more creatively and strategically to sustain the security that its member states take for granted.
The Return of Competition
In the first place, the international system is far less stable and predictable than in the past. The major military players are revisionist in that they view the old order as unfair and constraining. Their perception of the decline of the West encourages them to be more assertive and take risks to probe the resilience and responsiveness of democracies.
Competition is the new constant. It has seeped into classic domains, such as land, sea, and air, and into new ones, such as the information arena, cyberspace, and outer space. Competition means that powers that used to be far apart geographically and functionally are now in constant friction with each other. As war between major powers remains too risky, given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, challenges there have to be gradual until one side has achieved a decisive margin of superiority.
But this also means the return of arms races in conventional areas, such as fighter aircraft, missiles, armor, and naval warfare, and in new technologies, such as offensive cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and the automation and robotization of the battlefield. Here, speed and synergy across all offensive and defensive domains have become the key military challenges of the twenty-first century.
More competition has produced a more congested environment, in which more players gain the technology and the incentive to join the fray. Unsurprisingly, the security strategies of allies and NATO itself, today, mention multiple adversaries—or, at least, state and nonstate competitors that could easily turn into adversaries. Many of these, such as al-Qaeda and Somali pirates, have been around for two decades or more. But the return of great-power antagonisms after years of striving for great-power cooperation in dealing with common threats like organized crime and climate change has been sudden and brutal.
NATO is once again balancing Russia, but it must also look closely at China—not because NATO wants to go to Asia but because China has become a power in Europe in economic, technological, diplomatic, and cultural ways. Beijing may not threaten European security in the same manner as Moscow, but it increasingly affects the choices of allied governments and societies more than Russia does. After all, security is as much about freedom of choice and the ability to withstand coercion as it is about physical well-being.
The flip side of multiple adversaries is multiple dependencies. Economic wealth and technological innovation or investment no longer come from the same partners that provide security. This forces allies into difficult choices and balancing acts, such as the debate in Europe over whether to embrace or reject Chinese tech giant Huawei as a provider of fifth-generation cyber connectivity.
At the same time, the new dependencies—in technology, energy, media, or critical infrastructure—make hybrid warfare tactics much more attractive as a means of competition. As hybrid campaigns polarize Western democracies and make them suspect conspiracies behind every debate, they can be used to sow discord, weaken trust in institutions, and undermine the notion of truth. Hybrid activity has the benefits of deniability, stealth, and the ability to achieve the objectives of war without the need to fight. It is difficult to attribute perpetrators and intentions, and much hybrid activity is legal, as when China acquires ports in the European Union (EU) or Russia manipulates Western social media companies. For aggressors, such activity potentially has a high gain for a generally acceptable level of risk.
Great-power competition plays out along the East-West axis in Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia; in the South, where Russia and China are increasingly active in the Middle East and Africa; and even closer to home, in the Western Balkans. Russia and China have concluded security, training, and economic agreements with a number of states. Both present themselves as more reliable than the West and less demanding when it comes to democratic standards and human rights. Dealing with the problems of the South, such as terrorism, uncontrolled migration, and weak, often corrupt security establishments, would already be a major problem for the alliance. But the increasing roles of Russia and China in this area, as well as the Eastern dimension and the hybrid home front, add an unprecedented layer of complexity.
This situation is complicated further by the unpredictable nature of U.S. foreign policy in the era of President Donald Trump. Allies are in a constant state of anxiety as to whether the United States will remain engaged or suddenly disengage. This cannot be solely about burden sharing because the United States today has very low levels of troop deployments in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa compared not only with the levels during the Cold War but also with those a decade or so ago.
NATO’s challenge as it embarks on its eighth decade is to manage the complexity of great-power competition as a long-term, endemic characteristic of the alliance’s strategic environment.
Russia and China have learned the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their autocracies are entrenched, and they are much more integrated into the global economy, giving them many more levers of influence. They have learned that power is not about having more resources than democracies but about being able to marshal their own lesser resources more effectively. It is also about being willing and able to move decisively to exploit openings while democracies hesitate. Russia and China are up against a much less cohesive West than during the Cold War or the first decade of the twenty-first century. Rather than find their rightful place in the traditional Western order, they are tempted to rewrite the rules and impose their own distinct order.
Moscow and Beijing cannot be defeated through a quick and relatively painless air or naval campaign or ground operation, as happened with the weak, isolated adversaries that the allies faced after the Cold War. NATO has to dig in for the long haul. The alliance must use its resources far more efficiently to contain, confront, and, where possible, cooperate with its new great-power rivals.
Prepare for New Forms of Warfare
The first strategic implication of the new security environment is that NATO must equip itself for multidomain warfare. Exploiting the new domains of cyber, data control and manipulation, and outer space, where hostile activity can be conducted below the threshold of the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause, adversaries will try to defeat NATO in the electromagnetic spectrum before tanks, armor, and aircraft come into play. The preparation for war has become the war itself.
The United States is already moving in this direction, but it needs to engage its allies fully on how NATO can mainstream new technologies throughout its force posture. The risk is a digital divide in NATO, in which a minority of allies have acquired the new technologies and thought through how to use them effectively, while a majority have not invested in them and are prepared to fight only in limited, low-intensity engagements.
NATO needs to make its exercises more demanding and incorporate lessons learned faster into its operational procedures and organization. The alliance needs a senior group of scientific advisers who can make policymakers understand earlier and better the impact of technological change by drawing more on private sector expertise and contributions. Declaring space as a domain of operations would be a good move in this direction.
Respond Robustly to Hybrid Warfare
The second implication is in the area of hybrid or gray zone warfare. This activity may be difficult to attribute quickly, but it is hostile, damaging, and intolerable. So NATO needs to respond robustly and in a consistent pattern that establishes some form of deterrence over time.
This will be a culture change for the alliance, because it means making lots of small decisions all the time, rather than major ones only rarely. Generating solidarity in response to lesser affronts and devising a playbook of responses below resorting to military force will not be easy. It will need good situational awareness and the ability to handle a hybrid crisis without getting drawn into unwanted escalation or exposing cracks in alliance solidarity.
Russia and China use hybrid activity differently. Russia tends to employ deliberate probes and focused political campaigns to test NATO’s resilience and polarize its societies. China prefers penetrating economies and gaining leverage in high-tech industries, as well as in research and innovation sectors such as universities. Beijing is also more interested in accessing critical infrastructure and supply chains. So the alliance needs two distinct hybrid strategies to enhance its resilience and preserve its strategic autonomy against both types of challenges.
What is common to Russia and China is that they play more in the civilian area than in traditional military domains. Therefore, NATO will need to further develop its civilian response capacities by deepening its partnerships with the private sector, managers of critical infrastructure, and universities. The May 2019 meeting of the North Atlantic Council with national security advisers from capitals was a good start, but it needs to become the norm rather than the exception.
Support European Strategic Autonomy
The third consequence is the impact on the relationship between burden sharing and European defense integration. The United States is calling on Europe to do and spend more. This is justified, but it can be meaningfully achieved only if Washington wholeheartedly supports an EU security and defense union that pools and shares its members’ budgets, capabilities, and defense industries. Such a union would remove duplication and give the EU the capacity for autonomous operations at the high end of the spectrum.
The EU’s problems are in its immediate neighborhood, from Ukraine to the Western Balkans, Libya, and the Sahel. The United States is not going to stabilize these regions. On the contrary, it is reducing its footprint in the Middle East and Africa. Yet the United States has a vital interest in the EU succeeding in this venture. So instead of criticizing the EU goal of strategic autonomy or European cooperation initiatives, Washington needs to back them. After all, a strong EU is the only emerging power that will not be a threat to the United States and is truly in its long-term interest.
Russia and China’s greatest weaknesses are their lack of allies and relative isolation. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping travel constantly in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and court traditional U.S. allies, this situation could change quickly. Moreover, the United States will succeed in urging allies to spend the equivalent of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense only when EU countries demand this of each other in the name of EU as well as NATO solidarity—and not as the price of continuing U.S. protection.
Plan for the Long Term
Finally, the alliance needs to think and plan for the long term. China and Russia are good at this and do not allow themselves to be easily blown off course. NATO, meanwhile, has become good at responding to immediate crises in line with the news cycle but at the cost of shifting its priorities too quickly and losing depth and focus.
China and Russia are highly complicated entities that cannot be reduced to predictable stereotypes for good or bad. Both states require engagement and analysis at all levels, from official meetings such as the NATO-Russia Council to track-two and broader societal dialogues. The alliance urgently needs some sort of partnership forum to regularly engage with China, including at the levels of foreign ministers and defense chiefs.
NATO’s intelligence reform and creation of a new division to generate more inputs and fuse civilian and military intelligence have greatly increased the alliance’s capacity to understand Russia and China. But NATO cannot manage a policy of containment, cooperation, and occasional pushback when redlines are crossed solely by being more aware or always leaving the initiative to Russia and China and figuring out how to react. These two powers are determined to penetrate NATO’s systems, while simultaneously using firewalls, intimidation, and propaganda to make it difficult for the alliance to get inside theirs.
The allies need a long-term, patient, realistic strategy to counter this behavior. Perhaps the first step is to stop giving Russia and China free, easy victories through the alliance’s self-inflicted wounds and divisions.
NATO’s next seventy years will be a rougher ride than the first seventy. With international institutions being questioned—ironically, by the very nations that created them—the alliance is one of the last pieces in what used to be a transatlantic framework to face the world of great-power competition. NATO combines solidity and permanence with a proven capacity to change and adapt. Yet it does not run on autopilot. The alliance can still provide peace with freedom, but the time for its leaders to decide on the reforms to achieve this is now. Tomorrow is already too late.